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.