Hydrogen as the future opportunity for renewables

Hydrogen energy involves the use of hydrogen or hydrogen-containing compounds to generate energy to be supplied to all practical uses needed with high energy efficiency, overwhelming environmental and social benefits, as well as economic competitiveness. The world is presently experimenting with the dawning of hydrogen energy in all sectors that includes energy production, storage, and distribution; electricity, heat, and cooling for buildings and households; the industry; transportation; and the fabrication of feedstock. 

Energy efficiency and sustainability are two important factors driving the transition from the present fossil fuel–based economy to a circular economy, that is, a renewable circular sustainable fuel utilization cycle that will characterize the highly efficient engineering and the energy technological choices of the current century. 

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when used in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is a potential energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

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. 

The potential for hydrogen produced by low-carbon electricity to provide a source of clean energy is massive. It extends from transport to a range of manufacturing industries, as well as from storing intermittent low-carbon electricity to using hydrogen for heating in residential and commercial buildings. But for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to clean energy transitions, it needs to be adopted in key sectors of economics

The development of hydrogen is already widely supported, not just in the EU but globally. Governments of many countries are taking strategic steps to encourage not only the use of hydrogen but its large-scale production from renewable electricity, with a view to export as well as domestic use. The number of countries with policies that directly support investment in hydrogen technologies is increasing, along with the number of sectors they target.

Hydrogen fuel can be produced through several methods. The most common methods are natural gas reforming (a thermal process), and electrolysis. Other methods include solar-driven and biological processes. Water can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis. Electrolytic processes take place in an electrolyzer, which functions much like a fuel cell in reverse—instead of using the energy of a hydrogen molecule, like a fuel cell does, an electrolyzer creates hydrogen from water molecules. Solar-driven processes use light as the agent for hydrogen production. Photoelectrochemical processes use specialized semiconductors to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The opportunity for hydrogen is to capitalize on the fact that all the ingredients for success are in place: a supportive policy environment and the availability of financial support from governments; concentrations of potential industrial users with strong incentives to decarbonize their operations; the presence of developers of hydrogen technology with the potential to be leaders in global markets, including in hydrogen production and utilization; and the availability of infrastructure and related expertise that can be deployed to connect supply and demand for hydrogen, both using pipelines and over longer distances using ships. 

Experts disagree on which applications of hydrogen are likely to be most important (and the speed at which the costs of the different technologies involved are likely to decline), but few deny that it will play a key role in the energy transition. On some estimates, the European market for hydrogen will grow to more than seven times its current size by 2050. 

Various uses for hydrogen

Hydrogen use today is dominated by industry, namely: 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.

In transport, the competitiveness of hydrogen fuel cell cars depends on fuel cell costs and refuelling stations while for trucks the priority is to reduce the delivered price of hydrogen. Shipping and aviation have limited low-carbon fuel options available and represent an opportunity for hydrogen-based fuels.

In buildings, hydrogen could be blended into existing natural gas networks, with the highest potential in multifamily and commercial buildings, particularly in dense cities while longer-term prospects could include the direct use of hydrogen in hydrogen boilers or fuel cells.

In 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. Ammonia could also be used in coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions.

Hydrogen energy, being completely independent from any carbon requirement, is seen to match well with the renewable or inexhaustible primary energy resources we must move to in the future as our fossil-fuel age wanes. Of the renewable energies, the sun stands today as the only assured source, although controlled nuclear fusion and geothermal energy systems offer great promise as well. 

Hydrogen can enable renewables to provide an even greater contribution. It has the potential to help with variable output from renewables, like solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind, whose availability is not always well matched with demand. Hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables and looks promising to be a lowest-cost option for storing electricity over days, weeks or even months. Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels can transport energy from renewables over long distances – from regions with abundant solar and wind resources to energy-hungry cities thousands of kilometres away.

There have been false starts for hydrogen in the past. This time can be different. Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum. The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future. The recent successes of solar PV, wind, batteries and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries. With a global energy sector in flux, the versatility of hydrogen is attracting stronger interest from a diverse group of governments and companies. Support is coming from governments that both import and export energy as well as renewable electricity suppliers, industrial gas producers, electricity and gas utilities, automakers, oil and gas companies, major engineering firms, and cities. Investments in hydrogen can help foster new technological and industrial development in economies around the world, creating skilled jobs.

Avenston closely follows the development of modern hydrogen technologies and analyzes the possibilities for their application in various projects. Since 2014, our specialists have been actively participating in international industry events on this issue, paying great attention to the analysis and assessment of the applicability of the proposed solutions. In the future, the company plans to take part in the implementation of projects related to the implementation of hydrogen energy technologies as a technical consultant and provide the necessary engineering support.