Heat, transport, storage, industry: Could hydrogen hold the key to decarbonization?

Heat, transport, storage, industry: Could hydrogen hold the key to decarbonization?

hydrogen molecules
Shutterstock Anusorn Nakdee
H2 is one of two stable isotopes of hydrogen.

The use of clean hydrogen technologies by transport and industry present "big opportunities" for the U.K. economy, but coordinated leadership from government and industry is needed to rapidly get the ball rolling on development.

That is the key conclusion from a new analysis by think tank Policy Exchange released last week, which argues investment in cost-effective hydrogen production technologies such as electrolysis would open up export opportunities for the United Kingdom, while also supporting the government's Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth agenda.

Hydrogen is "the most abundant element in the universe," can be produced sustainably and only produces water vapor when burned, the report emphasizes. As a fuel, it is 40 percent more efficient than diesel, while it also has the potential to store energy or replace natural gas for heating.

But today's report, which assesses the potential of hydrogen to be used as a future energy source across a number of industries and processes, warns the U.K. risks missing out on H2's green economy potential unless development and investment efforts are rapidly stepped up.

It calls for increased investment to be focused on research and development (R&D) efforts to lower the cost of hydrogen production via clean methods such as electrolysis — which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using clean power sources and has the potential to provide energy flexibility and storage services to help balance intermittent renewable electricity sources. But the analysis is skeptical of the use of hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas in heating.

In particular, it points to Scotland and northeast England as opportunities for hydrogen production hubs, offering potential to produce H2 using renewable electricity sources such as wind power, or through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

Across industry, the analysis estimates that if natural gas currently used in industry were completely replaced by hydrogen, it could cut industrial emissions by as much as 71 percent. But it stresses more R&D in hydrogen infrastructure is needed to make this a cost-effective option for businesses.

In the short term, meanwhile, long-distance freight offers the best opportunities for implementing hydrogen use at scale, according to the report, which calls on national and local government to work with businesses to invest in the necessary refueling network as well as innovation grants for pilots.

It follows a recent deep dive into current technological innovations across the transport sector by BNEF founder Michael Liebreich, who also pointed to long-distance trucking as potentially well-suited for hydrogen fuelled vehicles.

Joshua Burke, lead author of the report and senior research fellow for energy and environment at Policy Exchange, said while hydrogen's versatility offered big opportunities for transitioning to a low carbon economy, the U.K. remains "far from realizing them yet."

"Two issues need addressing," he explained. "Firstly, we need to focus on getting cost-effective, scalable and sustainable production methods to reach mass market. Targeting investment towards reducing the high cost of producing large volumes of low carbon hydrogen is crucial. Secondly, we must decide the most appropriate applications of hydrogen within our economy, given potential uses are likely to be highly interconnected and this will have implications for the energy system."

 The report looks in depth at the potential for hydrogen in domestic heating, but is far less optimistic about its potential in this area, despite high profile U.K. projects looking at this in Leeds and at Keele University.

It estimates that blending 20 percent H2 into the existing gas network could deliver only around a 5 percent cut in carbon emissions, while blending 20 percent of hydrogen into the gas network without use of CCS technologies actually could increase CO2 by between 1.7 percent and 3.4 percent. The lack of CCS, therefore, "poses a barrier" to clean hydrogen production, the report stated.

Moreover, fully replacing natural gas on the grid with hydrogen by 2050, bolstered by large-scale H2 production starting in 2030, would require a minimum of 6GW of new hydrogen capacity to be built in the U.K. each year over the next two decades, it added. This represents a growth rate three times faster than the rapidly growing wind sector has achieved, and means converting gas grids to run entirely on hydrogen "may not even be possible in a liberalized market," the report stated.

It therefore concludes that, rather than heating, the focus for hydrogen investment and development should be prioritized on other parts of the economy where it is more scalable and cost-effective, such as long distance heavy goods vehicles on the roads, as well as trains and shipping.

"Challenges to decarbonizing the domestic heating remain," added Burke. "As there is no silver bullet, decarbonizing hard to reach sectors will need a nuanced approach, with an understanding that no one measure will suit every area. For example, we might see a hydrogen transport hub in the North East, heat pumps in rural off-grid areas and district heating networks in areas that are heat dense and where CHP plants are being developed."

Hydrogen is backed by many as potential solution for decarbonizing hard-to-reach areas of the economy, but it largely remains a nascent technology despite some high profile investment efforts.

Earlier this year the U.K. government announced a raft of funding for green hydrogen technologies. The Committee on Climate Change is also preparing to publish a review of the importance of hydrogen in meeting the U.K.'s long-term carbon targets in November, which will consider its use across all sectors including transport, industry and for heating buildings.

And across Europe, the use of hydrogen as a future clean energy form was also on the agenda at an informal meeting of EU national energy ministers Monday and Tuesday, at which states committed to continuing research and investment in the production and use of hydrogen technology.

Welcoming what was dubbed the Hydrogen Initiative, EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said renewable hydrogen could in future play an important role in both transport and energy storage.

"Green hydrogen offers significant potential for the decarbonization of the European economy," he said. "The commission warmly welcomes the hydrogen initiative as it will further harness the innovative drive across the EU."

Long heralded as a potential game-changer for decarbonization programs thanks to its versatility across heating, energy storage, transport and industry, hydrogen has struggled to catch on as a genuine, cost-effective contender across any of these sectors so far. But as the lower hanging fruits of decarbonization — electricity generation and EVs, for example — are being plucked, advocates will hope attention starts turning towards how to tackle more challenging decarbonization, areas where hydrogen might just provide an answer.

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