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Tina Casey headshot

Natural Gas Stumbles as Hydrogen Picks Up the "Clean" Fuel Flag

By Tina Casey

New evidence about methane emissions has been stripping the veneer of sustainability from natural gas, and that could mean both good and bad news for hydrogen fans. The good news is that new technology is bringing the global economy closer to renewable hydrogen as an alternative to natural gas as well as petroleum and other fossil-sourced fuels.

The bad news: much of the world's hydrogen still comes from its conventional source -- natural gas.

First, The Bad News

This week's editorial in The New York Times underscores the grim reality behind the natural gas hype. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and it is a powerful contributor to global warming.

Yes, natural gas is "cleaner" than coal when it burns. The problem is that significant methane leakage occurs all along the supply chain, from the wellhead to transportation, storage, and local distribution networks.

In a harbinger of things to come, the Rocky Mountain Institute is gearing up a campaign to get property owners and other stakeholders interested in eschewing gas appliances in favor of electric, based on both indoor and outdoor emissions issues.

Renewable Hydrogen Steps In

Hydrogen is abundant but it does not exist by itself in nature, hence the reliance on natural gas.

The good news is that fossil gas is not the only potential source for hydrogen. One good example is water. Think H2O and you're on the right track.

The supply of water is practically limitless and it can be accessed without expensive -- and disruptive -- drilling.

The problem is how to "split" the hydrogen out of the water. The basic method, called electrolysis, involves applying an electrical current. That necessarily involves copious amounts of fossil fuel to produce the electricity -- at least it did, until now.

With the advent of low cost wind and solar power, the dependence on fossil fuel for water-splitting is dissolving. It's also worth noting that wind and solar power can be distributed around the globe in far more regions than hydropower, which is the only source of renewable electricity previously available in bulk.

Biogas is also coming along as another source of renewable hydrogen, too.

One other important thing to note is that hydrogen sourced with the help of renewable energy (aka power-to-gas) is, in effect, a large scale energy storage solution. That's especially clear in the case of wind power. During periods of low consumer demand a wind farm can keep operating at optimal capacity as long as an industrial customer -- for example, a water-splitting facility -- can pick up the slack.

Now, The Good News: Railway Edition

With all this in mind, let's take a look at some recent developments that are pushing the demand for renewable hydrogen.

Last Sunday the France-based railway manufacturer Alstom celebrated the launch of the Coradia iLint in Germany, its first zero emission hydrogen fuel cell passenger train to go into service.

That's a significant development on its own, since the new train replaces diesel. What's even more significant is Alstom's interest in renewable H2, which it displayed a few years ago by partnering with the aptly named company Hydrogenics.

The Canada-based company is already known for its power-to-gas operations in Europe. Earlier this summer it launched its first North American power-to-gas facility, in Ontario.

Just this week, the company announced that it has joined a consortium to develop a major power-to-gas project in Norway, which neatly illustrates the interplay between wind farms and H2 energy storage.

The consortium will deliver a 2.5-megawatt, electrolysis-based energy storage system that will operate in tandem with the 45-megawatt Varanger Kraft wind farm in Rggovidda, Norway. Here's the rundown from Hydrogenics (break added for readability):

Varanger Kraft's wind farm, located in Raggovidda, is already one of the most efficient in Europe. However, due to limitations within the local transmission grid, the project's capacity of 200 megawatts cannot currently be realized.

The consortium - named Haeolus - will enable the production of clean hydrogen using some of the excess power produced from wind in the region.

More Good News: Automobile Edition

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell cars (and fuel cell trains, for that matter) are electric vehicles. The difference is that they don't depend on electricity stored in a battery. Fuel cells generate electricity on-the-go, by shepherding a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.

Toyota is widely acknowledged as the leader in the fuel cell automobile sector with its much publicized Mirai. The company has already introduced a renewable energy angle as well.

The fuel cell passenger car sector is still lumbering along slowly, but Hyundai is among the auto makers that are beginning to generate more buzz.

Earlier this summer Hyundai introduced its next-generation fuel cell passenger car, the NEXO. For now the car will only be sold in California, where it is being pitched as a long range EV that can fuel up in only five minutes -- just like a gasmobile.

Around the same time, the company also announced a fuel cell development partnership with Audi. So far Audi has only dipped its toe into the fuel cell EV concept, and a little nudge from Hyundai's supply chain could help the company get its concept off the drawing board and into the street.

The new collaboration also involves affiliates including Kia and Volkswagen, with the idea that cross-licensing and patent sharing will accelerate development of more efficient, less costly fuel cells.

Btw, that five-minute fueling time is a big advantage for fuel cells EVs over battery EVs, but if you're wondering where the fueling stations are, that's a good question.

Here in the US, the national hydrogen fueling infrastructure is razor-thin. However, California and several other states have taken the lead in pushing the hydrogen economy forward.

That includes a renewable energy angle. California's fuel station strategy, for example, calls for at least 33% renewable hydrogen.

More Good News: Trucker Edition

Speaking of Hyundai, last week the company unveiled its plans for a fuel cell long haul semi truck.

Notably, Hyundai's announcement focused narrowly on the design of the new fuel cell truck:

[The] fuel cell electric truck boasts distinctive design which sets it apart from other Hyundai commercial vehicle line-up. The truck aims at simple and clean design which is also aerodynamically efficient with a spoiler and side protector.

The front grille symbolizes hydrogen through geometric shapes, giving the vehicle a unique and powerful look. The vehicle emanates an eco-friendly look with an iconic blue color application and a bold side body graphic on the container, which visualizes its dynamic character.

That could mean any number of things, but let's say for the sake of argument that businesses and fleet managers are already aware of the advantages of fuel cells over diesel. Hyundai is betting they would be attracted to a fuel cell truck that provides them with a high-visibility way to project a green image all over their driving territory.

As for renewable H2, Hyundai seems to have that base covered as well. Earlier this year the company signed on as a founding member of the new Hydrogen Mobility Australia advisory group, tasked with enabling the merger of hydrogen and renewables:
The new industry body will help accelerate the hydrogen economy by developing the various regulations and industry codes needed to support the introduction of the new fuel source here.

The announcement cements Hydrogen Mobility Australia’s position as the official industry body representing a broad industry group encompassing car manufacturers, energy and technology companies.

Much more is afoot in the hydrogen fuel cell field, from technology improvements to robotic applications, so stay tuned for more on that.

Also, keep an eye on the geopolitical perspective as natural gas fights to maintain its grip on the global energy ledge.

One thing to look for: how Europe's power-to-gas initiatives could edge Russia (and the US) out of the EU energy market.

Photo: Coradia iLint fuel cell train via Alstom.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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