Renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, has made great progress – but it cannot eliminate the world’s carbon emissions. However, in partnership with hydrogen, it might. Hydrogen is the simplest and most prevalent element in the universe. It can store the electricity that renewable sources generate, and pipelines could transport it great distances, bringing abundant and cheap renewable energy to where it is needed when it is needed. In this passionate, clear and science-based call to action, energy executive Marco Alverà discusses the technical and economic challenges of making hydrogen a feasible energy option.
- Humanity must reduce carbon emissions to net zero.
- Renewables alone can’t solve the CO2 problem.
- Hydrogen can store and transport renewable energy.
- Several methods for producing hydrogen are available.
- Hydrogen has a wide range of potential applications.
- Hydrogen power requires prioritizing safety.
- All sectors of society must work to acceleratethe switch to hydrogen from other fuels.
Humanity must reduce carbon emissions to net zero.
Carbon-emitting fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, produce 80% of humanity’s energy needs. Wind and solar power comprise a global average of 2%. Humanity must stop relying on fossil fuels, and must shift instead to solar and wind power sources which are now also cheaper.
“There is growing consensus that hydrogen could account for up to a quarter of our energy needs in 2050.”
To make renewable energy usable on a large scale requires something that can compensate for renewables’ limitations: hydrogen. Even after humans stop emissions, atmospheric temperatures will rise because carbon gas in the atmosphere dissipates over centuries.
Carbon-capture efforts, such as planting trees, can reduce atmospheric carbon. But humanity must focus on replacing fossil fuels with clean energy.
Renewables alone can’t solve the CO2 problem.
Electricity can meet many of humanity’s power needs, but proves inadequate for heavy transport, steel manufacturing and aviation. Electricity is difficult to store or to transport over extensive distances.
Fossil fuels don’t suffer these limitations due to their molecular composition. Molecules can store energy for millions of years – you release that energy by burning the fuel. Electricity, on the other hand, consists of electrons moving in a wire. The electric current exists in the wire only as long as you continue to push electrons through it. Once you generate electricity, you must use it or find a way to store it.
“A German physicist…calculated that in just six hours the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year.”
Humanity must store electricity, because sun and wind are subject to the cycle of the seasons and fluctuations of weather. For renewable energy to be feasible, mechanisms must generate large amounts of electricity when conditions allow it, and store electricity for use at night, during the winter, or in cloudy or windless weather.
“In the future…our hunger for renewable power means we will need to look further and further afield for our supply.”
Existing storage methods include “pumped hydro systems.” In times of low demand, the power plant uses spare electricity to move water from a lower reservoir to a higher one. When demand spikes, opening the higher reservoir brings onrushing water that turns a turbine to generate electricity.
Lithium-ion batteries have advanced considerably, but remain impractical for long-distance trucking, shipping and aviation. Lithium-ion battery storage costs about $120 per megawatt hour (MWh), in comparison with $6/MWh to store natural gas underground.
Long-haul aviation would require so many batteries that electrical aircraft would be too heavy to fly. Batteries also need hours to recharge, which handicaps long-distance trucking. Batteries make the most sense for electric cars, especially for city drivers who charge their vehicles overnight.
Electricity is difficult to transport over extensive distances. Utility companies usually situate wind and solar collectors as near as possible to consumers.
“Hydrogen emerged from [the] primordial furnace in far larger quantities than any other element, and even today it dominates the cosmos.”
One way to solve these problems is to partner electricity with hydrogen, which can store renewable energy like you would store fossil fuels without the accompanying CO2 emissions.
Hydrogen can store and transport renewable energy.
Hydrogen is the simplest element on Earth, consisting of one proton and one electron. It usually appears as the molecule H2, representing a linking of two hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen bonds readily with other elements, creating different substances – for example, H2O (water).
Electrolysis cleanly converts electricity into hydrogen. Place a device that performs electrolysis in water, and run an electric current through it. This splits the water into oxygen and hydrogen. You can then use the hydrogen as you would use a conventional fuel to power heavy industry, trains, ships and trucks. You can also convert hydrogen to electricity by feeding it into a fuel cell, which could supply power on the go as a battery does. A fuel cell doesn’t need recharging – as long as you feed it hydrogen, it will produce electricity.
“Hydrogen and electricity can come together to create a powerful hybrid energy web, making our energy supply greener, smoother and cheaper.”
Companies are quickly overcoming obstacles to use hydrogen at scale this way. Hydrogen is the lightest element, and because of its low density, it occupies a lot of space. Finding ways to store it poses challenges.
Existing gas pipelines can carry hydrogen. Hydrogen contains less energy per cubic meter than gas contains, but because of its low viscosity, hydrogen will flow through pipes at a greater speed than gas does.
Hydrogen bonds easily with other elements, so other carriers can be used to make hydrogen easier to transport through existing pipeline infrastructure. Hydrogen is bonded with carbon dioxide to create a synthetic methane called green gas or electric natural gas (e-NG). e-NG is identical to fossil natural gas on a molecular and behavioral level, so it can be supplied directly to existing gas pipelines, factories, power plants, ships and other gas users. e-NG is far from just a means of transport. In practice, it’s a fossil-free natural gas that uses trusted technologies, doesn’t require any expensive system upgrades, and can be supplied directly to consumers at a cheaper rate.
“The Chevron Phillips Clemens Terminal in Texas…has stored hydrogen in a disused salt cavern since the 1980s.”
You must store hydrogen when it reaches its destination. In the US, UK and Germany, vast underground salt caverns are available for hydrogen storage. Possibilities elsewhere include depleted gas fields, metal vaults or sealed storage pipelines. e-NG itself can be stored in existing gas storage sites and be piped into the existing system.
Several methods for producing hydrogen are available.
Producers have adopted a color code to identify the hydrogen resulting from different processes. As all hydrogen is chemically identical, the color signifies the process that produced it:
- Gray – This process accounts for half of the hydrogen in use today. Producers extract it from natural gas. An unclean process, this produces 11 tons of CO2 for every ton of hydrogen. Industry uses gray hydrogen in oil refining and fertilizer manufacture.
- Blue – This process is similar to gray, except it captures and stores the CO2 emissions instead of releasing them into the environment.
- Green – This process uses renewable energy, usually renewable electricity and an electrolyzer to extract hydrogen from water.
- Dark green – This process extracts hydrogen from biomethane, and captures the accompanying carbon emissions.
- Pink – This method uses nuclear power to run an electrolyzer.
- Turquoise – This process makes hydrogen by heating natural gas until its molecules split. It produces atoms of hydrogen and a solid form of carbon with no CO2 emissions.
Hydrogen has a wide range of potential applications.
With the right advances in technology, hydrogen will be useful in:
- Manufacturing – The processes for making materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, plus products such as fertilizer, are carbon-intensive. Clean hydrogen could replace gray hydrogen and fossil fuels in these processes.
- Winter heating – Producers could collect excess power during periods of lower demand, store it as hydrogen underground and send it directly to homes to run hydrogen boilers.
- Transportation – Currently, oil produces about 95% of the energy for transportation. One alternative is to run engines with electricity. For cars, you can store the electricity in batteries, while trucks and buses would leverage the long range of the hydrogen/fuel cell combination. Trains might run on electrified tracks and use hydrogen as a backup fuel.
- Shipping – The International Maritime Organization, the governing body for the shipping industry, is mandating that maritime transport cut annual global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050. The technology to power ships with hydrogen fuel cells is feasible, though storage of sufficient volumes of the gas presents a problem. One alternative combines hydrogen with nitrogen to make ammonia. With minimal modifications, ship engines can run on ammonia, which would emit no CO2. Technology may yield enormous cargo-carrying airships, with hydrogen providing lift and the jet-stream currents providing momentum.
- Aviation – Flying emits a little less than 3% of global CO2. The industry is improving its emission rates, but it probably can’t get much cleaner using current technology. Hydrogen offers potential solutions. Aircraft could burn hydrogen as fuel in engines or use it in tandem with fuel cells to generate electricity. Airbus announced a plan to build the zero-emission, hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft ZEROe. The company expects it to make its maiden flight by 2025.
Hydrogen power requires prioritizing safety.
As with fossil fuels, using hydrogen contains risks. Most other fuels present more of a fire risk than hydrogen presents. If a hydrogen pipeline suffered a leak, for example, the gas would ascend into the air and dissipate, its concentration quickly falling below the level that would catch fire. A more serious fire risk would arise if hydrogen leaked into a closed room, so proper ventilation is essential.
“Hydrogen is now a stone’s throw from being competitive with oil.”
The designers of hydrogen airplanes plan to place the hydrogen tanks higher than the cabin, so the gas can’t endanger passengers or crew. The hydrogen tanks for on-road vehicles are extremely resilient, incorporating several layers of materials such as resin, carbon fiber and fiberglass. If a tank suffered a puncture, the hydrogen would quickly disperse into the air. Even if the car is on fire, the tank won’t explode: The pressure inside is high, which prevents oxygen from entering the tank. By the time the inside and outside pressures equalize, insufficient hydrogen would be left to fuel an explosion.
All sectors of society must work to acceleratethe switch to hydrogen from other fuels.
At present, hydrogen is a small part of the energy system. But if the world is to completely decarbonize, hydrogen will need to fill about 25% of total energy needs. Because of limited production, hydrogen prices are high. Producing green hydrogen by electrolysis costs around $5/kg. Blue hydrogen costs only about $2.5/kg, but very little of it is available due to a lack of facilities for carbon capture and storage. Gray hydrogen costs only $2/kg, but the gray process releases CO2.
“We now have a goal: Net zero is providing clarity, a sense of purpose, and catalyzing action.”
Costs of delivery and the construction of necessary infrastructure mean the price at the pump could be as much as $12/kg. Demand for hydrogen will grow only when its price is competitive with fossil fuels. The tipping point will probably occur when hydrogen approaches $2/kg.
“Hydrogen is stuck in the familiar ‘chicken and egg’ predicament, where supply waits for demand, and demand waits for supply.”
Market forces alone can’t bring hydrogen to the tipping point in the near term. Raising demand will require action by the following sectors:
- Business – In recent years, the concept of a company’s purpose has shifted from pure self-interest to a balance of profit and social responsibility. The value a company offers to society also creates value for investors. Many major companies are spearheading efforts to contend with climate change. Amazon, for example, has pledged to meet the goals of the 2015-2016 Paris Agreement by 2040. Microsoft has announced a goal of becoming carbon-negative by 2030 and, after that, to recapture all the carbon it produced throughout its history. To help kickstart the hydrogen market, seven companies, including the European gas pipeline company Snam, formed the “Green Hydrogen Catapult” coalition. They hope to connect hydrogen consumers, producers and infrastructure companies.
- Government – Government and international efforts, such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, can set policies, goals and mandates to help increase supply and demand. Useful policies would include a global carbon tax as well as a carbon price (cap and trade), which would impose a “mandatory reduction” plan for emissions. These policies are unlikely to materialize in the near future, but governments can help reduce hydrogen prices by, for example, mandating blending green hydrogen with gas and using the existing gas infrastructure. Governments could support business sectors, such as heavy road transport and global shipping, that have much of the infrastructure in place to utilize hydrogen.
- The public – Individuals can support the switch by buying goods that rely on green hydrogen in their manufacture. For many products, the use of hydrogen power would raise the retail price by less than 1%. A phone app that calculates the amount of CO2 emissions that associate with the purchase of various products and services could simplify the process.
About the Author
Marco Alverà is the Co-Founder of Zhero and CEO of TES, two renewable energy companies that are accelerating the global energy transition. He has more than 20 years of experience in Europe’s largest energy companies, notably as CEO at Snam and in senior positions at Eni and Enel.
“The Hydrogen Revolution: A Blueprint for the Future of Clean Energy” by Marco Alverà is a thought-provoking and informative book that provides a detailed roadmap for the transition to a hydrogen-based energy system. The author, a renowned energy industry expert, effectively argues that hydrogen has the potential to become the backbone of a decarbonized energy system, and offers a wealth of insights and solutions to overcome the challenges associated with its widespread adoption. In this review, we will delve into the key themes, arguments, and recommendations presented in the book, and evaluate their feasibility and potential impact on the energy sector.
- The Need for a Decarbonized Energy System: Alverà emphasizes the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. He argues that hydrogen has the potential to play a crucial role in this transition by providing a clean and flexible source of energy.
- Hydrogen as a Clean Energy Carrier: The author explains the concept of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier, highlighting its potential to replace fossil fuels in various applications, including transportation, power generation, and industrial processes. He provides detailed examples of hydrogen production technologies, such as electrolysis and steam methane reforming, and discusses the importance of developing a hydrogen infrastructure.
- Challenges and Opportunities: Alverà acknowledges the challenges associated with hydrogen, including its high cost, limited infrastructure, and lack of scale. However, he also highlights several opportunities, such as the potential for hydrogen to be produced from renewable energy sources, the development of new technologies, and the creation of new industries and job opportunities.
- A Blueprint for the Future: The author provides a detailed blueprint for the transition to a hydrogen-based energy system, including policy recommendations, technological advancements, and investment strategies. He argues that a coordinated effort from governments, industries, and individuals is necessary to overcome the challenges and realize the benefits of a hydrogen-based energy system.
Arguments and Recommendations
- Investment in Research and Development: Alverà stresses the importance of investing in research and development to improve hydrogen production technologies, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. He recommends increased funding for R&D, particularly in the areas of electrolysis and hydrogen storage.
- Development of Hydrogen Infrastructure: The author advocates for the development of a comprehensive hydrogen infrastructure, including production facilities, transportation networks, and storage facilities. He suggests that governments and industries should work together to establish standards and regulations for hydrogen production, transportation, and storage.
- Integration with Existing Energy Systems: Alverà emphasizes the need to integrate hydrogen into existing energy systems, including power generation, transportation, and industrial processes. He recommends the development of hybrid energy systems that combine hydrogen with other energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
- International Cooperation: The author highlights the importance of international cooperation to address the global nature of the energy transition. He suggests that countries should work together to develop common standards, share best practices, and coordinate investments in hydrogen infrastructure.
Evaluation and Impact
The strength of “The Hydrogen Revolution” lies in its comprehensive approach to the transition to a hydrogen-based energy system. Alverà provides a detailed roadmap for the transition, including policy recommendations, technological advancements, and investment strategies. The book is well-researched and well-written, providing a wealth of information and insights on the subject.
However, there are some limitations to the book’s scope and impact. The author’s focus on the technical aspects of hydrogen production and infrastructure may overlook the social and economic implications of the energy transition. Additionally, the book does not provide a detailed analysis of the political and economic feasibility of the proposed transition.
In conclusion, “The Hydrogen Revolution: A Blueprint for the Future of Clean Energy” is an informative and thought-provoking book that offers a comprehensive overview of hydrogen as a sustainable energy source. Marco Alverà’s expertise in the energy industry shines through, as he presents a compelling case for the hydrogen revolution while addressing the practical challenges that need to be overcome. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of clean energy and the role hydrogen can play in mitigating climate change.