7 years, 3 days, 17 hours, 54 minutes, 3 seconds. That’s how much time the world has left before irreversible changes in our climate alter life on Earth as we know it, according to the scientists and artists behind Manhattan’s Climate Clock, unveiled in September 2020.
This does not mean that scientists and energy experts do not have hope. One of the budding ideas brought on as the realities of climate change become more and more explicit? Hydrogen.
And, of course, hydrogen must be the future of the world’s energy. Why else would Europe allocate over half of its EUR 750 billion economic recovery package to build out infrastructure to electrolyze hydrogen? Why else would the European Union (EU) commit to installing 40 gigawatts of electrolyzers within its borders by 2030 when there are currently only 250 megawatts across the globe? Only something that is absolutely foolproof would warrant a 15,900 percent increase in just 10 years, right?
The reality is, unfortunately, not so cut and dry. Hydrogen itself burns clean, emitting only water upon combustion; however, it takes a lot of energy to extract hydrogen for use. And the way in which it is extracted and prepared warrants much more scrupulous attention.
In order to effectively leverage hydrogen as a power source, we must first tackle the issues surrounding how to harness zero-emission hydrogen. Or, we must accept that pushing for hydrogen sounds nice and acknowledge that this push for hydrogen is an attempt to greenwash a resource that cannot feasibly be considered clean.
Different Types of Hydrogen
- Green Hydrogen: Hydrogen produced using electrolysis from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
- Blue Hydrogen: Hydrogen produced using fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide into the air as they combust. Blue hydrogen differs from Gray Hydrogen in that it incorporates carbon capture and storage (CCS) to prevent CO2 from being released, enabling the captured carbon to be stored deep underground or utilized in industrial processes.
- Gray Hydrogen: Hydrogen produced using fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide into the air as they combust. There is no CCS associated with gray hydrogen.
Problems with Hydrogen as an Energy Source
Both blue and green hydrogen have their problems. Blue hydrogen locks in dependence on natural gas, with all the price volatility and geopolitics that come with it. This type of hydrogen also relies on the development of cheap and effective CCS. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, requires cheaper electricity than is currently available as well as an end market for hydrogen that can sustain high electrolyzer utilization rates.
While green hydrogen seems like a viable solution, the uncompetitive pricing and lack of infrastructure make the idea much more far-reaching than presented by the EU and hydrogen proponents. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has piggybacked on this movement, advocating for blue hydrogen.
While it could be to avoid lengthy scientific explanations about the reality of hydrogen, or in an attempt to greenwash the energy source, most utility companies, and others in the oil and gas industry, find a way to neglect the not-so-green implications of blue hydrogen. And, when they do discuss the viability of blue hydrogen, the efficiency is typically grossly overstated.
Blue Hydrogen Efficiency
One of the principal challenges for blue hydrogen is that as things stand, the CCS technology it depends on is not widespread at the required efficiency levels—60 to 70 percent is more common than the 95 percent that would be required for net-zero credentials.
Without higher efficiency rates, switching to blue hydrogen would not disrupt the carbon emissions substantially enough to make any impact on climate change. The Climate Clock will keep ticking, and we will inevitably see the life-altering effects of climate change, threatened by the scientists and artists behind this New York art installation, come to fruition.
Solar-Backed Hydrogen Solution
If hydrogen is in fact the answer, then solar is the missing variable to solve the equation. Investing further into solar technology should be the first step if we ever want to attain zero-emission hydrogen power.
In order to create an accessible and clean hydrogen-centric energy grid, a significant drop in renewable energy costs would have to come first, as electrolysis requires huge amounts of energy. While this decrease in cost would have to be substantial, there is evidence that supports its feasibility.
In its Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 report, the International Renewable Energy Agency stated, “Since 2010, the cost of energy has dropped by 82 percent for photovoltaic solar, by 47 percent for concentrated solar energy, by 39 percent for onshore wind and by 29 percent for wind offshore.”
Not only has the cost of solar gone down almost 100 percent in 10 years, the prices have dropped over 13 percent since just 2018. The rapid growth of the solar industry coupled with the leaps and bounds scientists have made in regard to photovoltaic technology are two of the leading factors. One can infer that, considering a sustained emphasis on solar, these prices will continue to fall, opening the door to green hydrogen across the globe.
While the future of energy has not yet been determined, if we want to embrace hydrogen as the savior solution, we have to acknowledge its limitations and invest first in a solar infrastructure that can support it.
About the Author
Oren Tamir, CEO of NRG Clean Power, has decades of clean energy experience. He leveraged his passion for clean energy along with his business acumen to propel NRG Clean Power as a solar leader across both California and Texas. He stays true to his company’s mission to change the way energy is produced, consumed and stored. He believes that energy production should be decentralized, deregulated, affordable and most importantly, renewable.