Harnessing the power of hydrogen through scalable and colour-agnostic infrastructure that already exists today will accelerate the clean energy transition, argues David Burns from Linde
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
As we wait for green hydrogen production to reach commercial scale, hydrogen of a different hue can pave the way
Imagine a world where buses, boats, trucks, trains and planes are all fueled by hydrogen; where hard-to-abate industries like steelmaking are burning it in their furnaces; where electricity grids are using it to store surplus electrical power from temperamental renewable sources.
Now imagine that all the hydrogen is carbon neutral, produced via electrolysis fed by green electricity. That is the perfect hydrogen scenario.
However, it could be a long time coming. Although rising at an impressive relative pace in recent years, the absolute share of green hydrogen in the global production mix only currently amounts to around one-tenth of one per cent.
According to the International Energy Agency’s Global Hydrogen Review 2022, today’s demand for the gas is met “almost entirely by hydrogen production from unabated fossil fuels”.
On a more positive note, it states that the “rapid scale-up in electrolyser capacity is expected to continue and accelerate in coming years.” Of course, that is only one side of the equation.
The commercial viability of green hydrogen production is also dependent on a scale-up of green power production. The question then becomes: “What can we do in the meantime?”
Let us revisit the realm of imagination once again and say that the hydrogen stars align overnight, rendering the perfect scenario possible. Could the industry immediately fuel-switch and integrate hydrogen into their processes? Not quite.
The green hydrogen economy would rely on more than just production technologies: processing technologies and well-networked distribution infrastructure will also be vital.
Grounded firmly back in reality, it is true to say that such technology and infrastructure exist and are not dependent on green hydrogen. It is what we refer to as colour-agnostic and is something that we can and should keep developing today so that when green hydrogen does scale, we are ready to realise its full potential.
The aphorism “perfect is the enemy of good” is often attributed to French philosopher Voltaire. It captures the idea that as noble as striving for perfection is, it can all too often impede the implementation of something “good”. And “good” can be taken to mean something already much better.
This a useful way to frame the emergence of the hydrogen economy: green hydrogen is the “perfect” but blue hydrogen—low-carbon hydrogen obtained when the CO2 from steam methane reforming (SMR) or auto-thermal reforming (ATR) is captured, stored underground or reused—is a “good” solution in the meantime.
Not only can it already go some way to decarbonising operations in various sectors, but it allows the necessary hydrogen infrastructure to be built out at scale.
COLOUR OR CARBON
Remember, be it liquefaction technology, pipelines, or compressors, infrastructure is colour-agnostic—and perhaps we all need to be a bit more colourblind too.
There is the potential for the colour spectrum of hydrogen to distract us from what is the ultimate goal: reducing carbon intensity so we stay on track for net-zero emissions by 2050.
Green hydrogen is at the end of the spectrum because its local production is carbon neutral. But that is not to say it remains so in use—for instance if it is transported in a diesel truck to its end-use location.
This concept is widely understood in the mobility space. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions; but if fueled with grey hydrogen, the carbon footprint is still there. At the end of the day, unless green hydrogen is produced on-site, it will need to be transported.
TRANSPORT IS KEY
While the global hydrogen pipeline network for gaseous hydrogen is still nascent, there are local pockets of more developed infrastructure.
Transporting liquid hydrogen over land or sea is another matter: not only does liquefaction capacity need to ramp up by similar orders of magnitude as electrolysers, but vessels equipped with the required cryogenic technology are also needed at scale too. Again, we can turn to what is available in the meantime.
There is ongoing work, exploring the practical aspects of converting natural gas pipelines where the purity of hydrogen remains the challenge. But that is a challenge that ammonia might just be able to overcome.
As a globally traded commodity, there is an existing supply chain to move ammonia around the world. And since green ammonia can essentially act as a (green) hydrogen vector, this could become a ready-made hydrogen network—provided we continue to make the ships as sustainable as possible.
A fully-green hydrogen sector is the “perfect” scenario. But until we get there, and to accelerate that journey, we must leverage and expand the good solutions we have today.
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