Hydrogen and the Energy Transition: A Solution or An Illusion?

03-01-2022
Hydrogen and the Energy Transition: A Solution or An Illusion?

 

Hydrogen, when produced from renewable energy, is seen as a good alternative to fossil fuels and believed to offer huge help in decarbonising sectors such as ​​transport and other major energy-consuming industries.

According to the European Commission (2021), renewable hydrogen can play a key role in industrial processes as well as in transport (particularly those operating trucks hauling large loads and travelling long distances) and electricity sectors. To support the development of hydrogen in Europe, the European Commission proposed “to establish a market for hydrogen, create the right environment for investment, and enable the development of dedicated infrastructure, including for trade with third countries.” (European Commission 2, 2021)

To give light on the potential of Hydrogen to drive the Energy Transition, we invited Dr. Victor Nian, an expert in energy and sustainability strategies with 15 years of experience in energy and technology fields. Here, he provided an overview of how hydrogen can enable a transition to a cleaner, low-carbon energy system and cited challenges and opportunities for its large-scale development and implementation.

Dr. Nian is advisor to private and public organisations on strategic energy issues, especially in nuclear, hydrogen and clean energy technology development. He was previously a Senior Research Fellow of the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore where he was the go-to person on net-zero carbon strategies, sustainable technology pathways, nuclear energy, hydrogen economy, CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation, and sequestration), and maritime decarbonisation. 

Read his insights below.


 

What is the potential of Hydrogen in enabling a transition to a cleaner, low-carbon energy system? 

Hydrogen is a clean and carbon-free form of hydrogen on its own, so hydrogen can help decarbonise the global energy sector. From a technical point of view, hydrogen can potentially play a significant role in enabling the global energy transition pathway towards a low-carbon or even a net-zero carbon energy system. 

The earth is well endowed with one of the main sources of hydrogen, water – the ocean. However, the present challenge is to recover hydrogen using carbon-free energy. The same is true for the entire hydrogen value chain in order for hydrogen to truly qualify as a low-carbon energy. With the growing momentum in the global research and development (R&D) effort, and the urgency to materialise the carbon-neutral targets around the world, hydrogen could have a significant role in enabling the transition towards low-carbon energy system

 

How does hydrogen help in ensuring energy accessibility, affordability and reliability globally while reducing the use of fossil fuels?

The idea of hydrogen as a clean energy to address energy accessibility, affordability and reliability would depend on the position of the country in the hydrogen supply chain. 

To hydrogen importing countries, arguably, hydrogen can provide diversification of the fuel mix thereby improving energy security and stability if the local infrastructure allows economical utilisation of hydrogen. Although it is unfortunately an expensive fuel option for the moment, several global studies seem to suggest that the cost of hydrogen production can fall rapidly through industrial scale project development. 

To hydrogen producing countries, especially those producing hydrogen from renewable and/or nuclear energy, producing hydrogen along the lines of “power-to-gas” can serve as a form of energy storage to improve the utilisation of these carbon-free energy sources. However, the counter argument is that it would be more efficient and economical to utilise such carbon-free electricity directly with the help of battery energy storage than having an additional step of electrolysis to produce hydrogen.
 

What are the challenges in activating large-scale use of hydrogen in the global energy industry? Are there also risks involved?

Several critical supply chain related issues remain to be addressed, especially storage and long-distance transport, before industrial scale adoption of hydrogen can take place. At the same time, the downstream application technologies such as transport, power generation, and industrial process heating will also require time to be able to utilise hydrogen on a large scale. It could mean several years before a sustainable hydrogen economy can take shape. 

Between where we are now in the various sectors and a 100% hydrogen scenario, there are technical, commercial and regulatory risks involved along the way. 

  • Technical: with hydrogen being a volatile gas, can future technologies ensure safety and efficiency when fuelled by 100% hydrogen? 
  • Commercial: can the price of hydrogen justify an industrial scale adoption? What that critical mass is to enable such a competitive price? What are the operating and maintenance cost of technologies fulled by 100% hydrogen? 
  • Regulatory: how would the safety regulation and standards need to be improved and/or adapted to ensure successful hydrogen take off? Last and perhaps most important, would the public be willing to accept hydrogen as a safe energy option given the volatility of hydrogen gas?

On the other hand, ammonia has been considered as a potential hydrogen carrier for long-distance transport given the industrial familiarity of this particular chemical. Ammonia is also a combustible fuel which can be used by the maritime sector for example. However, cracking hydrogen from ammonia is an energy intensive process. Accounting for the energy usage due to ammonia cracking, burning the same quantity of ammonia and hydrogen (cracked from ammonia) will lead to approximately the same amount of energy, thereby raising the question about cost competitiveness. As such, the debate between hydrogen and ammonia is likely to carry on even beyond 2030.

The tipping point for a global scale hydrogen economy will still be years away. Hydrogen demand is likely to be driven by Japan, South Korea and the EU in the foreseeable future. China’s carbon neutral target by 2060 could possibly transform the country into a potentially significant hydrogen consumer, especially in power generation, heavy manufacturing industry, and transport. However, it will still take years before these technologies can reach maturity and commercial viability. The same is true on the supply chain for hydrogen.

 

How can technology and innovation help in the scale up of hydrogen production and utilisation in key industries?

For green hydrogen to achieve cost parity with grey hydrogen by 2050, there is a need for rapidly scaling up production capacity. That would naturally lead to the idea of producing carbon-free hydrogen from all possible clean energy sources, such as renewable and nuclear energy. However, unlocking the nuclear hydrogen potential would require revisiting of the current policy in nuclear energy. 

Downstream use cases for hydrogen can come from a range of sectors, such as power generation, process industry, transport, and data centre. There is still the energy density consideration for hydrogen or ammonia as a possible fuel option. In the transport, and especially maritime transport sector, mileage over a “full tank” as well as access to refuelling options are critical to ensure economical, efficient and on-time delivery of passengers and goods. Unless there is a rapid scaling up of ammonia or hydrogen refuelling stations, ports and storage terminals powered by carbon free energy sources, massive adoption of hydrogen is unlikely to be materialised in the foreseeable future.

In addition, upstream production also needs significant attention in order to bring down the cost of production through scaling and in the future, hopefully, a market mechanism. Right now, there are about 228 large-scale hydrogen projects in the pipeline to 2030 with an expected total investment of $300 billion globally. Most of these large-scale projects come from Europe and China. However, only $80 billion can be associated with projects in the planning, final investment decision, under construction, commissioned or operational stage. 

Finally, there is still the question whether there will be sufficiently large downstream demand for hydrogen or ammonia by the time industrial scale hydrogen production takes place. That means, hydrogen combined cycle gas turbine power generation technology, industrial furnaces and boilers, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, ammonia fuelled marine engines would all need to be ready in the next few years or so.


Sources:

Hydrogen (2021). European Commission. Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/energy/topics/energy-system-integration/hydrogen_en

Commission proposes new EU framework to decarbonise gas markets, promote hydrogen and reduce methane emissions (2021). European Commission. Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_6682 

 

TechnologyCatalogue.com’s Faces of the Energy Transition blog series aims to shed light on key issues surrounding the global transition to clean energy. We invite thought leaders, industry players and members of the academe to share their insights on topics that are related to the Energy Transition. 

If you have suggestions on topics and/or resource persons, feel free to reach out via email at community@technologycatalogue.com.


 

About Dr. Victor Nian

Dr Victor Nian is an expert in energy and sustainability strategies with 15 years of experience in energy and technology fields. He is advisor to private and public organisations on strategic energy issues, especially in nuclear, hydrogen, and clean energy technology development. Dr. Nian is the founding leader of UNiLAB on Integrated Systems Analysis Tools established under the spirit of “research and innovation without borders”. He is a Founding Member, elected Council Member, and elected Honorary General Secretary of the International Society for Energy Transition Studies. 

Dr. Nian was previously a Senior Research Fellow of the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore where he was the go-to person on net-zero carbon strategies, sustainable technology pathways, nuclear energy, hydrogen economy, CCUS (acronym for carbon capture, utilisation, and sequestration), and maritime decarbonisation. He was also Visiting Fellow of the Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, and Adjunct Professor at Tianjin University of Commerce. 

Dr. Nian holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering with a Minor in Management of Technology, all from the National University of Singapore.

 

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