There’s a big buzz around hydrogen in 2022. Green hydrogen is one of the most exciting technologies to have emerged recently, and hydrogen could meet up to 24% of the world’s energy needs by 2050, creating a market worth $600bn.
What makes hydrogen an exciting prospect is that using it creates no carbon dioxide. On top of that, it can be produced without the use of CO2 emitting technologies, and it is a substrate for production of other carbon-free products, such as ammonia, which can be used to make fuels and fertilisers. Its potential applications span heat, transport, industry and power generation, providing a vital source of low carbon energy as the transition to net zero accelerates.
However, generating so-called green hydrogen is currently cost-prohibitive and is in the early days of industrial-scale applications.
A wide range of applications
Hydrogen’s main contribution to net zero will be the reduction of the footprint from operational carbon.
Reduction of the carbon footprint can be achieved either through direct replacement of fossil fuels or by using hydrogen as support for another net zero technology. In some situations, hydrogen can also be a substrate for the production of carbon‑free fuels such as ammonia.
Some of the main areas in which the application of hydrogen offers a potential for significant carbon savings or even carbon footprint elimination are as follows:
While hydrogen remains an option for passenger cars, as an alternative to or in a hybrid form with electricity, there are even bigger benefits to be achieved from its application to mass transport such as buses or rail.
Goods transport and heavy plant
On the HGV front, companies are working on the development of hydrogen trucks. These would not require any dramatic changes to the operations of freight logistics, but would need fuelling infrastructure to be put in place.
In construction, firms are testing of hydrogen for heavy machinery such as excavators that will have a big impact on emissions associated with construction.
The main focus of decarbonisation here will be on the electrification of heating. However, this shift is likely to face some limitations related to availability of sufficient capacity in the heat-pump sector, the pace of retrofit and availability of power in competition with other uses such as EV.
One of the biggest challenges related to renewable energy generation is the issue of intermittent supply and the difficulty of balancing the network.
Because the production of green hydrogen will use large amounts of electricity, it can play a key role in storing the surplus renewable energy generated by wind power operating 24/7, while also helping to stabilise the grid.
Energy conversion rates are approximately 80%, which is comparable to other energy sources, and there are advantages over batteries in terms of suitability for long-term storage or large quantities of energy.
Hydrogen energy will be specially useful in hard-to-abate sectors such as steel and concrete production. In steel, hydrogen has a double role to play. Many traditional blast furnaces are being replaced with electric ones that are not able to generate as high temperatures and require high-quality iron or steel scrap as the feedstock.
Using hydrogen as a fuel in a traditional furnace would allow the processing of low-grade iron ore while eliminating carbon emissions.
Another even more significant function of green hydrogen will be to replace coking coal in the reaction that separates oxygen from iron ore and produces the essential substrate in steel-making – direct reduced iron. In other industrial sectors, hydrogen offers the possibility to “clean” the production of fertilisers, methanol and even food processing, by reducing the emissions from other greenhouse gases such as nitrous dioxide.
Hydrogen impact in the construction sector
The timeline for making green hydrogen economically competitive with other fuels currently stretches to 2030 and beyond, but the effects of the hydrogen revolution will be felt by the construction sector much earlier.
And as with every revolution, there will be losers as well as winners. In many areas opportunities will increase – driven by the need to produce and also store and transport hydrogen – but in some, areas activity levels will drop.
This new energy source has a dual role to play in the energy transition. But aside from its purely technical function in generating new kinds of energy, hydrogen also carries the potential to create a new type of economy. Building and operating hydrogen and CCUS infrastructure will generate demand for new types of skills and new jobs. This will mean opportunities not only for previous oil and gas employees but also for other workers. Furthermore, jobs will be created in the sector.
With so many strands of hydrogen-related research still ongoing, further opportunities will certainly arise in time. Our ability to tackle the related challenges collectively will play a crucial role in determining which of the hydrogen-based promises become reality and which ones will evaporate.