Why green hydrogen might be about to have its big break

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Decades of promise

Hydrogen is the lightest and most common element in the universe. Imagine being able to harness it for energy? Due to its rarity for this purpose in day-to-day life, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a new idea, with the science and technology to support it still in their infancy. But its potential has actually been explored for decades; in fact, General Motors built its first hydrogen-powered vehicle in the 1960s.

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The 1966 Chevrolet “Electrovan”   Source: General Motors

Hydrogen has long been touted as a clean, innovative energy source, able to store electricity and supply heat for homes and fuel for cars. We also know of a number of different ways to produce hydrogen. So why aren’t we seeing the 2021 model of the “Electrovan” on our roads, emitting nothing but water vapour?

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The hydrogen rainbow   Source: Financial Times

Failure to live up to the hype

While there have been attempts to use hydrogen in various industries, a number of blockers have prevented it from truly taking off. There is a higher cost to production than using fossil fuels, it is difficult to transport, there remains a lack of demand and in cars it lags behind traditional combustion engines and newer battery powered ones.

 

Take the highly polluting steel industry, which accounts for 7-9% of all direct fossil fuel emissions. There are plans to produce a “fossil-free” version of the world’s most commonly used metal by replacing coke, a carbon-rich form of coal, with green hydrogen in part of the process.

 

“However, the widespread adoption of green hydrogen for steelmaking faces significant obstacles from the price of renewable energy to the supply of suitable iron ore. For instance, to convert Japan’s 100m-tonne-a-year steel industry to green hydrogen would require more than twice the country’s total renewable energy supply as of today, according to BHP, one of the world’s biggest iron ore producers.”

Financial Times

 

Furthermore, the production process also suffers from high energy wastage. “For most of the suggested uses of the green electricity-based hydrogen [at least] around half of the energy in the green electricity is lost,” says Jorgen Henningsen, senior adviser at the European Policy Centre. “Green electricity is a commodity [that will be] in short supply within Europe for many years to come. It doesn’t make sense from a climate policy point of view to waste half, or more, of the green electricity for producing hydrogen.”

Carmakers are split

The challenges have led to a number of major European carmakers distancing themselves from hydrogen. Despite government pushes to develop the sector, Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW have either largely abandoned their hydrogen plans or never really had any in the first place. VW chief executive, Herbert Diess, has plainly stated “You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars.” He believes a market for hydrogen powered vehicles is very optimistic, “even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are so unreasonable.”

 

However over in Asia, companies like Toyota and Hyundai continue to invest heavily. In 2019 there were 3 hydrogen powered vehicles publicly available, all made by Asian manufacturers: the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo and the Honda Clarity. Toyota launched the Mirai in 2014 as the first mass-produced hydrogen car and released a new version in 2020. The benefits are clear: its range is similar to ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles and higher than BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), no charging is required, refuelling takes the same time as petrol, and the only emission is water. 

The future is green

The widespread use of fossil fuels in the hydrogen production process does little to help its “green’ image. In fact, this process creates emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the UK combined according to the International Energy Agency. That is why green hydrogen remains the sector’s great hope, although it only accounts for 1% of global supplies. And since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, “low carbon hydrogen” has become a higher priority for governments looking for low emission energy sources.

 

This led the EU and at least another 15 countries to announce hydrogen production plans boosted by subsidies. Over 200 projects have been declared according to the Hydrogen Council, with a value of $300 billion. This will play a major part in the global hydrogen market increasing four-fold by 2050 to $600 billion, according to Morgan Stanley. The Council, which includes members across multiple industries such as BP, BMW and 3M, “believes green hydrogen could reach price parity with that produced from fossil fuels in renewable energy-rich regions towards the end of this decade.”

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However, hydrogen’s future remains unsure, says Ben Gallagher from Wood Mackenzie, although the new and increasing “momentum” behind it is “unbelievable”. “Beyond 2030 any assumption about the future of the hydrogen economy could be correct — ultimately it will come down to what policymakers and business leaders decide. [Hydrogen] is presented as a very easy solution to an enormously complex problem. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s the wrong answer. For now, it is the best answer we have.”

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