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13 Nov 2023

Is scaling green hydrogen a realistic prospect?

Is scaling green hydrogen a realistic prospect Matt Wills web

In the face of pressing climate challenges, the world is standing at a pivotal crossroads. Our dependence on fossil fuels, long the backbone of our energy mix, has brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. It's a make-or-break moment, and to secure a habitable planet for future generations, we must change the energy mix that fuels the world. This is no longer a matter of choice; climate change is an emergency requiring rapid action that demands courage, innovation, and commitment.

The Urgent Need for Change:

Our current energy mix, dominated by fossil fuels, is unsustainable. The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, driving an increase in global temperatures to dangerous levels. The consequences are evident in the form of more frequent and severe weather events that we all experience or see in the news, rising sea levels, and the ongoing loss of biodiversity.

There is hope as engineers around the world are deploying a range of low carbon technologies. In the last decade, renewable energy capacity has surged. Renewable energy now accounts for roughly one third of global electricity production, with countries like Iceland, Costa Rica, and Sweden leading the charge towards 100% renewable power. Wind and solar energy have rapidly become economically competitive; and they have the potential to provide cost effective electricity to support decarbonisation.

The Rise of Green Hydrogen:

Among the innovative sustainable energy sources gaining traction, green hydrogen is emerging as a potential game-changer. Hydrogen has long been hailed as the "fuel of the future," and green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy, can play a central role in helping the world reach net zero emissions.

Scaling Green Hydrogen:

Over the past five years, the development and scaling of green hydrogen have been remarkable. Several countries, including Germany, Japan, and Australia, have announced ambitious hydrogen strategies. These initiatives aim to harness excess renewable energy to electrolyse water, separating hydrogen and oxygen. This green hydrogen can be stored and transported for use in a variety of sectors, from industry and transport to power generation.

The European Union's Hydrogen Strategy, unveiled in 2020, aims to install 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolysers by 2030. Meanwhile, Japan envisions having 800,000 fuel cell vehicles and producing 300,000 tons of green hydrogen annually by 2030.

Barriers to Entry:

Despite the promise of green hydrogen, several challenges must be overcome to fully integrate it into our energy mix:

1. Cost: Green hydrogen production remains more expensive than grey hydrogen (produced from fossil fuels) or blue hydrogen (produced from natural gas with carbon capture and storage). However, costs are falling rapidly, and economies of scale will play a vital role in making green hydrogen competitive.

2. Stimulation of Demand: Hydrogen is more expensive today than direct use of fossil fuels. A combination of governments backing through revenue support to establish markets, and consumer pressure to drive low carbon products, are needed to provide the opportunity for hydrogen production and distribution at scale.

3. Infrastructure: Creating the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen storage, transport, and distribution is a significant hurdle. Governments and industries must invest in building the infrastructure required for a hydrogen-based economy. Any new gas infrastructure should be designed with capacity, materials, and systems suitable for future repurposing to hydrogen service.

4. Energy Source Availability: Green hydrogen production depends on abundant, low-cost renewable energy. Thus, areas with favourable conditions for renewable energy, like strong winds or ample sunlight, have a significant advantage. ‘Stranded electrons’ where the electricity transmission system capacity has not yet caught up with production could provide a great opportunity for green hydrogen to transfer energy to users.

5. Technological Advancements: Research and development are crucial to improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of hydrogen production, storage, and transportation technologies.

Recent Advancements:

In the last five years, the world has seen substantial progress in the field of green hydrogen:

1. Technological Breakthroughs: Electrolyser technologies have become more efficient and less costly, making green hydrogen production more economically viable.

2. Investment and Collaboration: Governments and private sector giants are investing billions of dollars into green hydrogen projects. Collaborative efforts have the potential to drive innovation and scale as has been experienced with other low carbon energies.

3. Global Partnerships: International agreements and collaborations are forming to support the development and export of green hydrogen. The Australian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) and the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance are just two examples.

The transition to a more sustainable energy mix is not without its challenges, but the stakes are too high to falter. Green hydrogen, with its potential to decarbonise industries that are hard to abate by other means, offers a great pathway in our quest for a cleaner and more sustainable future.

In the coming years, our collective bravery, innovation, and commitment will determine whether we succeed in transforming the energy mix that fuels the world. The path may be daunting, but the future of our planet depends on the choices we make today. Let's stand together and rise to the challenge, boldly steering the world towards a greener, more sustainable energy future.

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