With the increasing global outcry to limit global warming to well below 2°C, the world is desperately looking for alternatives to fossil fuels. In this scenario, Green Hydrogen is the perfect fit for the bill. It out-pips its counterparts by virtue of its inherent scores of advantages like zero carbon emissions, stable availability, cheaper costs in the long run, etc. With several nations having been committed to reducing their carbon footprint, green hydrogen is applauded as pivotal to their ambitions. Thus, in the search for a clean energy source, green hydrogen has earned a nickname as the “Fuel of the future”. But what is green hydrogen? What makes it ‘green’? And what are its pros and cons? Where best can it serve us? Let’s discuss in this article.
What’s green hydrogen, and what makes it green?
To understand green hydrogen, we need to first understand what hydrogen energy is and how it is produced. Hydrogen energy involves the use of hydrogen or compounds comprised of hydrogen to generate energy to be supplied to all practical uses. In a hydrogen fuel cell– hydrogen gas reacts with oxygen to produce electricity and water vapor. Because of hydrogen’s capacity to generate energy without releasing greenhouse emissions at concerning levels, it is a potential clean alternative to fossil fuels.
Despite its abundance, hydrogen does not exist in gaseous form in adequate quantities. It mostly exists as compounds, such as water, necessitating the usage of industrial methods for the extraction of hydrogen from its compounds. Hydrogen is produced by various techniques that are powered by the energy generated from various sources like natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, renewable sources like solar power and wind, etc. Depending up on the type of energy involved in its production, there are multiple types of hydrogen.
- Grey hydrogen: The most widely produced hydrogen in the world that accounts for 95% of the global hydrogen production. It is produced from fossil fuels, as a result of which it leaves a trail of GHG gases, particularly carbon dioxide, behind.
- Blue hydrogen: It follows the same process as grey hydrogen, but the CO2 emissions are captured in a scientific manner using CO2 capturing technologies. But the recent studies show that CO2 capturing isn’t leakproof, and there exist a lot of leakages.
- Green hydrogen: Unlike previous types, green hydrogen is truly renewable in both its source material and the energy involved in its production. Usually, water is used as source material. Electric current is made to pass through the water to split the water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen. This process is known as Electrolysis. This process produces only oxygen or steam as a by-product. To be deemed “green hydrogen,” the source of electricity that powers electrolysis must derive from renewable resources, such as wind or solar energy.
Of all the types of hydrogen we have discussed above, green hydrogen is the most environment-friendly fuel, due to which it is looked up on as the future hope of the world in the face of global warming.
Green hydrogen: Fuel of the future
Green hydrogen is increasingly being cheered as the futuristic fuel to cater to the demands of the energy-hungry world. At the same time, adhering to the Paris deal, many countries are committing themselves to de-carbonise their energy markets and have announced timelines to reach self-declared targets. Countries hailing from the European Union & Japan have vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, whereas countries like Brazil and China have vowed to achieve it by 2060. But to achieve this, the energy mix of the world needs a drastic shift. Fossil fuels should give way to renewable sources like green hydrogen, etc. Apart from its environment-friendly nature, green hydrogen boasts of accruing a plethora of other benefits vis-a-vis fossil fuels, as follows.
Helps Tackle Climate Change
In the debate between fossil fuels and green hydrogen, there are fewer arguments against the latter. Green hydrogen is the most climate-friendly energy source owing to the fact that it doesn’t emit any of the GHG gases during its entire value chain, and this is by far its biggest advantage. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies revealed that fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. In the year 2018, 89% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuel consumption. Coal, being the dirtiest of them all, alone is responsible for over 0.3C rise in the global average temperatures. Oil and Natural gas contribute to one-third and one-fifth of the global carbon emissions, respectively. According to the IEA (International energy agency), even the non-green hydrogen is responsible for emissions of around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom or Indonesia. In this regard, green hydrogen provides an excellent alternative to fossil-based energy. Recently, the IPCC has given a stern warning that to keep the global rise of temperature below 1.5 C, fossil fuel emissions must be halved within the next 11 years. This further underscore the need to increase the share of green hydrogen in the global energy matrix.
Green hydrogen can be produced from a host of sources like methane, gasoline, biomass, coal, water, etc. Factors like technical barriers, costs of production, pollution, etc., depend upon the source of production involved. Moreover, green hydrogen can be produced either onsite, where it will be consumed or centrally at faraway places due to the ease with which it can be transported.
Renewable and Bountiful in Supply
Hydrogen is the most abundantly available element on earth, albeit not available in the readily accessible form. There is no chance of it running out of supply, and thus is an infinite source of energy, a distinction that only a few other sources boast of. So, it can be safely banked upon to cater to the future energy demands of the world, provided that we develop adequate technologies to extract it efficiently and sustainably.
Hydrogen packs a high amount of energy per unit of fuel compared to fossil fuels. To put it in perspective, hydrogen has an energy density of about 120mj/kg, whereas Petrol and Coal have 43mj/kg and 23mj/kg, respectively. This implies a vehicle that runs on hydrogen fuel travels longer than the one that’s fuelled by an equal amount of fossil fuels. Compared to the power plants that run on a conventional combustion mechanism that usually generates electricity with an efficiency of about 35%, hydrogen fuel cells are capable of generating electricity with about 65% of efficiency.
Hydrogen gas, once produced, can be used for a wide range of applications owing to its flexibility. It could be transformed into electricity or synthetic gas, which can be put into use for various domestic and commercial purposes. Green hydrogen can easily blend with natural gas up to a maximum ratio of 20%. It is also used as feedstock in the fertiliser industry.
Hydrogen and energy have a long-shared history, powering the first internal combustion engines over two centuries years ago to becoming an integral part of the modern industries. However, as of today, only a few sectors, like the refining industry, fertilizer industry, and ammonia industry are consuming much of the hydrogen. The IEA has identified four value chains that offer immense opportunities to ramp up the hydrogen market;
Hydrogen is widely being used by industries like oil refining, Ammonia production, methanol production, and steel. However, all these industries use grey hydrogen. So, there is an immense potential for emission reduction by using green hydrogen in these industries.
The transport sector is another avenue where green hydrogen could work wonders. Fossil fuel-based vehicles should be increasingly replaced with green hydrogen-based vehicles. Already some headway has been made in this direction. The shipping industry and airline industry don’t have much leeway to utilize low-carbon fuels due to the technological shortfalls. Green ammonia made from green hydrogen has a huge potential to power both these industries if adequate research and technological innovations are made.
Most houses today use natural gas and synthetic gas for cooking purposes. Green hydrogen could be gradually blended with natural gas for cooking purposes. With time, green hydrogen could replace natural gas entirely.
With more than 80% of the global electricity generation coming from fossil fuels, there is an immense scope and impending need to increase the share of green hydrogen in the global energy matrix. Hydrogen and ammonia can be used to run gas turbines, and ammonia made of green hydrogen could be a great alternative to coal in coal-fired plants.
So near, yet so far: Downsides
Despite its innumerable advantages, green hydrogen still constitutes only 0.1% of the total hydrogen production (IEA). Let’s see the reasons behind such discrepancy.
Higher Initial Costs
According to the report “Global Hydrogen Review” released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the cost of producing green hydrogen currently ranges between 3 USD and 8 USD per kilogram. This is significantly higher than the average cost of grey hydrogen, which ranges between 0.5 USD to 1.7 USD per kilogram to produce. This huge price difference has a dissuading effect on the market to opt against green hydrogen. But, with the prices of renewable energy expected to fall gradually in the coming future, the gap is poised to get narrower.
Hydrogen is traditionally stored by three methods, i.e., compression, cooling, or a hybrid of both. However, storage is riddled with several challenges like the requirement of high energy to compress hydrogen, higher temperature & pressure requirements to store hydrogen in solid form, chemical reaction with the storage materials, and losses due to evaporation of the compressed hydrogen, etc.
Transportation and Distribution
Some of the common methods to transport hydrogen are pipelines, high-pressure tube trailers, and liquified hydrogen tankers. Pipelines are currently the most widely used technique due to their relatively lesser cost. As with storage, there are many challenges involved in transport and distribution as well. The existing network of natural gas pipelines cannot be directly used to transport green hydrogen due to the risk of embrittlement. Even a mix of a mere 5% of hydrogen in the natural gas would deteriorate pipelines gradually. Also, the severe shortage in the number of hydrogen refuelling stations cripples the prospects of green hydrogen.
Issues at end-use
Hydrogen serves multiple end-uses, especially in power generation, transportation, automobiles, and industries. However, even at the stage of end-use, there are several shortfalls that need to be addressed to achieve full-scale commercialization of green hydrogen. There is a need to redesign the vehicles to accommodate hydrogen gas tanks and hydrogen fuel cell stacks. Then there are efficiency and degradation issue with the equipment. The Lack of monitoring systems that keeps a tab on the performance and health of hydrogen systems further compounds the challenges.
Global Status of Green Hydrogen
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that has triggered ripples across energy markets, along with the increasing global quest for clean energy, has opened new avenues for the green hydrogen market. Global Hydrogen demand in 2020 was approximately 90 MT, 99% of which was met through grey hydrogen. With only less than 1% of hydrogen coming from renewable sources, there is a huge demand-supply gap for green hydrogen in the energy market. Despite these dismal figures, IEA projects that 18% of the global energy needs would be met by green hydrogen by the year 2050, whereas Goldman Sachs pegs it to 25% by 2050. This unprecedented optimism stems from the recent ambitious initiatives and commitments of global energy giants.
Saudi Arabia has vowed to power its futuristic under-construction 500-billion-dollar megacity called Neom through green hydrogen. Also, the EU has begun investing heavily in green hydrogen. Germany has already allocated the largest share of its clean energy funds to green hydrogen. The Middle East, which is blessed with the world’s cheapest wind and solar power, is also making significant inroads to tap their natural resources and channel them into producing green hydrogen. Japan has constructed one of the world’s largest green hydrogen project near Fukushima.
IRENA reckons that green hydrogen would become cheaper than its counterparts by the mid-2030s, and it may happen even earlier in countries like India, Brazil & China. As more nations enter the green hydrogen market facilitated by its worldwide availability, hydrogen trade gets less likely to become weaponised and cartelised, in contrast to the monopolistic geopolitical influence hogged by the oil-exporting nations.
Where does India stand in the race?
The concern for climate change, Paris commitments, and the ever-fluctuating global oil prices have cumulatively forced India to look for alternative renewable sources of energy, with most of the demand to be met from domestic production. Off late, India has been pinning its hopes on solar energy to exploit its geographical advantage. However, the Solar energy industry has still been in a nascent stage in India and relies heavily on Chinese imports. So, the government has decided to take green hydrogen onboard to meet the energy demands. In 2020, India produced 7MT of hydrogen, almost all of which was grey hydrogen. By 2030, IEA reckons that India’s demand for hydrogen would swell to 11MT, with the fertilizer industry taking up the lion’s share of the demand.
To kick-start the race, the government had recently launched a green hydrogen policy with the aim of producing 5MT of green hydrogen per year by 2030. Prior to this policy, India initiated an ambitious National hydrogen mission in 2021 to turn India into a global hub for green hydrogen production. Under this mission, India is aiming to produce 3/4th of its hydrogen from greener sources by 2050, which could help India achieve its self-set target of 450 GW of Renewable Energy by 2030.
The TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) report estimated that India would need 40 MT of green hydrogen to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. However, for India to reach such levels of production at competitive prices and to stay afloat in this race, it needs to work upon the bottlenecks like the inability of the existing grids to absorb the additional load, lack of adequate research, high costs of electrolyser technology, lack of mapping of prospective hydrogen storage sites, the heavy reliance of Chinese imports for solar panels, etc.
Can Green Hydrogen Out-Power Fossil Fuels?
Today, most of the manufactured hydrogen is being sourced from natural gas, which is an energy-intensive process and emits huge amounts of Carbon dioxide. Only a small share is produced through electrolysis. The energy watchdog IEA reported that in 2020, hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels accounted for less than 0.1% of the total global energy consumption. However, it is expected to grow up to 10% by 2050. Green hydrogen, as we have discussed above, is today three times more expensive to produce than grey hydrogen. But the costs have been halved in the past 10 years. As the cost of renewable sources-based power continues to shrink, the economies of scale around green hydrogen production kick in, and it could get a lot cheaper. International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that by the mid-2030s green hydrogen could cost-compete with fossil-based hydrogen.
At least till then, Fossil based fuels are going to remain the mainstay of the world’s energy matrix. Our infrastructure, particularly post-industrial revolution, is built to operate on Fossil fuels, and that implies that our infrastructure would have to undergo a rehaul to be able to run on alternative fuels like hydrogen. This is not only a time-consuming task but also incurs huge costs. Fossil fuels still have an edge over green hydrogen in many aspects like ease of handling, cost of production, well-established logistical support, ready availability, etc. Even most of the alternative fuels are being produced from fossil fuels. It doesn’t make much difference to the global carbon footprint if the electricity that drives E-vehicles comes from thermal stations. Similarly, lithium batteries that power E-vehicles still need fossil fuels to mine lithium.
Future Course of Action
IEA has spelled out a few key recommendations to national governments to fasten up the transition:
- Establish a role for hydrogen in long-term energy strategies.
- Stimulate commercial demand for clean hydrogen.
- Address investment risks of first-movers.
- Support R&D to bring down costs.
- Eliminate unnecessary regulatory barriers and harmonise standards.
- Engage internationally and track progress.
The transition to green hydrogen will not happen overnight, and the path is riddled with setbacks and challenges. And green hydrogen cannot single-handedly replace fossil fuels. What is more feasible and practical is to attain a combination of several sustainable options, each one to be used based on its viability and merits. But the transition needs to start now, as it may take a few decades to reach a place where green hydrogen starts making a recognisable impact. The fundamental point is that the transition is possible as long as we are ready to brace up for the transitory turbulence.
- What is green hydrogen? Could it transform energy in South Asia? (thethirdpole.net)
- WEF 2022 Davos: Why India’s clean energy lies with green hydrogen, not blue | Business Standard News (business-standard.com)
- The Future of Hydrogen – Analysis – IEA
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- Green Hydrogen: Challenges for Commercialization – IEEE Smart Grid
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- Green Hydrogen: Could It Be Key to a Carbon-Free Economy? – Yale E360
- India’s place in the new hydrogen world order | The Third Pole