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Some like it hot – Is Hydrogen the answer to those needing it a little warmer?

image credit: Photo courtesy of Unsplash

In my recent predictions for energy over the next ten years there was one prediction I felt I could have explained a bit more. I predicted that Hydrogen would develop in pockets but I didn’t go into too much detail as to why.

An often over looked group in our drive towards zero carbon heat, are industrial processes that need higher temperatures. Examples are steel making (1000C+), glass (melting temperature 1400C+) and even recycling plastics. Heat pumps and Heat Networks only get you to sub 100 degree temperatures… and certainly won’t cut it for super high temperature industrial processes.

Substitution of products is an option – using less steel or more sustainable building materials for example. However, with increasing urbanisation the reality of the global economy is that there will remain a high amount of materials for building the cities of the future (Steel, Concrete, Glass etc).

This is where there is real potential for Hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen burns up to a cosy 2800 degrees Celsius (about 700C simply burned in air) giving plenty of opportunities for supporting those needing something a little hotter. It can also be compressed and stored so has potential for transport particularly in freight.

That said we need to be careful with how we talk about Hydrogen as a ‘green’ fuel.

‘Hydrogen is only a carrier of energy – it is not in itself Green!’

I’ve seen many an article proudly declaring that this latest Hydrogen powered boat/car/lorry is green. I’ve also see plenty of article talking about Green/Blue/Black Hydrogen as if people understand what the author is talking about as well. We need to be much more clear and honest about how we talk about Hydrogen if we are going to overcome the not insubstantial challenges ahead of us.

I’ll try and describe these below:

  • Black Hydrogen: This is Hydrogen made from natural gas usually in a process called steam reformation. (For the chemists out there take CH4 throw some steam at it and you get Carbon and Hydrogen). This is super carbon intensive. I read recently that to decarbonise the current global production of Hydrogen used in industrial processes would need the entire renewable electricity generation of the EU! – about 3500THr of electricity annually).
  • Blue Hydrogen: Pretty much Black Hydrogen but you find a way to store the carbon dioxide deep underground through CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage).
  • Green Hydrogen: Hydrogen made through electrolysis using zero carbon electricity (from Nuclear / Wind / Solar) to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen.

Hydrogen presents both an opportunity and a risk. Hydrogen distribution development projects and mixing the gas with the existing gas network present an opportunity explore the potential of a Hydrogen economy – but without a clear path to delivering Green and Blue Hydrogen they risk exacerbating an existing problem.

As BCG recently shared we may be better off focusing our Hydrogen efforts on processes where Hydrogen’s potential can be realised – rather than on areas where other technologies are already proven (i.e. domestic heating where Heat Pumps and Heat networks already show us an achievable pathway).

John Armstrong's picture

Thank John for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 16, 2020 1:48 pm GMT

 We need to be much more clear and honest about how we talk about Hydrogen if we are going to overcome the not insubstantial challenges ahead of us.

There's definitely a lot of debate amongst the Energy Central community about the merits of hydrogen and the potential it has-- but I think this can be a universally agreed upon starting point. Thanks for sharing, John. 

John Armstrong's picture
John Armstrong on Jan 16, 2020 9:04 pm GMT

Thanks Matt... Its a facinating topic. Just decarbonising what we make now would be pretty epic so it certainly needs some focus!

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Jan 17, 2020 6:45 pm GMT

In order of increasing temperature, Hydrogen burnt in air, Hydrogen burnt in pure Oxygen (recombining the result of electrolysis) and Hydrogen converted to a plasma by passing it through an electric spark and burning with pure oxygen plasma.

Ned Ford's picture
Ned Ford on Jan 18, 2020 12:52 am GMT

Let's take this a little further:   Since 2018 wind and utility scale solar contracts have been popping up under 2 cents per KWh, some, I hear closing in on a penny per KWh.   So sure, you can make hydrogen from nuclear power, but unless you use nuclear power which is fully amortized and even then may be subsidized, you are going to produce hydrogen which is too expensive for anything more than maybe proving the concept.

Cheap renewable electricity, on the other hand, is now allowing the production of hydrogen which completely rewrites the playbook.  The one thing that it doesn't do is bring the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle back into the center ring, because electric cars are just so darn convincing with their 80 cent to one dollar per gallon equivalent costs.

Here are a few things that are now - theoretically, for the time being - cheaper to do with hydrogen from renewable power:  Ammonia fertilizer, plastics and chemical feedstocks, and my favorite - storage in dedicated facilities for use in existing natural gas power plants with some conversion costs.

You can get a sense of where this is going from the webside for Carbon Engineering, and a short article from Science Magazine titled "Renewable Bonds" (September 20, 2019).   What you don't get a sense of, unless you talk to someone who has a really keen sense of the economic progression we are following, is why most of this won't happen until we have built enough wind and utility scale solar to replace about 80% of current fossil generation, and more if we choose to use the renewable electricity to power electric cars and electric air to air heat pumps, before we shut down most of the current fossil generation.

Carbon Engineering is building their own dedicated renewable source.   That's the only way for most of the hydrogen uses to jump ahead of the other more valuable or more profitable uses for abundant cheap renewable generation.

To underscore the fact that this is happening, note that EIA just put an article on their home page about how 89% of new generation expected in 2020 is going to be wind and solar.   What they didn't point out, is that the 2020 new generation is about three times as much wind and solar as we built per year from 2017 to 2019.   And much more important, from my own perspective, this 2020 added new wind and solar is about a third of what we need to build every year in order to eliminate fossil generation in about a decade, and all fossil energy consumption including plastics and chemical feedstocks by some year between 2040 and 2050.

I don't know that stored hydrogen is going to be our primary storage technology.   I know that it makes a lot of sense and solves a lot of problems, including giving a lease on life to about half or more of the existing combined cycle natural gas plants - assuming we actually choose to survive climate change.   And save all that money, since wind and utility scale solar are now so cheap that even the storage losses will allow hydrogen to produce power for less money than the current wholesale price of power in most of the U.S. and most of the world.

I agree with John that many of the original concepts for hydrogen aren't going to happen.    But many more are now very attractive.   The existence of a good reason to modify enough of the existing natural gas storage resource to accept and handle hydrogen sets the stage for all the other smaller uses to happen.

The biggest open question I see is whether the things that Carbon Engineering and the Science Mag article are talking about will eventually result in us producing methane and other more easily managed gases or liquid hydrocarbons, and preserving some of the residential and commercial natural gas distribution network, as opposed to reducing it to a power plant supply dedicated to hydrogen.  The existing natural gas storage system is sufficient to store three to four months worth of power generation for the entire U.S. - far more than we actually will ever need to make 100% renewables work.  

But heck, if the fuel is cheap enough, maybe we'll find other reasons to want to keep on using the system.

We're just starting to figure all these things out.   Remember, current prices for wind and utility scale solar were actually available in late 2017, and we're just seeing the market start to react now.  There are a lot of other things that have to happen, and it won't be possible to predict how certain aspects of this will play out until we see who builds what first, and how the costs play out in the real world.    Just don't bet on new nuclear plants.

John Armstrong's picture
John Armstrong on Jan 21, 2020 10:03 pm GMT

Thats really interesting... I think there is some hope that a rapid deployment of renewables could enable a faster progression to green hydrogen... 

Whats your thoughts on usng methane with CCS?

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Mar 19, 2020 6:58 pm GMT

Would I be correct in contending that with respect to road transport, it is more energy and economically efficient to simply take the green energy and send it to the battery in a car than to produce hydrogen and transport it to a fuel station. By the by, what progress is being made in reducing (chemically speaking) iron ore with hydrogen instead of coke.

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