Hydrogen Is Happening: Is This More Hype or an Important Part of Our Climate Future?

The targeted strategy of Germany’s hydrogen pilot projects and national hydrogen plan

What Hydrogen Can Actually Do

It’s worth noting what hydrogen is and isn’t. It’s a gas that is rare in our atmosphere and doesn’t exist on the planet as a pure fuel that can be somehow mined. It can, however, be formed in a number of ways, some more polluting than others, and then transported and stored before being used. In short, it serves as an energy carrier from where it’s made to where it’s used, whether that is in the form of combustion or in an electricity-generating fuel cell. The process of transporting hydrogen and storing it needs to ensure safety; options include binding it to other molecules, such as carbon, to create a stable liquid fuel or storage medium. The most critical aspect for climate policy, however, is the way hydrogen is made.

Picking A Flavor: Gray, Green, Blue, or Turquoise

To date, most hydrogen has been made by stripping H2 out of fossil fuels, primarily natural gas. This means that a lot of waste carbon is generated, emitting as much as 10 tons of CO2 (!) into the atmosphere for every 1 ton of hydrogen produced (BMWi Energiewende Direkt). Used today for industrial processes, this approach is called ‘gray hydrogen.’

(photo credit Joyce McCown)
Just like in a high-school science experiment, electricity can be used to split water into pure hydrogen and oxygen (IMG_4784 by V31S70 is licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Putting Green Hydrogen into Pilot Mode Today

In July 2019, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy awarded grants under a new Reallabore der Energiewende program, designed to test out scientific concepts in real-world settings. These pilot projects now underway across Germany provide a fascinating look at some of the ways that a targeted use of green hydrogen could decarbonize our energy use. Awarding €200 million across 20 winning proposals, the program focuses on “low- or no-carbon hydrogen” as one of the key themes (BMWi Reallabore der Energiewende) and accelerates creative concepts proposed by a wide range of stakeholders.

Could refining iron ore with hydrogen mean greener steel? (photo credit zephylwer0)

From Pilot to Practice: What Scaling Up Looks Like

In June, the German Ministry of Economy and Energy released the National Hydrogen Strategy, designed to start shaping the infrastructure that will be needed, and to provide researchers and industry with a more certainty on policy direction. Taking a huge step to fund this vision, the federal government announced in June that €9 billion of post-pandemic recovery funds will be devoted exclusively to hydrogen (Deutschlandfunk).

Targeted transportation applications: this prototype hydrogen fuel-cell train is being tested in the Netherlands for non-electrified rail lines (photo credit hpgruesen).

The Scale is Significant

To be clear, the scale of the hydrogen need, even in these focus sectors, is still significant. Germany’s steel industry alone will need 100 terawatt-hours (TWh) of hydrogen each year to replace fossil fuels. That is a full 15% of all of the electricity generated in Germany (BMWi Strommarkt der Zukunft). The 5 GW of green hydrogen generation being built in the next ten years is equal to about 4% of all renewable energy plants in the country. As a result, it is clear that a country like Germany will continue to need to import energy, but largely in the form of green hydrogen.

photo credit Shaah Shahidh

Takeaways

Both the pilots underway and the vision for a scaled-up hydrogen economy are ambitious, to say the least, especially as we consider the idea of creating a global trade of hydrogen as an energy carrier.

Cities + climate + energy transformation

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