Hydrogen’s promise to reduce carbon emissions

By Michael Rogers

“This bus runs on hydrogen” – according to DNV GL, hydrogen could fuel tens of thousands of heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks by 2030
“This bus runs on hydrogen” – according to DNV GL, hydrogen could fuel tens of thousands of heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks by 2030 (photo: Ruter #)

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is poised to be among the heroes in the quest to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

In our daily lives, fuel cells that convert hydrogen and oxygen directly to electricity are already powering fuel cell electric vehicles – FCEVs – such as autos and cargo transportation, complementing the growing number battery powered EVs on the road.

As an energy source, adding hydrogen to the natural gas grid can further reduce the already low carbon footprint of gas. Moreover, hydrogen can replace gas in residential heating and in industry, hydrogen can fuel smelters to extract metals from ore.

Producing hydrogen consumes energy, which has been one drawback in the past. However, the increase of energy sourced from renewable sources such as the sun and wind will contribute to decarbonising the production of hydrogen, making the element’s usefulness as an energy carrying source even more attractive.

Government policy and support will go a long way to encourage the up uptake of hydrogen technologies.

In his opening address at the ASEM Conference on Green Shipping in April 2018, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, Ola Elvestuen, described plans to harness hydrogen as one of the tools to reduce emissions in the maritime sector:

Hydrogen is our next chapter of zero emission fuels and technologies. Several projects are in the pipeline. In 2021, we will have a car ferry with hydrogen-electric propulsion. The ferry will be operated by minimum 50 percent hydrogen. The project will contribute to development of rules and regulation for maritime use of hydrogen. If the project gives the expected results, the Norwegian ferry fleet will have zero emission technologies by the early 2030’s.

Below are a few resources to tap if you’re thinking about finding out more.

illustration: DNV GL
illustration: DNV GL

Blue versus Green
DNV GL, a global quality assurance and risk management company, recently released its study of emerging hydrogen value chains: “Hydrogen as an energy carrier”. The study concludes that demand for hydrogen will reach between 39 and 161 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa), primarily to be used for heating residential and commercial space, heat for industry, and transport.

Currently, hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles account for the largest segment of the 1,000 tonnes of hydrogen production used for energy.

DNV GL’s research paper analyses prospects for two types of low-carbon hydrogen production. “Blue hydrogen”, produced from fossil fuels (by either steam methane reforming or coal gasification), with carbon capture and storage to reduce the carbon footprint, will be used largely to heat buildings and for industrial processes. “Green hydrogen”, which is made using an electricity mix with low greenhouse gas emissions to power electrolysis of water. It will principally be used for mobility.

Carbon capture and storage is important to hydrogen’s role in decarbonising energy because, however it is made, it must be low-carbon across its entire value chain. DNV GL’s research paper suggests that policymakers need to consider the requirement for large-scale carbon capture and storage when incentivising low-carbon hydrogen production for heating residential and commercial space.

The research paper also expects hydrogen-fuelled heating to be established by 2050 among decarbonisation measures in industries such as cement and aluminium. It sees no substantial hydrogen use for industrial process heating by 2030. The research points to more refuelling infrastructure and cheaper green hydrogen boosting uptake of hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles.

It estimates that more than 80% of hydrogen demand for mobility in 2050 will be for buses, trucks and other heavy vehicles.

illustration: IRENA
illustration: IRENA

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) – a global intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future – has published “Innovation landscape for a renewable-powered future: Solutions to integrate variable renewables”, which analyses the challenges faced when system operators work to integrate solar and wind power. As these “variable renewable energy” sources – VRE – gain an increasing share of power generation, increased flexibility will be needed to maintain the balance of supply and demand.

One innovation scenario envisioned by IRENA is the “renewable power-to-hydrogen”, in which electricity from renewable sources is used to produce hydrogen that can be used as a medium for energy storage.

The IRENA report provides a guide to current innovations, either under development or already in use, and creates a framework meant to support informed decision-making on the best solutions for each different power system.

In the autumn of 2018, IRENA published “Hydrogen from renewable power: Technology outlook for the energy transition” – another report that’s well worth downloading.

Fuel-cell vehicles in Norway
Thinking about a hydrogen fuel-cell auto? A good source for information about hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and vessels is the Norwegian Hydrogen Forum.

illustration: NHF
illustration: NHF

Founded in 1996, the non-profit members’ association Norwegian Hydrogen Forum (NHF) works to promote hydrogen as an energy carrier in Norway, and NHF members include representatives from Norwegian industry, research institutes and universities.

Although the NHF website – www.hydrogen.no – is primarily in Norwegian, some resources are available in English. The site actively disseminates information about hydrogen research and technology commercialisation, as well as market trends and policy by organising conferences, seminars and workshops, and connecting relevant international cooperation.

Stay tuned
Expect to hear more about the universe’s most common element as the energy transition picks up pace.