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What Contains 3 Times More Energy Than Gasoline, But Produces Zero CO2?

It’s the most abundant element in the universe. Pound for pound, it carries three times the energy of gasoline, but when burned it produces no harmful emissions — only water vapor. Yet in the effort to decarbonize our economies, as wind turbines and solar panels are raised, it almost seems like hydrogen has been left out of the conversation.


Now, it seems, things are changing.


Last month, the EU set out a renewable hydrogen strategy, sketching a roadmap for how the world’s largest trading bloc intends to develop hydrogen production and usage through 2050. Also last month, the German government announced it would invest €9 billion ($10.7 billion) in its own national hydrogen strategy.


Now, the U.K.’s Hydrogen Taskforce, a coalition of companies and industry bodies, has called on the government to recognize hydrogen as a key component for a “green recovery” from Britain’s historic recession. In a recent economic impact assessment, the coalition found that in order to hit its decarbonization targets, Britain would need 125.3 terawatt hours of hydrogen in use by 2035. By way of comparison, the country used 301.76 terawatt hours of energy last year, meaning hydrogen could potentially account for just under 42% of British energy in 2035—assuming a similar level of demand.


But the Taskforce contends that the economic argument for hydrogen is, if anything, more compelling than the environmental one: the advocacy group found that hydrogen could be worth £18 billion ($23.8 billion) to the economy by 2035, while creating 75,000 jobs.


“The sort of projections that we use here are ones which we believe are eminently achievable,” says Clare Jackson, a senior consultant at Ecuity Consulting and lead on the Hydrogen Taskforce Secretariat. “But they’re also dependent on industry and government taking certain steps over the next two years to kickstart that sort of scaling up.”


To that end, the Taskforce has laid out a set of recommendations it says the government should follow if it is to succeed in developing a scalable hydrogen sector. Most important of these, it says, is the necessity for a nationwide hydrogen strategy, along the lines of that set out by the EU, to set clear goals. “A hydrogen strategy is something the U.K. doesn’t have, and it’s kind of a glaring omission that it doesn’t have one,” Jackson says.


In addition to a roadmap, the early phase of H2 development will require substantial financial backing from the government—“in the order of £1 billion,” according to Jackson—along with regulatory and legislative changes to enable the use of hydrogen for such uses as heating.


If conditions are right, the Taskforce says Britain will be well placed to become a world leader in hydrogen, with a potentially huge export market as other demand in other economies rises. The Hydrogen Council, an international initiative similar to the British Hydrogen Taskforce, forecasts that the global hydrogen market could be worth $2.5 trillion by 2050.


But there are other hurdles to overcome—not least the technical obstacles. At present, the categories of hydrogen production are often split by color: brown, gray, blue and green. The dirtiest—brown and gray hydrogen, captured from coal and natural gas—create the most emissions and yet are the most widespread forms of hydrogen production, responsible for up to 95% of the H2 produced worldwide.


A more climate-friendly form of H2 is blue hydrogen. While this is also produced from natural gas, blue hydrogen production uses carbon capture utilization and storage technologies (CCUS) to prevent the emitted CO2 from entering the atmosphere. The captured CO2 is compressed into a liquid state that can be stored in subterranean repositories such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs.


In the long-term, blue hydrogen is seen as an intermediate step towards the cleanest form of H2, green hydrogen—so called because its production emits little or even zero carbon. Green hydrogen can be produced by separating hydrogen from water via electrolysis, though other technologies are emerging. When the electricity used to perform the process comes from renewable sources, green hydrogen becomes truly zero carbon.


But green hydrogen production is still in its infancy. While the U.K. government has offered token sums for green hydrogen research and development, the country has not yet made a significant commitment to backing the technology.


However, in a report released last week, the government showed interest in the promotion of specific financial tools for the near-term support of blue and green hydrogen development, most notably with mechanisms known as contracts for difference (CFDs), which cover developers’ high upfront costs while “making up the difference” during periods of volatility, thereby protecting investors and consumers.


The Hydrogen Taskforce told it expects the government to release a hydrogen strategy next year. Given adequate investment, the body believes the country will be on track to produce those 125.3 terawatt hours by 2035. Notably, the Taskforce forecasts that 80% of that hydrogen will be blue, with just 20% being green.


Sara Walker, director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI), says that’s okay—as long as effective carbon capture technology is in place.


“CCUS is estimated to capture 97% of emissions, and there is a relatively small amount of methane from the gas network in the form of leaks, ​so it isn’t an emissions-free option,”​ Walker says. “To ensure blue hydrogen has a place in the future UK energy system, we need to move rapidly to prove large scale CCUS,​ and at the same time reduce the cost of green hydrogen.”


Laura Brown, center manager at CESI, says one of hydrogen’s strengths is its ability to complement existing infrastructure.


“There is a concern to go ‘all-electric’ for heat and transport would require a wholesale rebuild or a massive expansion of the existing transmission network,” Brown says. “There is also a concern that if we ban [natural] gas then we walk away from the investment already made in the extensive pipe network.”


By providing an alternative source of carbon-free fuel to electricity, Brown says, hydrogen can help alleviate the strain on overburdened grids. Further, as a report from The Institution of Engineering and Technology points out, gas networks can be converted to carry hydrogen at relatively little expense. With an established mains gas network serving more than 80% of British homes, much of the infrastructure needed to distribute the “new” fuel already exists.


In addition, “the U.K. already has a competitive advantage in hydrogen: it’s good for utilising oil and gas sector skills and expertise,” Brown says. This is a reference to the employment market attached to the North Sea oil and gas fields, particularly in Scotland and the northeast of England. Many skills learned in the oil and gas sector are applicable within the hydrogen industry: for example, the knowhow acquired from oil and gas drilling is applicable in the pumping of CO2 back into bedrock. Such applications can offer a route to develop new jobs for a workforce under threat from the decline of oil and gas fields.


Indeed, none of the promise of hydrogen has been lost on the fossil fuel companies, with oil giants Shell and BP being two of the key backers of the Hydrogen Taskforce. “I think it’s only now that the fossil fuel company investors are pressuring for a green future,” Brown says. “I guess they are seeing the narrative shift toward carbon taxes as well, which they will be keen to avoid.”


Neverthless, as hydrogen moves forward, other challenges will emerge. And as Sara Walker emphasizes, H2 is just one of the tools that should be used to help decarbonize the economy.


“The potential for hydrogen is exciting but we need to keep the bigger picture in focus and recognise that hydrogen is one of several energy carriers that could play a role for energy in the UK and around the world,” Walker explains. “What is missing from the conversation is the competing uses for our energy.”


For example?


“If hydrogen is used heavily in mobility—aviation, shipping, rail and public transport—then what capacity is left for use in industry, in electricity generation, and in heating?” she asks.


Competing uses within and across sectors, Walker says, can be better explored by taking what she calls an “energy systems integration” approach, in which energy carriers and other technologies are combined and assessed empirically to maximize efficiency and minimize waste.


To this end, academics from CESI and eight British universities have been at work on a regional renewable energy strategy for the north of England. Titled Net Zero North, the project brings together eight universities along with businesses and communities to support green-focused economic growth in an area of the country that has suffered disproportionately from the U.K.’s loss of manufacturing and industry. Alongside other incubators such as the North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster, which aims to save 10 million tonnes of carbon per year by decarbonizing industry, there are indications that the region is set to become a testbed for what a zero carbon economy could look like.


For the time being, it remains unclear what sort of commitment the U.K. government is willing to make to hydrogen. What is clear is that any plan for decarbonization must incorporate the tools with the best potential for growing the stricken economy while slashing emissions. With its near-limitless versatility, hydrogen could be one of the best zero-carbon options available—if it’s done right.


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