FEATURE: Future Power Technology – The long march of hydrogen: are we there yet?

Long touted as a clean energy saviour, the use of hydrogen to replace fossil fuels has not yet reached its supposed potential. But with a number of global initiatives firmly underway to develop the relevant technology and infrastructure, could that soon change?

On a brisk autumnal October day, the world’s first hydrogen-powered ship docked along the Thames in London. The Energy Observer catamaran, which had already travelled 18,000 miles, produces hydrogen to power itself by sucking up sea water as it sails along. The vessel, which is sponsored by ENGIE, among others, is on a six-year, zero emissions voyage around the world to demonstrate how hydrogen fuel can decarbonise the shipping industry.

As hydrogen’s proponents are quick to point out, shipping isn’t the only sector that can be decarbonised by swapping out fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel, which releases only water when burned with oxygen, can run through established gas networks to power anything from domestic boilers to trains and cars, while hydrogen fuel cells offer an alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

But this isn’t new information. Hydrogen has been touted as a replacement to fossil fuels for almost 20 years – yet it is still not widely used in any sector.

New investment in hydrogen

Many European countries have new initiatives for the development of hydrogen, which they believe will help the continent meet its carbon reduction targets. Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland have established the Nordic Energy Research centre to enhance biohydrogen capacity. Germany’s Economy Ministry has said it will give €100m a year to 20 labs to test new hydrogen technologies. The UK government in 2017 launched a £20m hydrogen supply programme to accelerate the development of low carbon bulk hydrogen supply solutions. And, at the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth in June, the EU, US and Japan announced a trilateral cooperation on developing hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

Furthermore, as highlighted in The International Energy Agency’s new report, The Future of Hydrogen, there are now several major hydrogen projects in development. These include the H21 Leeds City Gate Project, which will convert its pipeline network for 100% pure hydrogen use, and H2 Mobility, which will build and operate several hundred hydrogen stations in German metropolitan areas.

But industry and corporations are calling for more to be done. German gas pipeline company FNB’s Posch has called for the local natural gas system to carry a mandated share of renewable and decarbonated gases, including hydrogen, starting at 1% in 2021 and rising to 10% by 2030.

Many heavily gas reliant European countries, such as the UK and Germany, could use its extensive existing gas infrastructure to transport hydrogen instead of or alongside gas. The UK government’s 2017 Clean Growth Plan notes that conversion of natural gas networks to 100% hydrogen could be a large-scale credible option for decarbonization.

Under the UK’s Hydrogen Supply programme, heating and hot water products manufacturer Worcester Bosch has developed a hydrogen boiler prototype for people’s homes. Martyn Bridges, director of marketing and technical support at Worcester Bosch, says the company will start offering hydrogen ready boilers soon. While he doesn’t expect them to be using hydrogen right away, he believes they will in the future.

“There’s around 250,000km of pipework carrying natural gas to every home with a public value of around £40bn, the last thing the government wants to do is just disconnect that,” he says.

According to a report by the company, using this existing infrastructure, the UK can decarbonise heat and hot water generation without radically changing the way 85% of households heat their homes. This would cost three times less than the government’s current aim of electrification, it states.

Is it finally time for hydrogen?

According to a recent McKinsey report, at scale, hydrogen could meet 18% of the world’s energy demand and abate 6 gigatons of CO2 annually.

However, key factors prohibiting the development of a thriving hydrogen sector is the need for major investment in the associated infrastructure. The Hydrogen Council estimates that investments of $280bn are required through 2030, 60% of which is needed for scaling up the production, storage, and distribution of hydrogen.

This lack of large-scale commitment to hydrogen production facilities and infrastructure has held back the hydrogen economy, says Jim Gregory, business development manager, alternative fuels, Luxfer Gas Cylinders.

“The infrastructure for fossil fuels – oil fields, pipelines and tankers etc – was developed over 100 years as air travel, cars and electricity spread around the globe. We will need a monumental effort to replace this with renewables such as hydrogen and battery power; to meet our [carbon reduction] commitments by 2050, we have 30 years to make the investment that previously took 100 years,” he says.