HYDROGEN’S NEW PLACE IN THE RENEWABLE ENERGY MIX. After decades of solar and wind energy dominating conversations about renewable energy, hydrogen is having a moment – especially now that corporations and governments are publicly committing to reducing their fossil-fuel emissions to meet precise targets by specific dates.
General Motors has announced a deal to supply hydrogen fuel cells to truck-maker Navistar and a strategic partnership with Nikola to put hydrogen power into Nikola’s Badger pickup truck.
Toyota – which, like Hyundai and Kia, has bet big on a hydrogen future – is marketing its “FC Module,” a hydrogen-fueled engine that can be dropped into anything from a generator to a container ship. Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures has chipped in for the development of ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-fueled electric 50-seat commuter airplane.
At one of its German refineries, Royal Dutch Shell is building a hydrogen extraction plant that will yield 1,300 tons of the gas annually for use in scrubbing sulfur from petroleum, among other tasks.
“Shell is particularly excited about hydrogen,” Paul Bogers, the company’s vice-president of hydrogen operations. “Very quickly…you get to a world where hydrogen makes up more than 10 percent of the total energy mix in coming decades.”
BP and French energy giant Total also have staked out positions in hydrogen.
National governments have jumped in as well. In 2017, Japan set a goal of becoming a hydrogen-based economy. China wants to use hydrogen to “greenify” its international Belt and Road Initiative. Brazil is hosting a $5.4-billion venture by Enegix Energy to build “Base One,” a plant that will use renewable energy to extract more than 600 million kilograms of hydrogen (equivalent to about 1.3 billion pounds or 2.2 billion gallons of gasoline) from CO2 by 2025.
Governments already are committing about $150 billion worth of subsidies and direct investment into hydrogen projects, according to energy specialist Ben Gallagher at the Wood Mackenzie consulting firm.
It makes economic as well as logistical sense. Hydrogen is lighter than batteries or liquid fuels, burns without noxious or toxic exhaust, and can be produced using nothing more than electricity and air or water while making batteries requires lethal, hard-top-source materials.
Hydrogen also holds more energy per unit of volume. Batteries typically can store about one kilowatt-hour of power per kilogram of weight, gasoline about 12, but hydrogen tops both with 33. Compressed hydrogen also needn’t take up much more space than an electric vehicle’s battery pack or gas tank.
About $300 billion will be invested over the next ten years to build a global hydrogen infrastructure, according to the Hydrogen Council, a worldwide interest group of 92 corporations.
Currently, about 60 percent of the hydrogen produced worldwide is used to make ammonia; another 25 percent is used in oil refining, according to a research report by Morgan Stanley. However, the report said, by 2050, 30 percent will be used to power the globe’s factories and another 30 percent will be used as transportation fuel.
TRENDPOST: Hydrogen, so far the poor relation in the alternative fuel family, is being recognized not only as viable but also as the preferred fuel in certain markets. Those markets are offering opportunities to entrepreneurs and investors who understand hydrogen’s limits as well as its benefits.
THE HYDROGEN BUBBLE: HOW MUCH IS HYPE? Not everyone is climbing aboard the hydrogen bandwagon. Some have lived through previous “hydrogen hype cycles.”
The Corporate Europe Observatory, the mission of which is to “expose any effects of corporate lobbying on European Union policy making,” has decried the sudden wave of what it calls “hype” surrounding hydrogen development.
“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars, not even in ten years,” Herbert Diess, Volkswagen’s CEO, said in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Diess, an engineer, once worked on hydrogen development at BMW. “The physics are so unreasonable,” he said.
Like Volkswagen, BMW has largely abandoned hydrogen development for passenger vehicles.
“You can’t ramp the fuel cell up and down like a combustion engine,” Diess added. “So you need a 10-kilowatt battery, you need an electric engine,” adding cost and complexity to the vehicle.
Unlike Asian carmakers, who continue to invest heavily in hydrogen-fueled vehicles, Europe’s vehicle producers have sunk billions into battery development and are loath to consider an alternative at such a late date.
Also, hydrogen vehicles are beset by a chicken-and-egg problem.
The cost of producing hydrogen vehicles won’t begin to fall until Europe’s carmakers are selling 100,000 units a year, industry executives say, not the hundreds they sell now.
But sales are stymied by the lack of easily accessible refueling infrastructure, something that won’t appear until more hydrogen vehicles are sold.
However, vehicles that run on regular schedules between fixed points are a niche that hydrogen fuel could fill, particularly for vehicles such as trains and airplanes where the weight of batteries are a drag on efficiency, others point out.
France and Germany already have hydrogen trains on the rails and more in the works to replace the 4,000 to 5,000 diesel-powered locomotives scheduled for replacement across Europe in the next few years. Siemens and railway company Deutsche Bahn have entered a partnership to engineer a hydrogen-powered train that can be refueled in 15 minutes.
Daimler and Volvo have teamed to develop hydrogen-powered long-haul trucks; Renault and partner Plug Power plan to unveil two new light-duty commercial trucks running on hydrogen in the next few months.
Renault’s informal goal is to hold 30 percent of the market in hydrogen-fueled light-duty commercial vehicles, Phillippe Prevel, the company’s chief of alternative fuels, told the FT.
He admitted that it’s too soon to say how big that market would be or when it might scale up.
To set firm targets might just pedal the hype cycle.
TRENDPOST: Hydrogen as a fuel is likely to follow the same path as other emerging technologies: specialty markets will adopt early, creating a hothouse where refinements and improvements can be tested and adopted, with later iterations of the technology gradually spreading to additional sectors as costs fall.
Hydrogen as a fuel for passenger vehicles is at least 15 years away. Meanwhile, Europe will serve as the chief testbed for hydrogen-powered trucks and trains, creating a market for the fuel that will allow production methods to scale up, earn revenue, and justify investment in innovation that can gradually spread more widely.
HARVESTING HYDROGEN: CUTTING COSTS, BOOSTING EFFICIENCIES. There are three ready sources of hydrogen: it can be extracted from air, water, or natural gas. But conventional versions of those processes take at least as much energy as the collected hydrogen can replace.
The new hydrogen economy will be rooted in technologies that yield a positive energy balance.
Example: Israeli start-up H2Pro, which claims a novel water-splitting method using renewable energy that yields hydrogen at a cost of about US$1 per kilogram by 2030, the equivalent of $3.79 for a gallon of gasoline.
H2Pro’s water-splitting method works at 95-percent energy efficiency, the company claims, not the 70 percent of conventional methods that cleave hydrogen from water, and uses about 25 percent less energy to begin with.
The venture has drawn attention, and a modest amount of seed money, from Hyundai, Sumitomo, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, and Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Ventures, among others.
The government of Australia’s Northern Territories is betting its chips on Aqua Aerem, a project that will use two of the region’s chief resources – desert and sunshine – to glean hydrogen from air using a solar concentration array that delivers twice the energy as a silicon panel farm, the company says.
A 12-week trial will test the venture’s proprietary system to suck moisture from air, a process that works best in dry climates, according to Aqua Aerem. The method produces no waste and requires virtually no maintenance, making it ideal for remote regions.
The trial is the first step in a project that ultimately will scale up to a 15-megawatt plant that will supply enough hydrogen fuel to meet half the annual energy needs of the nearby town of Tennant Creek and its 3,000 residents.
Once the technology is proven, Aqua Aerem plans to grow big enough to export hydrogen to nearby Asian nations.
Another solar concentrator – this one set up by global mining company Rio Tinto at a California boron mine – is designed by Heliogen, a company that uses artificial intelligence to perfectly reflect the sun’s rays from an array of mirrors onto a relatively small collector.
An earlier Heliogen solar concentrator exceeded 1,800°F; the Rio Tinto plant may exceed 3,200°F, Heliogen claims. At that temperature, an AI-controlled solar concentrator array 600 yards square could split enough water to deliver 1 million kilograms a year of emissions-free hydrogen at a cost of about $1.80 a kilogram, cheaper than today’s conventional water-splitting processes, the company says.
If the test is successful, Rio Tinto is likely to not only scale up the plant in California but also to build similar hydrogen production facilities at its sunnier mining sites around the world.
TRENDPOST: Scale also leverages energy efficiency. As the hydrogen economy evolves, more research and engineering will be justified to make conventional hydrogen extraction processes cleaner and more efficient to compete with newer techniques. There will be roles for both new and old technologies, often depending on the physical location of the installations.
NATIONS, INCLUDING SAUDI ARABIA, COMPETE TO BECOME “THE SAUDI ARABIA OF HYDROGEN.” At least 15 nations have formal, written plans to become a world leader in the emerging hydrogen economy.
In 2018, Australia drafted a national hydrogen strategy to become “a major global player by 2030,” with hydrogen production and exports creating “thousands of new jobs, many in regional areas, and billions of dollars in economic growth between now and 2050.”
The strategy relies on the creation of “hydrogen hubs,” which the plan describes as “clusters of large-scale demand… at ports, in cities, or in regional or remote areas” that will “make the development of infrastructure more cost-effective, promote efficiencies from economies of scale, foster innovation, and promote synergies” among transport industries, the electric grid, and industry.
Australia’s plan details 57 actions it describes as “first steps” to chart a path involving developing production capacity, cultivating local demand, prudent but not burdensome regulation, international engagement, research and development, recruiting and training a workforce, and winning public backing for the plan. The steps cut across export industries and markets, the transportation sector, industry, electric grids, and considers issues of safety and environmental impacts.
Germany’s plan, adopted in February 2020, describes 37 measures the country should take to build on its industrial heft to become the world’s chief supplier of hydrogen technologies.
The measures include:
- establishing a commercial domestic hydrogen market by 2023;
- setting up regional centers for research, development, and production;
- creating a hydrogen production industry yielding 14 terawatt-hours’ worth of the gas by 2030, mainly to replace fossil fuels in industry and as vehicle fuel;
- subsidies for the production and purchase of hydrogen vehicles;
- finding partner countries and companies to supply Germany’s growing hydrogen demand and buy its new hydrogen technologies;
- developing supply chains to ensure adequate hydrogen imports to Germany.
Last month, Germany signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to cooperate in the production, processing, use, and transport of hydrogen. The pact also commits the two countries to share hydrogen-related knowledge and technologies and to set up an “innovation fund” to promote hydrogen created with renewable energy.
The deal is part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to use hydrogen to transition its economy away from oil.
The desert kingdom has huge volumes of underground rock formations that have been drained of oil and could be used as natural storage for hydrogen that could be extracted from its vast remaining reserves of natural gas. Its cities of Jubail and Yanbu are centers of the petrochemical industry that could be adapted relatively easily to hydrogen production.
The nation also has launched an ambitious pilot project called “NEOM Helios” to use renewable energy along the Red Sea to extract hydrogen from seawater, due to being operations in 2025.
The project is part of the futuristic city of NEOM, a pet project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman now on the drawing board, that is being designed, in part, as a hydrogen hub and test bed to further the nation’s hydrogen ambitions.
The U.S. energy department has drafted a “National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap” but has taken no concrete steps beyond the research lab nor set a timetable to act.
India, Italy, Norway, and Portugal are among other nations jockeying for a pole position in the race to lead the new hydrogen economy.
TRENDPOST: In the Oil Age, energy dominance was an accident of geography: nations that happened to sit atop oil deposits could steer the global economy.
In the Post-Oil Era, owning the rights to energy-producing technologies, not geography, will determine winners and losers. Nations investing heavily and soonest in research and development will replace today’s Venezuelas and Saudi Arabias as energy moguls.
COMPANIES FORM HYDROGEN INVESTMENT FUND. Baker Hughes – best known as an oilfield services company – has partnered with manufacturer Chart Industries and Plug Power, which makes hydrogen fuel cells, to form the FiveT Hydrogen Fund.
The fund will finance projects related to the production, storage, and distribution of hydrogen.
Plug Power will invest about $188 million in the fund, with Chart and Baker Hughes chipping in roughly $59 million each.
The fund “will continually seek alliances with industrial companies looking to build the hydrogen energy supply chain and form alliances to grow projects at scale,” the partners said in a statement announcing the fund.