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Caroline Burke / Gavel Media

Hydrogen: Green Resource of the Future or Hindenberg-Sized Mistake?

In response to the challenges posed by climate change, companies and countries worldwide have delved into alternative energy sources to combat humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels. Popular options for power generation include solar and wind, making up the steadily increasing non-renewables section and getting closer to beating out coal. Electric vehicles (EVs) have also rapidly gained popularity, with 6.6 million sold in 2021. However, hydrogen, an emerging technology, is being investigated as a clean alternative power source. Supporters laud its reliability and versatility which make it an ideal substitute for fossil fuels, while critics call it a pipe dream that ignores more realistic technologies. However, one cannot deny its growing importance. In 2019, at the time of the Group of Twenty (G20) meeting, only France, South Korea and Japan had hydrogen strategies; today that number has grown to 17, with 20 more nations developing plans as well.

Hydrogen has a wide range of applications with the potential to lower emissions everywhere from electricity generation to cars to steelmaking. However, its viability is wracked with controversy. Since the technology is still in its infancy, operation costs are higher than alternative means of energy production. It is obvious that hydrogen is not a dominant technology today, with solar, wind, and battery-powered EVs taking up most of the market. However, advocates argue that further research and development could make it significantly cheaper than other renewable energy sources, meaning that hydrogen could be the clean oil of tomorrow. With a predicted market size of $219 billion by 2030 and 7% of global energy demand by 2050, hydrogen is a technology that future decarbonization efforts cannot ignore.

Despite being pitched as a clean energy alternative, whether or not hydrogen can practically be fully emission-free is still up for debate. The key crux of the debate comes down to the differences in hydrogen generation. Today much of the gas is made using methane from natural gas (or alternatively renewable but still polluting biogas) in a process dubbed gray hydrogen. 99% of hydrogen used for manufacturing is gray hydrogen according to Forbes. However, gray hydrogen produces CO2 emissions, which in turn can be negated with carbon capture technology, at which point it turns into blue hydrogen. Alternatively, hydrogen production can bypass producing any emissions in a process called green hydrogen. Green hydrogen makes use of electrolysis, the process of using electricity to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. In such a case, electricity supplied by green power sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric is sufficient. The process can also be further categorized into pink hydrogen (green hydrogen powered by nuclear) and yellow hydrogen (green hydrogen powered by solar), though blue vs green dominates the debate. (Petrofac)

Proponents of blue hydrogen, among them large corporations such as BP PLC, Equinor ASA, and Uniper SE, view it as a more practical solution than green hydrogen. In terms of price, blue hydrogen holds the advantage, with production prices as low as $2/kg compared to over $4/kg for green hydrogen (prices vary depending on the price of natural gas). Others see blue hydrogen as a transitory technology, acting as a “bridge to [a] green hydrogen future,” as S&P puts it. However, opponents like Chris Jackson, the former chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, see blue hydrogen as “at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonization goals.” The quoted words were part of his resignation in protest of blue hydrogen efforts. Blue hydrogen's long-term viability is disputed on multiple fronts. A US study found that if the carbon capture involved in blue hydrogen was powered by natural gas, the process would produce 20% more emissions overall compared to not using the method. And blue hydrogen’s selling point of price is not assured to stay; Bloomberg predicts that by 2030, green hydrogen will be cheaper than blue hydrogen anywhere in the world (i.e. regardless of natural gas prices), putting a less than 8-year lifespan on any blue hydrogen projects today hoping to stay competitive.

In addition to challenges regarding generation, the highly flammable gas also presents a massive logistical challenge. The US currently only has around 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines, compared to the over 190,000 miles of oil pipelines and 2.4 million miles of natural gas pipelines (American Petroleum Institute). Existing natural gas pipelines can be converted to hydrogen, but with the need to modify compressors, turbines, motors, and other components, the cost would be substantial. More flexible transport in the form of vehicles is much further along compared to pipelines. Hydrogen transport trucks are already existing technology that is poised to expand, with Businesswire predicting a rise in the market from $276.3 million in 2020 to $498.6 million in 2026 (CAGR of 10.3%). Transporting hydrogen by sea is just starting to come into development. Earlier this year, Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ Suiso Frontier, the world’s first hydrogen tanker ship, completed its maiden voyage from Kobe (Japan) to Melbourne (Australia). 

One of the most prominent applications of hydrogen is the development of hydrogen-powered cars, or Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs). The fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity that powers the car, emitting only water vapor in the process. Yet despite existing models, the term “electric vehicle” is most often used to refer only to battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs), a slight misnomer that makes sense when you look at the distribution of BEV charging stations to FCEV refueling stations. Aside from the areas around LA and San Francisco, FCEV refueling stations don’t exist, meaning most Americans likely have never come across one. Such trends are reflected in market predictions as well. The BEV market currently massively outweighs the FCEV market and is predicted to do so in the near future. By 2030, the global BEV market is expected to reach $823.74 billion compared to only $35.6 billion for FCEVs. As for existing FCEV vehicles, sales are not promising. According to a September 2019 Reuters article, Toyota’s Mirai, released in 2014, has sold less than 10,000 units, while Hyundai’s Nexo, released in March 2018, sold less than 2,900 units. The author places the blame on a chicken and egg scenario: not enough FCEVs to make refueling stations worth the investment, and not enough refueling stations to make FCEVs viable.

Despite the widespread dominance of BEVs, FCEVs possess the advantage of quick refueling times, taking the same time to fill your hydrogen tank as to fill a gas one. Because they run off of batteries, BEVs require time to charge, which typically takes around 8 hours to go from 0 to 100% when using a 7kw charging point, but depending on the battery and charger, can range anywhere from 30 minutes to over 12 hours. Most drivers who aren’t on the road 24/7 might ask why FCEVs, which require significant investment in refueling stations, are worth it when BEVs can just be charged overnight. However, bigger vehicles such as trucks or buses that are on the road more often may benefit more from the quicker refueling times of FCEVs. For commercial vehicles, every minute not spent transporting people or goods is lost efficiency, which translates into lost money, meaning hydrogen trucks and buses may have a big enough advantage over battery-powered trucks. A quick google search lists multiple companies developing hydrogen trucks, from newcomers Hyzon and Nikola to established brands Volvo, Hyundai, and Toyota. However, battery-powered vehicles are also reducing charging times, eating into the market where FCEVs supposedly had an advantage. An article from Quartz points out that with battery charging times in buses getting down to as low as 15 minutes, FCEVs may not be a viable choice in any vehicle application. But BEVs come with their own problems. The production of batteries requires 74% more CO2 than conventional cars. And to discount the potential of hydrogen due to FCEVs alone would ignore the industrial potential of using the green gas.

As hydrogen production becomes greener, traditionally high emission industries such as steel production are turning to hydrogen to reduce emissions. In 2020, the world produced 1.86 billion tons of steel, which at 1.85 metric tons of CO2 on average per ton of steel, came out to over 3 billion metric tons of CO2, or 7-9% of total CO2 emissions worldwide. The Paris Climate Agreement set a goal of 500,000 worldwide steel emissions by 2050, which would require a reduction in the average ton to just 0.2 metric tons of CO2 per ton steel, a herculean task. (C&en) To reduce emissions on such a large scale, steel companies have been pursuing new methods of reducing emissions, including using hydrogen. 

To understand the role hydrogen plays in steel production, first it helps to understand the basics of traditional steel production. The process comes in two steps: ironmaking and steelmaking, as seen in the process above. In the steelmaking part of the process companies are investing in electric arc furnaces; their reliance on electricity as opposed to heat to melt the steel enables them to be powered by renewable energy instead of burning CO2 emitting fuels. As for the ironmaking process, companies are aiming to use hydrogen to substitute fossil fuels in the process, although the specific method varies. The world’s biggest steel firm by output, China Baowu Group, is investing in “hydrogen-enriched carbon recycling blast furnaces,” while Arcelormittal, a Luxembourg company, has successfully tested partially replacing natural gas with hydrogen gas in Direct Reduction. Japanese company Nippon Steel is investigating hydrogen use in both blast furnaces and direct reduction, the latter of which promises to cut all emissions out of the process through the use of 100% hydrogen, though it remains untested. South Korean firm POSCO has signed an MoU with Australian iron ore firm Roy Hill to investigate hydrogen-based direct reduction steelmaking as well. And while the steel industry is by no means the only application for hydrogen greening in industry, its sheer scale of both production and emissions makes it an example of how hydrogen can reduce emissions and help meet climate goals.

Hydrogen, unlike other renewable technologies, is less a single technology than an element harnessed in multiple technologies. The fuel cells that power hydrogen cars are different from the reactions that promise to decarbonize steel, and they substitute different fossil fuels. Popular renewables today like battery EVs, solar, and wind focus on generating/harnessing electricity; hydrogen does not promise direct energy promises energy directly, but as a fuel, mimicking the role of fossil fuels but with an emissions-free promise. However, oftentimes adoption of technology is a question of cost and practicality, and investing in an inefficient technology wastes valuable time and resources. Hydrogen technology is still in its infancy, and promises are high. But the possibility for green hydrogen to go the way of the hydrogen blimp—ending in a fiery blaze and regarded as an impractical historical oddity—is also probable. But with investments rising and technologies being developed, it is likely that hydrogen will play a larger role in climate change discourse in the near future.