Hydrogen has become the hot topic as the energy sector looks to move towards a low-carbon future.
It was a major point of discussion among the industry experts gathered for the Gastech 2019 conference in Texas. And the idea of developing a hydrogen economy is gaining momentum.
Some major obstacles must be overcome for this to be realized. While next-generation energies like offshore wind and solar form an increasingly significant part of the mix, they are not stand-alone solutions. Some key challenges were raised during Gastech discussions, which include establishing effective ways to store the surplus energy generated by renewables and decarbonizing hard-to-green areas such as heavy industry or heating.
Hydrogen offers a route to resolving some of these challenges – here’s how.
1. Cutting Industrial Carbon Emissions
Industrial processes such as steelmaking and cement production rely on intense heat, which is mostly generated using fossil fuels. But there are alternative feedstocks – blue hydrogen, for example, which is also created using fossil fuels, but removes CO2 from the process through carbon capture and storage technologies.
Some companies are seeking even cleaner alternatives, such as green hydrogen. Produced by electrolysis, with the electricity that powers the process coming from renewable sources, it’s emissions-free.
Runeel Daliah, an industry analyst from Lux Research, told the delegates at Gastech that hydrogen is ideally suited to high-temperature heat applications in industry. “If you want to decarbonize feedstock, you could replace natural gas with green hydrogen,” he said.
While hydrogen from renewables is currently expensive, greater industry adoption of blue hydrogen could help make the clean, green variety more competitive in the coming years.
2. Enabling Emissions-Free Heating
The same economics apply to heating. Unlike most sun-soaked places that rely on electricity-powered air conditioning to keep cool, homes and businesses located in cooler climates such as the UK are almost entirely heated by natural gas boilers.
Switching existing systems to electricity would involve heavy investment in new infrastructure and leave millions of households facing expensive bills. But action is needed if Britain is to meet strict carbon-reduction targets.
One proposed solution is a hydrogen heating network capable of decarbonizing 14% of UK heat by 2034. The project would create the world’s largest CO2 reduction facility by producing hydrogen from natural gas to fuel the network, with the CO2 captured in depleted North Sea oil fields.
Once piped through existing gas transmission networks, the hydrogen would power the boilers of homes and businesses, combusting without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.
Alternatively, faculty buildings and domestic properties on campus at the UK’s Keele University are being heated using a blend of 20% hydrogen with natural gas – the trial makes use of existing infrastructure while reducing emissions.
3. Storing Renewable Energy
Unless it can be stored, the excess energy generated by renewables during times of peak generation is lost. Creating clean hydrogen from electrolysis offers an opportunity to harness this otherwise wasted energy.
“Hydrogen is now one of the leading options for storing electricity from renewables,” said Tony Byrne, vice president of MMI Thornton Tomasetti, at Gastech.
Yuri Freedman, business development director at SoCalGas, agreed. He said that, along with synthetic methane, hydrogen is “the only scalable solution to store large amounts of energy for long periods of time”.
While all areas of the world are making efforts to decarbonize, the need to store energy during peak generation times remains a challenge, and one that is not being coordinated at a global level. As a result, countries such as Germany are being overwhelmed with excess power from offshore wind, while others have the same problem with solar. Resolving this imbalance will rely on international collaborations.
If implemented practically, hydrogen has the potential to become one of the leading sources of clean energy, with the capacity to help prevent global warming by generating power without emitting CO2.
The technology is in place for the energy industry to meet the challenges of decarbonization and energy storage, but developing a carbon-free economy also depends on policymakers establishing a framework which enables hydrogen to be scaled up.
Johnny Wood has been a journalist for over 15 years working in different parts of the world – Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. As well as an accomplished features writer he has edited several prestigious lifestyle magazines and corporate publications.