The recent successes of renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries. As it stands, few renewable-energy related topics are experiencing as much heat as green hydrogen. Despite its current barriers in costs and lack of infrastructure today, there are many potential applications at play once production increasingly scales.
1. Replacing existing hydrogen feedstocks
Perhaps the most obvious use for green hydrogen is to simply replace the large amounts of the gas that are already produced using carbon-intensive methods to satisfy the needs of industry. Based on International Energy Agency figures, 38.2 million MT of hydrogen were used for oil refining in 2018; another 31.5 MT went toward ammonia production. Steelmaking is another potential target for green hydrogen, with several organisations developing direct reduced iron processes that use the gas to remove oxygen from ore.
Decarbonising residential and commercial heating systems is a major challenge in countries that currently rely on natural gas to do the job. One immediate — albeit partial — answer to the problem is to mix green hydrogen into natural gas to reduce the latter’s carbon content. In Scotland, a government-backed pilot project to heat 300 homes using green hydrogen aims to provide residents with carbon-free heating and cooking facilities by the end of 2022. An offshore wind source will be used to power an electrolysis plant that will produce the hydrogen required. The UK government is also hoping to attract investment of more than £4 billion into the hydrogen economy by 2030, with ambitious plans to replace fossil fuel gas for heating and cooking in around 3 million households across the country. This includes green hydrogen capabilities.
3. Long duration energy storage
A means to support and balance an entire city grid and boost remote access to power, long duration energy storage plays an increasingly pivotal role in efficiently managing supply and demand. A prime example for green hydrogen potential is the planned 1,000MW Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, billed as the world’s largest renewable energy storage project, located in the US state of Utah. The green hydrogen hub will interconnect green hydrogen production, storage and distribution across the western US to support the decarbonisation strategy of multiple industries. These include power, transportation and manufacturing. The project’s salt caverns will have capacity for more than 5,500 metric tonnes of hydrogen, with each cavern storing the equivalent of 150 gigawatt hours of carbon-free energy or decarbonised fuel.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen-based low-carbon fuels as an alternate to fossil fuels will contribute to the decarbonisation of the mobility sector. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be used for long-distance and heavy-load transport, aviation and even high-utilisation fleets of hydrogen cars, such as taxis or police cars which benefit from quick refills and long ranges. Among its many advantages are that it can travel up to 600 km without refuelling, filling the tank takes a maximum of 5 minutes, its range is not affected by the weather and it emits zero emissions.
Manufacturing also stands to benefit from green hydrogen, as it looks to decarbonise operations in the long term. In Sweden, plans to build an 800 MW steel production facility, that could become the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, are underway. With a production timeline of 2024, the plant will target steel manufacturers across Europe. By 2030, it plans to have production capacity of five million tons of steel per year. The cement industry, which is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions, could similarly benefit.
Hydrogen offers a possibility to decarbonise applications, end uses, and sectors which have been traditionally difficult to tackle with other clean energy solutions. Hence, it is useful to view hydrogen’s contribution to the clean energy transition on a case-by-case basis, as complementary to other solutions in mitigating climate change.