Despite the ravages of COVID-19, the hydrogen economy continues to take shape. The latest development involves an interesting twist as it positions renewable hydrogen as a key pathway for weaning the global economy off of natural gas, in addition to coal. In other words, green hydrogen is pushing the global decarbonization envelope past the coal-to-gas transition, indicating that fossil-based natural gas is quickly losing its reputation as a “cleaner” alternative.
Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, but the primary source of hydrogen today is fossil-based natural gas. On the plus side, renewable hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis, which involves splitting water with an electrical current. To complete the green circle, the current can be sourced from renewable energy.
Until recent years, the hydrogen economy dream seemed far off in the future. Electrolysis is not a new technology, but scaling it up economically is a challenge. Furthermore, in past years wind and solar costs were prohibitively high.
Building new infrastructure for renewable hydrogen is another key challenge, and that is where the new twist comes in.
Conceived by Siemens’s Power and Gas division and the global energy company Uniper, the new plan aims to leverage both coal and natural gas infrastructure to help make renewable hydrogen competitive in the energy market, leading to a full-on commitment to the hydrogen economy.
“Our future lies in hydrogen,” is the way Jochen Eickholt, a member of Siemens‘ Energy executive board, summed it up in a press release announcing the new green hydrogen partnership between the two companies.
That statement is especially significant considering that both companies have been heavily invested in both the coal and natural gas areas.
Nevertheless, both have been making progress on decarbonization, and the new partnership will help accelerate their progress.
Called Power-to-X, the concept pivots on “sector coupling,” the idea that renewable hydrogen can enable a holistic approach to major economic sectors that were previously treated separately, including power generation, industry, and transportation.
“Sector coupling acts as a link between renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, waste, etc. and consumers such as industry, households, or use in other sectors,” Siemens explains.
As an energy carrier and storage medium, renewable hydrogen can act as the glue holding these various energy consumers together (as shown in the image above, courtesy Siemens).
Siemens makes it clear that the Power-to-X concept alone will not lead to 100 percent decarbonization. However, it does have the potential to play a significant role in a low-carbon economy.
According to Siemens, even if power demand grows 25 percent in the coming years, sector coupling with renewable hydrogen could halve the consumption of primary fossil energy (“primary” is a reference that avoids double-counting coke coal and other fossil fuel products).
The real mystery is how to achieve cost-competitiveness in today’s energy market.
To that end, Siemens and Uniper plan to focus on repurposing existing fossil energy infrastructure, including the “brownfields” left behind when coal units are shuttered.
The plan will help Uniper follow through on its commitment to close its last coal power plants, while also reducing carbon emissions from its fossil gas operations.
Uniper already has a head start on zero emission energy through its hydropower and nuclear power plants in Germany and Sweden. Last year the company also proposed a new green hydrogen consortium in Germany, to build on its earlier initiatives on renewable hydrogen.
With the Siemens partnership, Uniper will investigate its existing fossil gas turbines and storage facilities for the potential to add renewable hydrogen, in addition to moving ahead with its plans for closing coal power plants.
Uniper anticipates that the cross-sector approach will make it possible to produce green hydrogen for the market in the “near future.”
That optimism represents a sea change in attitude compared to just a few years ago, when Toyota’s vision for a hydrogen economy was met with abundant skepticism.
With other leading supporters like Siemens and Uniper on board, it looks like the hydrogen economy doubters have some revising to do.
Image credit: Siemens
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.