A fuel that bursts with climate-saving potential

In the fight against climate change, green hydrogen is hailed as a potential miracle fuel that can help the world’s worst polluting industries reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Hydrogen itself can have many uses, but governments and companies are paying increasing attention to how to produce the resource in a climate-friendly way to make it really green.

Zero emissions

Hydrogen is an abundant resource that produces no emissions when burned as fuel. No wonder governments and corporations fall for each other to praise its virtues.

Its use as a fuel for spacecraft has led many to consider it as the future of the transport industry. The European company Airbus has said that it wants to take the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft into use in 2035. Many major car manufacturers already produce models with hydrogen fuel cells.

Transport politicians note. Plans are underway for hydrogen-powered trains in Germany and Italy.

In famous dirty industries, hydrogen is considered a particularly promising alternative to fossil fuels. Steel manufacturers such as the German Thyssenkrupp are experimenting with creating hydrogen-powered furnaces.

There is a broad consensus that hydrogen fuel has enormous potential benefits, but the process of creating it is still the subject of heated debate.

Coal residues

For centuries, scientists have understood how hydrogen can be produced from water through a process called electrolysis, in which an electric current passes through water and breaks it down into hydrogen and oxygen.

But this process requires power – which right now is largely generated by burning coal and gas.

According to the International Energy Agency, global hydrogen production emitted 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017 – equivalent to the combined emissions from Indonesia and the United Kingdom.

Governments and companies are considering three main options to make the process cleaner.

The first is “green hydrogen”, which uses electrolysis of water powered by renewable energy. This would reduce emissions but it is still very costly.

The second alternative is to obtain so-called blue hydrogen from natural gas and capture CO2 during the process. Companies including ExxonMobil and ENI are striving for this, but the carbon sequestration process is still uncertain and costly.

The third alternative is low hydrocarbon hydrocarbon produced by electrolysis but with nuclear power. China is the main proponent of this method, with nuclear energy disadvantaging elsewhere in the world.

Global competition

Governments encrypt to formulate policies that encourage the development of pure hydrogen.

The EU wants to achieve between 12 and 14 percent hydrogen in its energy mix by 2050, up from two percent today. The bloc estimates the required funding at between € 180 billion ($ 218 billion) and $ 470 billion.

The Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and France have all published hydrogen strategies over the past year. Germany has earmarked EUR 9 billion for green hydrogen. The Netherlands is planning a “Hydrogen Valley”.

China is already a world leader in hydrogen technology, with Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States also driving a piece of the hydrogen revolution.

Climate challenge

Climate activists are urging countries to keep their feet on the ground for hydrogen.

“Not all strategies focus exclusively on green hydrogen, some include hydrogen production from coal, gas and nuclear power,” the climate transparency group wrote in a November report.

“Nevertheless, developing hydrogen strategies and infrastructure is a positive step towards hydrocarbon without carbon.”

The falling prices of solar and wind energy and the increasing use of hydrogen could reduce its production costs by 2050, according to researcher BloombergNEF.

They estimate that it could be produced for between $ 0.80 (0.66 euros) and $ 1.6 per kilogram then, comparable to natural gas.

“Hydrogen can make a real contribution to the fight against climate change, but only if used properly, in areas where you have no choice but to reduce emissions,” said Nicolas Berghmans of IDDRI, a think tank focusing on sustainable development.

He said that hydrogen, no matter how it is produced, can only achieve a limited amount. He said it must be part of a broader global energy policy that also works to reduce consumption.