Hydrogen has been touted as a fuel of the future, with oil and gas companies and governments hailing it as the solution to decarbonizing parts of the economy that are not easily electrified.
Yet fuel has already seen false dawn, and the energy majors that support hydrogen must step up their efforts to explain what role they see it playing and the sectors it could transform.
Equinor, Norway’s state-backed energy company that changed its name to Statoil in 2018, is currently developing a vision for investors that it says demonstrates the wide range of potential uses for fuel. They range from decarbonizing the steel industry to powering the ships that underpin global trade, according to the group.
Irene Rummelhoff, Head of Marketing, Midstream and Transformation, says Equinor’s support for hydrogen makes simple logic: As governments commit to achieving net zero targets to reduce carbon emissions, clean forms of hydrogen will become economically viable.
âIt comes down to politics and political will,â says Rummelhoff. “We expect hydrogen and carbon capture and storage activities to start after 2030.”
Green hydrogen, which is made from renewable energy, or blue hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas but whose resulting carbon emissions are captured and stored, will go towards the replacement of the hydrogen produced with less green methods (see box below).
Royal Dutch Shell, for example, recently launched what is billed as the world’s largest hydrogen electrolyzer at one of its German refineries – which will be powered by offshore wind – to provide a cleaner fuel source. .
But while such projects are expected to reduce carbon emissions and test how far green hydrogen can be scaled up, some are also targeting broader applications for fuel, beyond industry.
Already, hydrogen is used in heavier transport such as buses, where it is seen as a cheaper alternative to battery power.
âWhen it comes to decarbonizing transport, the hardest thing to change is people,â says Jo Bamford, president of Wrightbus, which develops double-decker hydrogen buses in the UK.
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He argues that a bus can be filled with liquid hydrogen at about the same time it takes to refuel diesel, while battery-powered buses require a long charge – which is a problem for depots. buses close to city centers where land use is at a premium. The cost of hydrogen, according to Bamford, is less of an issue when competing with heavily taxed transport fuels in countries like the UK.
“The price you need for [for transport] is around Â£ 6.30 per kilogram, âhe explains. “On the gas network, it is rather 2 Â£ / kg because you are in competition with [untaxed] natural gas. We’re not there yet, but I think we can get there pretty quickly.
The use of hydrogen to replace gas to power the grid remains one of the great hopes of proponents of hydrogen.
Equinor is investing in three power plant projects in the UK that will use all or part of hydrogen and carbon capture storage. Perhaps the most ambitious is the Keadby power plant it is developing with the British energy company SSE, which aims to be the first large-scale power plant to be powered 100% by hydrogen.
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The cost of hydrogen, for now, means that initial plans call for the Keadby plant to scale up operations when electricity costs are higher, such as when solar and wind production is lower or when the power supply is lower. demand peaked.
âThe idea is to manage this flexibly,â says Rummelhoff. “It’s something between a basic power plant and a ‘peaker’ [power plant]. “
The cost of green and blue hydrogen is expected to become more competitive as carbon prices rise, adding an effective penalty to more polluting fuels.
Producers also hope that low-emission products can attract higher prices from companies keen to reduce their carbon footprint. Steel is an industry – highly energy-intensive and traditionally polluting – where the concept of “clean steel” produced with hydrogen is gaining traction with customers such as car manufacturer Volvo.
But one of the biggest areas of hydrogen growth could be at sea, using ammonia to store hydrogen and power ships, rather than liquid hydrogen.
Bjarne Foldager, of Man Energy Solutions in Germany, says he expects to see ammonia-fueled ships within three years. âIt’s a feasible way to store, transport and transport large amounts of energy on board ships,â Foldager explains. âGreen ammonia is a simple way to transport hydrogen in large quantities. It is not possible to do this with hydrogen alone on large transport vessels.
Again, however, this will require companies to take a flexible approach. Rummelhoff says Equinor is testing one of its own ships with liquid hydrogen, but is also starting to invest in ammonia production.
âShips running on LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) may in the future be converted to run on ammonia. The ships should be able to sail for months without having to refuel because of its energy density, âshe said. âWe are trying to position ourselves for the future.
The colors of the hydrogen rainbow
Green hydrogen Made using clean electricity from renewable energy technologies to electrolyze water (H2O), separating the hydrogen atom it contains from its twin molecular oxygen. At the moment, very expensive.
Blue hydrogen Produced using natural gas but with carbon emissions captured and stored, or reused. But negligible amounts are produced due to a lack of carbon capture projects.
Gray hydrogen It is the most common form of hydrogen production: it comes from natural gas via steam methane reforming but without capturing emissions.
Brown hydrogen The cheapest way to produce hydrogen but also the most damaging to the environment due to the use of thermal coal in the production process.
Hydrogen turquoise Uses a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon. But that’s not proven on a large scale, and there are concerns about methane leaks.