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Does Hydrogen Present an Opportunity for Decarbonisation?

A new report from Policy Exchange, Fuelling the Future, considers the contribution hydrogen can make to the energy transition. The think tank calls for an informed debate, leading to a plan for hydrogen as an alternative low-carbon energy carrier that can be used as a replacement in transport, heating fuel, and storage.

When hydrogen is burned, it does not produce any greenhouse gases, but it can only be considered as low-carbon if the method of producing it is also carbon-free. If it is produced from fossil fuels such as methane, the process must be combined with Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS). If it is produced from water, via electrolysis, the electricity used in the process must be carbon-free. Lack of progress in developing CCS in the UK is presently a significant barrier to clean hydrogen production.

Hydrogen can be put to a range of uses:

Domestic. Barriers to converting the gas grid to hydrogen make 100% domestic use unlikely in the short term. For example, transmission pipes would need to be replaced, as would home appliances. On a more achievable scale, the H21 scheme aims to convert Leeds to hydrogen by 2025. The city’s proximity to the North Sea and local salt caverns make it ideally placed for hydrogen storage.

Industry. There is scope for replacing natural gas with hydrogen as a means to reduce emissions in an industrial setting. This could provide a significant opportunity for the carbon-intensive iron and steel sectors if the cost of hydrogen production can be reduced.

Vehicles. While the cost of electric vehicles has reduced, the same cannot be said for hydrogen vehicles. The Policy Exchange sees opportunities for transport sectors such as HGVs, buses, trains, and shipping. Hydrogen vehicles have the benefits of faster refuelling than chargeable electric vehicles and higher energy density.

To support renewables. Excess electricity generated from renewables can manufacture hydrogen via electrolysis, which can be stored for later use. While the cost of batteries is falling, electrolysis has the benefit of a quicker response time and can be used more flexibly.

It is advised that the government takes a systemic approach to policy decisions because hydrogen has the potential to interact with so many different elements of the energy sector.

For original article, visit: The Energy Compass

Written by: Nikki Wilson

(PIEMA), Carbon Management Consultant at Alfa Energy

Nikki joined Alfa Energy in September 2015 as a Carbon Management Consultant where she advises clients on legislation, compliance, and the implementation of carbon management schemes. She is a Practitioner member of IEMA, has a postgraduate diploma in Environmental Decision Making, and has over 15 years’ experience in energy consultancy.


Content Discussion

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 25, 2018

Nikki, the opportunities for decarbonization with hydrogen are insignificant compared the opportunities to profit from disingenuously marketing it as a “green” fuel.

As you correctly note, hydrogen (H2) produced from fossil fuel methane (CH4) creates no carbon emissions only if carbon from the steam-reforming process used to make it is captured and stored underground (CCS). To say that process is impractical would be an understatement - currently, all global CCS facilities combined have stored 1/40,000 of the global CO2 emissions produced every year. The process is prohibitively expensive and limited to specific regions of the world. Water can be electrolyzed using renewable electricity, an inefficient process only slightly more practical.

Though 95% of elemental hydrogen currently comes from methane, a special breed of nuclear reactor called the HTGR (High Temperature Gas Reactor) is capable of producing hydrogen from water with no carbon emissions at all. Research efforts are underway in Japan, where claims exaggerating the danger of nuclear energy by Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists, and other fear factories are being ignored.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on September 26, 2018

The costs of wind and solar are expected to decrease to <1.7cnt/KWh.
It implies that with present increased conversion efficiencies of up to >80%, H² productioon using water and electricity becomes highly competitive against steam reform.*)

The PtG plant can operate profitable already long before that price level of wind and solar, because:
- the fast increasing installed wind & solar capacities, impliy that overproduction with associated very low prices (the marginal price of wind & solar is ~0.1cnt/KWh) will occur far more frequently.**)

- the increasing price of emissions certificates (ETS) will be a great help as it makes steam reform more expensive.

*) to be reached by e.g. improved PEM. 
Pilot production of synthetic NG (CH4) reaches already efficiencies of 75%.

**) Denmark expects that in 2020 only wind will produce >100% of demand during 100days/year... They have already such overproduction during some days.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on September 26, 2018

Cellulosic biofuel is already a Hydrogen saturated Carbon carrier fuel, like methane. But unlike methane gas, is available as liquid, and a long proven fuel. A production waste product, biochar, is a proven valuable soil enhancement while also performing CCS. With process energy provided by solar photons, the production process also is a solar energy storage. Simply copy fire.

You can argue the best way to mine gold on the moon, forever. Just don't ignore the merits of sanity.

Maurice Dixon's picture
Maurice Dixon on September 28, 2018

Like all technology, it starts off expensive when only a few can afford it or it has to be subsidised, then with mass use, demand, decline of what it is replacing, and production innovation it gets more cost effective and cheaper than that which it replaces. The same for Hydrogen and Hydrogen storage, it has to be part of the future clean and smart energy and storage mix to provide our clean energy transportable, enduring and on demand energy that replaces our dirty energy transportable and on demand fossil fuel energy today. We have abundant H, C and O around us in varying forms, we just need to find the most cost effective and flexible methods to generate the H2 fuel and energy for our future lives whilst being cleverer with the C and O elements. IMHO, CCS is definately NOT the answer as this is literally sweeping our CO2 problem under the carpet for future generations to solve (just like storing nuclear waste to sort out decades in the future). Instead of CCS we need to minimise generating CO and CO2, and that which we cannot avoid we should use as a resource, i.e. Carbon Capture and Repurpose - CCR - 

Wind, Solar, Hydro, any storage, nuclear (if deemed clean energy - not by me), et al are also 'dirty' if the materials that are extracted and processed to make them are powered by fossil fuel processes and equipment, just as the argument for fossil fuel generated hydrogen - need to compare apples with apples on a level playing field. Don't forget current fossil fuel industries around the world are still 'subsidised' in some way, if not directly just called something else such as 'exploration tax relief', etc. Some report global fossil 'subsidies' still running at $373bn per year in 2015 - (after 120 years of development!), so why the problem with subsidising replacement energy technologies? What is good for the goose has to be good for the gander. The critical issue is proactively managing a coordinated and non-disruptive transition from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy so fossil fuel availability doesn't collapse before clean energy can take the demand 24/365 all year around with peaks and troughs, at the flick of a switch, on etc.

I am a firm believer that our future is linked to a Hydrogen energy economy for transport, electricity, heat, etc, as part of a wider clean amd smart energy system-of-systems.

When H2 is 'burned' (or oxidised?) lots of energy is released in various forms, not all captured and used most efficiently, which we must harness - , including the production of an oft forgotten greenhouse gas, i.e. water vapour -

However, instead of releasing this pure water vapour as an emission (waste), why not capture it and 'crack' it more efficiently to generate more H and O in a closed loop system?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on October 3, 2018

Maurice, there's a book by Joseph Romm, Bill Clinton's Assistant Secretary of Energy, called The Hype About Hydrogen. I'd highly recommend it - it will give you an idea why hydrogen is not only oversold, but worse from an emissions standpoint than gasoline.

The idea of using hydrogen for vehicular fuel came from oil companies themselves. In the 1990s they realized gasoline's lifetime was limited, and without something to sell at former gas stations they would go out of business. So they invented a "clean" fuel which only had water for emissions. Environmentalists bought into the idea without considering its "long tailpipe" - the emissions created during the process of making, storing, and transporting hydrogen fuel.

What comes out of the long tailpipe? Elemental hydrogen does not exist in nature. It has to be stripped from other molecules, like methane (CH4), and that requires a significant investment of energy. It's an investment, because we get some of that energy back when it's recombined with oxygen, but there are inefficiencies that make it even more emissions-intensive than oxidizing the methane itself. Either way, oil companies have a marketable fuel, derived from dirty methane, they could sell for decades into the future. They could continue their wanton destruction of the environment, and be paid well for their effort.

Among other issues, Romm has calculated a fueling infrastructure cost of $500 billion to convert America's 50,000 service stations from gasoline to hydrogen. It's an effort no one will undertake until hydrogen is proven to be marketable, and because it will never be marketable without filling stations to support customers, we have a classic chicken-egg problem with no promising solution.