By Dolly Khattar
Over the past two decades, hydrogen technologies have experienced cycles of high expectations followed by discontent. However, the situation seems to be changing as a growing body of evidence now suggests that these technologies offer an attractive option to decarbonise global energy systems. Recent improvements in their cost and performance also point towards the economic viability of these technologies. A number of large and small companies have started placing their bets on hydrogen technologies for various applications. Hydrogen can be used in versatile ways – for energy storage, as vehicular fuel, as industry raw material or as fuel for heating, especially in areas where direct electrification is difficult.
According to a study presented by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) at the recently concluded Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue (BETD) 2019 in Germany, about 86 per cent of the world’s electricity needs could be met by renewables by 2050. This will, however, require massive investment. More than 1 billion electric vehicles would need to be on the road around the world, more electricity would have to be used for heating and renewable hydrogen would need to be developed to replace kerosene or marine fuels. This thought was endorsed by several speakers at the dialogue.
This article provides a brief review of the potential role that hydrogen could play in providing electricity, heat and energy storage in low-carbon energy systems, as well as across the industry and transport sectors. It presents an assessment of the status of hydrogen in being able to fulfil that potential. The content of the article is largely based on the discussions at the BETD 2019, which not only focused on the application of hydrogen but also emphasised the importance of this green fuel.
Hydrogen in transportation
Reduction in oil import is one of the key drivers for research and development in hydrogen-powered vehicles among other upcoming technologies. Both the US and Brazil are leading the way in the production of alternative fuels. The technology to convert excess energy into hydrogen and inject it into natural gas networks is available. This energy can be used for fuelling vehicles. Among automobile manufacturers, the Toyota Motor Corporation is leading the research on hybrid vehicles. Among countries, Germany encourages the use of vehicles powered by green energy. It provides charging stations for electric cars and hydrogen/gas filling stations for vehicles. Considering the efforts being made by all stakeholders, the day is not far when a significant number of vehicles will be powered by this alternative energy. A number of mass transit companies, both metro rail corporations and bus operators, across the world have already started deploying hydrogen-powered systems while also setting up hydrogen fuel stations. Some of the recent examples are as follows:
- In April 2019, the Toyota Motor Corporation along with its China-based partners Beiqi Foton Motor and Yihuatong Technology unveiled a hydrogen fuel cell bus, which will be operated during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The bus, equipped with a 60 kW hydrogen fuel cell engine, will enter production in 2021.
- In the same month, Proton Power Systems secured a Euro 4.1 million contract from ebe EUROPA GmbH (ebe) in Memmingen to supply 15 hydrogen-powered fuel cells, each of capacity 60 kW. The fuel cells will be delivered within the next 12 months. The contract was awarded as part of the first tender under the European Union’s Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe (JIVE) funding programme. The JIVE-1 and JIVE-2 projects involve the deployment of around 290 fuel cell buses in 22 cities across Europe by the early 2020s. ebe, an integrator and distributor of electric buses, will supply the buses for four city councils in Germany (Frankfurt am Main, Mainz, Muenster and Wiesbaden).
- In March 2019, the Liverpool City Region secured GBP 8.9 million in funds for purchasing hydrogen buses and retrofitting diesel buses under two separate government funds. In February 2019, the Liverpool City Region, in a consortium with BOC Limited, Merseytravel, Aberdeen City Council and Arcola Energy, secured GBP 6.42 million from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles to deploy 25 fuel cell buses in Liverpool and five fuel cell buses in Aberdeen. Alexander Dennis is supplying 25 Enviro400 H2S buses to Liverpool, Ballard is providing fuel cells for the buses, and Arcola Energy is integrating them. Trial runs are expected to begin by 2020 in Liverpool. However, the timeline of the trial runs is subject to agreement with the Liverpool City Region Bus Alliance.
- In March 2019, UK-based Proton Power Systems and the Czech Republic-based Škoda Electric signed a letter of intent to jointly develop, sell and service fuel cell electric buses using Proton’s modular “HyRange” systems. The companies will provide the prototype of fuel cell electric buses to European bus operators by the first quarter of 2020. The companies have set an initial target of producing and selling 10 hydrogen buses every year.
- In February 2019, the Department for Transport announced a GBP 48 million investment for the deployment of 263 new ultra-low-emission buses (243 electric and 20 hydrogen) and an enabling charging infrastructure across England and Wales. The funds will be allocated to the 19 shortlisted bidders under the ultra-low-emission bus scheme.
- In January 2019, Engie, through its subsidiary GNVERT, began construction work on the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure for the first zero-emission hydrogen-powered bus rapid transit (BRT) route in the Pau Pyrénées region in France. The station will include an ITM Power electrolyser. The construction of the station, which will produce between 174 kg and 268 kg of hydrogen per day, is co-financed by the 3Emotion project. The BRT system is expected to commence operations by September 2019.
- The South Korea Ministry of Environment (MoE) has announced plans to commence two-year-long trials of hydrogen buses in Seoul, Gwangju, Ulsan, Changwon, Seosan and Asan in early 2019, and deploy hydrogen fuel cell buses across the country by the second half of 2020. South Korea-based Hyundai Rotem will provide the hydrogen buses and the MoE, along with participating city governments, will fund the trials.
Hydrogen can be burnt and used in existing power plants as a lower-impact substitute. In fact, adopting hydrogen as a fuel could help extend the operating lives of coal-based and gas-based power plants, thereby enabling existing power operations to continue as new renewables solutions enter the market. This strategy will have two key benefits – preventing decommissioning due to national or regional decarbonisation and renewables policies; and creating a transitional source of energy that lowers the carbon footprint of the existing plants.
At Vattenfall’s Magnum power plant in Groningen, the Netherlands, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) is working to turn the owner’s Carbon-Free Gas Power project into reality, starting with operationalising one of its three gas turbines to combust only hydrogen by 2024. The hydrogen needed will be produced by reforming Norwegian natural gas, and the resulting CO2 from that process will be captured and stored in natural caverns. In addition, MHPS has successfully tested the burning of a stable fuel mix of 30 per cent hydrogen with natural gas in a large-scale gas turbine, which reduced its CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. This was a major step towards achieving 100 per cent hydrogen combustion, but further enhancement is needed.
Renewable power to hydrogen-based storage
Hydrogen can be generated through electrolysis rather than by utilising natural gas as a source. The electrolysis process requires only pure water and electricity, and so long as the electricity needed in the process is generated from renewable sources, the production of hydrogen will be carbon-neutral. Generating hydrogen through this method will also offer an efficient alternative to batteries for storing surplus power from renewables. This will solve one of the key challenges of renewable energy sources, since the power produced from renewables is intermittent. It cannot be turned on and off, and does not always meet demand.
In fact, energy sector experts are increasingly acknowledging that it is not possible to decarbonise energy systems just by greening electrons. In the industry and (heavy) transport segments, there is a growing need for greening molecules. Even when electrification gains pace, it is often more efficient and cost effective to decarbonise industry and heavy transport through hydrogen. In the iron, steel and chemical industries, as well as in refineries, green hydrogen can be used directly as feedstock. For heavy transport, such as trucks and buses, hydrogen can often provide a better solution than electric vehicles. In fact, a recent report by IRENA has termed green hydrogen as the “missing link” in the transformation of the global energy system.
In addition, hydrogen is suitable for long-term (seasonal) storage of renewable electricity, for instance, in salt caverns. Thus, it helps in maintaining power system flexibility as well as grid balancing. The decline in costs of wind and solar power in recent years has opened the prospect of large-scale production of green hydrogen. Countries with a high renewable energy potential can produce wind and solar energy at very low costs. For instance, in Argentina, Australia, Chile, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, serious projects and feasibility studies are under way to ship green hydrogen to demand centres.
On the policy side, an important sign of the rising relevance of hydrogen is the remarkable “Hydrogen Initiative” signed by most European Union (EU) countries at the Informal Energy Council in Linz in 2018. It states how critical hydrogen might be in the EU’s path to decarbonise the economy. But it also highlights the geopolitical dimension of hydrogen: a significant deployment of hydrogen-based fuel technologies might help in reducing the EU’s dependency on fossil fuel imports, thus ensuring energy security. It is likely that the EU will build on the new momentum to take R&D, and innovation in hydrogen, alongside deployment, forward in the time to come.
With the growing enthusiasm around hydrogen in many quarters, one needs to factor in the possible impediments and time horizons involved. Currently, cost levels are too high and it seems rather unlikely that hydrogen will become a major energy carrier before 2030. Back in the early 2000s, there was a spike in attention for the concept. Although it was adopted, for several large market players it turned out to be a bad investment decision. A key question, therefore, is why might it be different this time around? While the main driver is hydrogen’s ability to deliver low-carbon energy, a number of other factors have surfaced to support its uptake today. Recent trends show that the hydrogen value chain is underpinned by a series of mature technologies that are technically ready but not yet commercially viable. This means that the narrative around hydrogen has now shifted from one of technology development to “market activation”.
This brings the industry to the next question pertaining to how to develop a viable business case around green hydrogen. Here, the solar panel industry provides a recent precedent for this kind of burgeoning energy industry. Large-scale solar farms are now generating attractive returns on investments, without any assistance from the government. One of the main factors that enabled solar power to reach this tipping point was the increase in production economies of scale, particularly in China. Notably, China has emerged as a proponent for hydrogen, earmarking its use in both transport and distributed electricity generation. Whereas solar power could feed into a market with ready-made infrastructure (the electricity grid), the case is less straightforward for hydrogen. The technologies to help produce and distribute hydrogen will need to be developed in concert with the applications themselves.
Finally, countries across the world are still assessing if there is a need for an interim phase of “blue” hydrogen (produced by gas with pre-combustion CCS or CCUS) for developing the infrastructure before moving to large-scale green hydrogen. The Widespread uptake of hydrogen requires large capex risks for financiers of structural development projects. Costs need to continue to reduce for megawatt-scale electrolysis, if green hydrogen has to replace carbon-based hydrogen for industrial feedstock applications. Therefore, focused and enabling energy policies are needed from all governments in order to provide long-term stability to large-scale investments in hydrogen.