Renewable electricity

Hydrogen, the final fuel?

Frank Wouters - 19 September 2019

“I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable”.

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Mr Frank Wouters
Frank Wouters has been leading renewable energy projects, transactions, and technology development for over 28 years. Mr. Wouters has served on the board of several energy companies in Europe, Asia, Africa and the US. He currently serves as Global Lead Gr
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This quote from Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island (1874), describes the potential of the most abundant element in the universe. Although hydrogen is currently predominantly produced from natural gas and coal, Jules Verne’s prediction may be very close to a future energy system, in which renewable electricity is used in an electrolyser to split water into its constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen.

Electrification is one of the major trends in the ongoing global energy transition, driven by an urgent need for decarbonisation. The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) latest report, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2018, states that renewables are already the lowest-cost source of new power generation in many parts of the world. As soon as 2020, onshore wind and solar PV will join hydropower in consistently offering a cheaper source of new electricity than any fossil fuel alternative.

To honour its commitments under the Paris Agreement, Europe will increase the share of electricity in the final energy mix from the current 20% to between 40% and 50% by 2050. This massive amount of new electricity, mostly solar and wind, will among other things be used in all-electric houses and for electric mobility.

However, electricity has limitations: it is expensive to store, is not competitive for long-range transport nor high-temperature industrial heat and cannot produce chemicals. Also, massive investments are required in new expensive grid infrastructure, and people vehemently oppose new overhead power lines. The question then remains how to decarbonise the remaining 50% of our final energy demand.

Hydrogen, made from sun, wind and water, is one of the few solutions that can cover the gap. Hydrogen can be burned in industrial processes and used as fuel in heavy transport, reduce iron ore in steelmaking and act as a chemical feedstock.

The IEA, in its recent report The Future of Hydrogen, predicts that soon green hydrogen can be produced for USD 1/kg, which roughly corresponds to natural gas at USD 9/mmbtu. A future energy system based on 50% green electricity and 50% green hydrogen can be cost-effective.

Apart from the production cost, the main advantage of hydrogen is relatively cheap transport. Transporting hydrogen in a pipe is 15 times more cost-effective than electricity in a cable. And if we consider Europe’s case, the existing natural gas grid can be converted at very low costs. Recent studies by DNV-GL and KIWA for the Netherlands concluded that the existing transmission and distribution grid, both on- and offshore, can accommodate up to 100% hydrogen without major modification to the actual pipelines.

Admittedly, compressors, flow meters and end-use appliances need to be modified, but the actual grid is suitable. Europe’s future electricity system will be dominated by offshore wind in the North Sea and solar in Southern Europe, where production costs are lowest. Producing hydrogen at the source and using the existing natural gas grid instead of building new overhead power lines seems very logical. It is this logic that is driving Europe’s natural gas industry, including companies like Gasunie, Northern Gas Networks, GIE and others to develop ambitious hydrogen strategies.

However, we are still far away from such a hydrogen economy. The electrolyser industry is in its infancy and regulation needs to be developed. But most importantly, such a grand vision cannot be mastered by the private sector alone. A joint public-private approach is required, where some of the risks involved in these admittedly huge public infrastructure investments are covered by governments. But we have done this before; the situation is similar to when electricity and natural gas were introduced. But the difference is that this time, hydrogen might become the final fuel.

About the author


Technology writer Marla Keene works for AXControl.com, an industrial automation supplier located in North Carolina. 

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