Hydrogen made simple

Hydrogen and energy have a long-shared history – powering the first internal combustion engines over 200 years ago to becoming an integral part of the modern refining industry. It is light, storable, energy-dense, and produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. But for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to clean energy transitions, it needs to be adopted in sectors where it is almost completely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.

Hydrogen context and background

Clean hydrogen is currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, with the number of policies and projects around the world expanding rapidly. Hydrogen enjoys an ever-growing large market yet, at the present time, most of the commercialized hydrogen comes from fossil sources such as natural gas and coal. This process is responsible for the emission of CO2: in fact, to produce one ton of hydrogen from fossil fuels about 10 tons of CO2 are delivered. At the present state, about 800 million tons of CO2 are coming from hydrogen production.

Yet, there already is a huge potential to reduce emissions just by greening hydrogen.

Alternatively to fossil fuels, it is possible to produce hydrogen using renewable electricity: electrolyzers use electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. The electrolysis of water occurs through an electrochemical reaction that does not require external components or moving parts. It is very reliable and can produce ultra-pure hydrogen (> 99.999%) in a non-polluting manner when the electrical source is renewable energy.

Today’s applications of hydrogen

Today Hydrogen is used in a number of fields such as:

  • Industry, such as oil refining, ammonia production, methanol production and steel production. Virtually, all of this hydrogen is supplied using fossil fuels, so there is significant potential for emissions reductions from clean hydrogen.
  • Transport: the competitiveness of hydrogen fuel cell cars depends on fuel cell costs and refueling stations. Shipping and aviation have limited low-carbon fuel options available and represent an opportunity for hydrogen-based fuels.
  • Buildings: hydrogen could be blended into existing natural gas networks, with the highest potential in multifamily and commercial building.
  • Power generation: hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing renewable energy, and hydrogen and ammonia can be used in gas turbines to increase power system flexibility.

Yet, less than 0.1% of global dedicated hydrogen production today comes from renewable energy sources.

The importance of green hydrogen and renewable energies in the future market

Scaling up green hydrogen will be essential to help global economies achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and limit global temperature rises to 1.5C.

There are many estimates and scenarios for hydrogen production in the future. It is assessed that hydrogen production will increase from about 70/80 million tons today to 190 million tons by 2050. In this context, costs play an important role in the massive deployment of hydrogen from renewable sources.

With declining costs for renewable electricity, in particular from solar PV and wind, interest is growing in electrolytic hydrogen and there have been several demonstration projects in recent years. Producing all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would result in an electricity demand of 3.600 TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.

IEA, Hydrogen production costs by production source, 2018, IEA, Paris

With declining costs for solar PV and wind generation, building electrolyzers at locations with excellent renewable resource conditions could become a low-cost supply option for hydrogen, even after taking into account the transmission and distribution costs of transporting hydrogen from (often remote) renewables locations to the end-users. (source)

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