Green hydrogen, produced with electrolysers to separate hydrogen from water, uses clean energy as a power source. Green hydrogen will not be with cost competitive with grey hydrogen for some time, perhaps not until 2030. Grey hydrogen, derived from steam reformation of natural gas, represents 98 percent of global hydrogen consumption, and is primarily used for industrial processes. To replace grey hydrogen with green hydrogen would require a doubling of global electricity generation with primarily solar and wind sources. This would pre-empt the use of renewables for electrical power, with energy losses totaling up to 75% when green hydrogen is reconverted into electricity! The result would be more use of natural gas for power production. And there are extraordinary inefficiencies and technological challenges for green hydrogen use, while there is no shortage of affordable and efficient clean technologies alternatives. Nevertheless, US$30 billion has been committed to-date for green hydrogen through government stimulus packages. Is green hydrogen a fossil fuel industry trojan horse for gas derived hydrogen and the use of gas for electrical power?
Hydrogen is present in our daily lives, though few take notice. Hydrogen is an integral part of the modern industrial economy, used for, among other things, agriculture, food processing, oil refining, metallurgy (ex.: steel making) , glassmaking, electronics, textiles, toiletries and pharmaceuticals.
The majority of current hydrogen is for ammonia fertilizer production, oil refining and steel making.
Since addressing climate change implies lower oil demand and better agricultural practices, future demand for hydrogen may decrease.
Hydrogen rainbow of colours
There are 3 categories of hydrogen, identified by the colours grey, blue and green.
Grey hydrogen, derived from steam reformation of natural gas and coal gasification, represents 98 percent of all hydrogen currently consumed. Hydrogen extracted from natural gas emits 10 times as much CO2 as consuming natural gas directly.
Blue hydrogen entails the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for the capturing of carbon emissions from grey hydrogen. All CCS projects to-date have been extraordinarily expensive, dependent on humongous government subsidies and have failed to live up to their respective emissions reduction, cost and timeline goals. If CCS processes are factored into the cost of blue hydrogen, that works out to 5 times the required amount for producing grey hydrogen. The fossil fuel industry actively lobbies for CCS because it offers the possibilities for continuing business-as-usual, with new government subsidies, while providing opportunities for carbon credits.
Green hydrogen involves clean energy to power electrolysers in water to separate the hydrogen. Of the global 120 million tons of hydrogen produced annually, only 0.1 percent is presently green hydrogen with 76 megawatts (MW) of electrolysers.
Green hydrogen potential
Though 260 GW worth of green hydrogen projects are underway, and globally US$30 billion of government stimulus subsidies have been announced for green hydrogen, the lack of current demand does not appear to align with the supply. The challenge lies with green hydrogen being so much more expensive than grey hydrogen.
This hasn’t stopped frequent announcements of huge projects for green hydrogen produced with offshore wind for powering electrolyzers. But not only is the cost of green hydrogen powered by offshore wind 4 times more expensive than grey hydrogen, the numbers of assumptions to render this green hydrogen model cost competitive boggle the mind.
Nevertheless, the International Energy Agency (IEA) offers a more optimistic view in its May 2021 report Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector Net Zero by 2050 which calls for 150 million tonnes of low carbon hydrogen by 2030, and 520 million tonnes by 2050. The IEA low carbon hydrogen mix is 62 percent from green hydrogen and 38 percent from blue hydrogen.
To achieve the 62 percent green hydrogen for 2050, or 322.4 million tonnes, an equivalent of 10,000 gigawatts (GW) of solar power would be required. That’s a big leap from the global total solar capacity at the end of 2020 at 714 GW.
Green hydrogen production would have to be increased 1000-fold by 2030 to reach the IEA goal for net zero-emissions by 2050.
If green hydrogen were to be used to decarbonize heavy industry, current global electricity production would need to be doubled – and nearly all the new electricity capacity would have to come from renewables.
Not surprisingly, in October 2021, the IEA revised its estimate for 2030 blue and green hydrogen production to 17 million tonnes.
More realistically, green hydrogen may only accommodate 3 percent of global energy needs.
Green hydrogen, merits not evident
A just released Wood MacKenzie study, Hydrogen costs 2021: getting ready to scale, concluded that a combination of factors would make green hydrogen competitive in 12 markets by 2030, markets with highest hydrogen utilization rates and the lowest electricity prices. We’ll see.
Advocates of green hydrogen view green hydrogen as playing major roles where other green alternatives are unsuitable, which may represent up to 40 percent of emissions. This comprises, inter alia, steelmaking, cement, energy storage, shipping, aviation and long-haul trucking.
This leaves many questions unanswered.
How would the global community double electrical power production with primarily clean energy sources to fully decarbonize industrial processes?
Does the diversion of clean energy production for creating green hydrogen come at the expense of clean electrical power?
Why displace renewables for powering electrolyzers to produce green hydrogen when there are 30% to 40% energy losses for doing so?
If energy losses to reconvert green hydrogen so produced into electricity are included, the energy losses are a whopping 75%!
Will clean energy production for green hydrogen necessitate that grid gaps be accommodated by natural gas, leaving the GHG reduction aspirations questionable?
How would green hydrogen can be transported? Existing gas pipelines can not be repurposed for hydrogen transportation because it embrittles hard steels and doesn’t work with most electronics. Compounding the transportation infrastructure challenges is hydrogen is flammable.
Further on pipelines, how does one address the 3 times more energy for pumping hydrogen through a pipeline compared to natural gas?
Should the transportation of green hydrogen include shipping over long distances, because hydrogen is a light gas, it may be necessary to convert the green hydrogen into more dense green ammonia which would entail an additional 15% energy loss. The same loss would apply to re-converting the ammonia back to hydrogen at the destination country. Should the shipping option be to liquify the green hydrogen, it would have to be chilled to -253°C. The implications of the latter option are liquid hydrogen contains two times less energy per litre than ammonia and there significant hydrogen evaporation losses.
Then there is the question of how green is green hydrogen. Burning green hydrogen produces nitrous oxides which contribute to global warming 265-298 times that of CO2 and remaining in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.
Why is green hydrogen is being hailed as the holy grail for industrial processes, since green hydrogen is intended to replace the 98 percent of existing hydrogen applications?
Trucks and Buses
Much of the transportation hopes for hydrogen lie with long-haul trucks for which battery electric vehicle autonomy may be insufficient.
Scania, a Swedish truck manufacturer, part of the Volkswagen Group, is now concentrating its efforts on electric trucks as opposed to green hydrogen-powered versions because “three times as much renewable electricity is needed to power a hydrogen truck compared to a battery-electric truck”, maintenance is “more complex” and “hydrogen is a volatile gas” implying costs “to ensure safety.”
This hasn’t stopped other hydrogen-powered heavy-duty vehicle initiatives.
While US Start-up Nikola Motors racked up billions in orders for it’s semi electric and hydrogen trucks, the Nikola hydrogen semi-truck remains a prototype for which two reports indicated that the hydrogen models fell short. Nikola is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice.
In January 2022, the French city of Montpellier cancelled an order for 51 hydrogen-powered buses because the cost of operation would be 6 times that of a battery electric bus and the purchase price worked out to be US$170 to US$228 thousand more per bus than electric versions. Another issue is the uncertainty of sufficient availability of green hydrogen.
One other contender for hydrogen heavy-duty vehicles stems from an agreement between New Zealand’s Hiringa Energy and U.S.-based Hyzon Motors Inc., whereby Hyzon will supply Hiringa with 1,500 fuel cell electric vehicle heavy-duty trucks by 2026. Hiringa will build a green hydrogen network to fuel these trucks, 8 filling stations by 2022, and 24 by 2025.
Up until September 2021, Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, maintained the way to zero-emission vehicles lies with hydrogen, not electric vehicles.
Toyota has since totally changed its view. The company will invest US$70 billion to make the major transition to electric vehicle lineup between 2022 and 2030. By 2025, Toyota expects to offer 70 electrified models, 15 of which will be battery electric vehicles. For 2030, the goal is 30 electric vehicles in its lineup.
For cargo shipping and cruise ships, the International Council on Clean Transportation believes hydrogen may be an alternative for long-haul shipping. But for that to be a clean energy alternative, the scaling up of fuel cells and the cost of green hydrogen would have to be competitive with electricity. Meaning, that option is just one more to put in the seemingly infinite list of clean shipping alternatives for some time in the future.
Hydrogen for aviation is an uneconomic option.
Hydrogen can’t be stored in a pressurized gas state due to the loss of atmospheric pressure at high altitudes and bulk as a plane descends. Since the hydrogen must be chilled, it would have to be stored in the fuselage. But it would be hard to store hydrogen in the fuselage because it is too bulky for the amount of energy it produces. The bulky matter translates into a lower density by volume than jet fuel.
And fuel cells muster heat. What would be done with the extra heat aboard?
Together these factors require extra space for fuel that would cut into passenger and/or cargo space, require the plane be bigger and heavier and necessitate extra cooling and ventilation capacity.
Lastly, the fuel use generates nitrous oxides.
Germany has been running a pilot hydrogen passenger train project, only to discover that the costs are three times greater than as its electric grid tied and battery/grid-tied hybrid trains.
U.S. hydrogen initiatives
The key pillars of the plan for green hydrogen are contained in Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which was approved by Congress and the complimentary bill Build Back Better Act (BBB), which failed to get Senate approval.
The infrastructure bill allots US$40 billion for clean energy demonstration projects and research including clean hydrogen, carbon capture, and long-duration energy storage.
Immediately after the infrastructure bill was passed, the Department of Energy announced US$21.5 billion in funding to demonstrate and scale up innovative clean technology. Of this amount, US$9.5 billion will be allotted to green hydrogen regional hubs, manufacturing and recycling, plus demonstration and commercialization of up-and-coming technologies.
As for the BBB component of the Biden plan, it would have provided tax credits for advancing emerging clean technologies at a commercial scale.
Should the Biden administration succeed getting an alternative version BBB through Congress, to reach a goal of hydrogen 100% sourced from renewables, the number of commercial scale solar facilities in the country would have to be tripled, an increase of 7000 sites and wind facilities increased by 25 percent or 16,000 sites.
The draft European Commission Fit for 55 green hydrogen strategy projects that 50 percent of the hydrogen supply will be green by 2030, replacing grey hydrogen. But for green hydrogen to be competitive with grey hydrogen, the price of carbon would have to be higher than €200 (US$235). The current carbon price is €58 (US$65.52).
In July 2020, the European Commission presented plans for 40 GW of renewables-powered electrolysers to be installed by 2030, producing ten million tonnes of green hydrogen annually. Blue hydrogen derived from natural gas would play a back-up role.
Transport & Environment (T & E), a non-profit organization, estimates that pursuing the European Commission projections would increase electricity demand by 17 percent, thus driving up the already high electricity prices in Europe.
Over and above the Commission’s 2030 hydrogen vision, 2.6 percent of transport energy demand would stem from renewable fuels of non-biological origin or RFNBOs, namely hydrogen and synthetic biofuels.
According to T & E, these two scenarios would necessitate a clean energy production equivalent to that of current European wind power generation. The result would be a diversion of clean energy electrical power supplies to support the hydrogen economy or a dirtier grid than what has been projected for the rest of the decade.
Hydrogen Europe is lobbying for hydrogen, all colours, to be included in Fit for 55 targets and European Trading System (ETS) carbon credits. – That means increasing gas emissions to offset GHG emissions. How clever!
Similarly, BDEW, the German energy industry association supports hydrogen-ready natural gas.
The U.K. hydrogen plan, announced August 17, 2021, entails US$331 million Net-Zero Hydrogen Fund for a 5 GW blue and green hydrogen capacity target for 2030 for industry, transportation and heating. Blue hydrogen would have to be offset with initiatives such as the planting of trees. Offsets have yet to be proven serious solutions. Details of the plan will be divulged in early 2022.
The vision for a hydrogen economy comprises mind-blowing astronomical displacement of renewables to produce green hydrogen at the expense of clean electrical power generation, spectacular unresolved technological impediments and plenty of wishful thinking on when green hydrogen can be cost competitive.
Since there are no shortage green economy solutions with more potential and fewer challenges to overcome, perhaps green hydrogen is an avatar, or trojan horse, for the oil and gas industry hopes for more natural gas production associated with an expanding hydrogen market.
The economics and energy considerations of producing green hydrogen being preposterous, gas sector efforts to convince governments to migrate to green hydrogen could, in the final analysis, make blue hydrogen look good. Never mind that CCS is an expensive fantasy emissions reduction solution that positions the industry to access huge amounts of new government subsidies.
This may explain why the fossil fuel majors are very prominent investors in green hydrogen.