Hydrogen-fuel-cell cars have struggled to find mainstream buyers, but elsewhere in the transportation sector a mass movement towards green hydrogen fuel has begun to spark significant activity. Interest has picked up in the trucking, railway and aviation sectors, and the latest development could have widespread implications for the cargo shipping industry and for ferry travel, too.
According to the Clean Cargo Working Group, carbon emissions from the shipping industry have actually dropped as a percentage of global emissions in recent years. They now account for an estimated 2 to 3 percent of global emissions, down from a steady 3 percent in 2012.
That percentage may seem small, but it is still significant. It is equivalent to emissions from Germany, for example. Unless something drastic happens, shipping emissions will increase alongside an expected surge in global demand over the coming years.
That something drastic could be green hydrogen. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel that can be combusted directly or used in a fuel cell to generate electricity.
Hydrogen is also the most abundant molecule in the universe, but it does not exist in nature. It has to be produced from something else, and right now most of the world’s hydrogen is produced from natural gas or other fossil sources.
Fortunately, the advent of low-cost wind and solar power has provided a green pathway that makes bottom-line sense. Electricity from these renewable resources can be used in an electrolyzer system that “splits” hydrogen gas from water.
The green hydrogen solution provides wind and solar developers with several advantages over simply connecting wind and solar farms to the electricity grid.
One advantage is being able to supply energy in areas where electricity transmission lines are nonexistent or inadequate. Here in the U.S., for example, it is much easier to build wind and solar farms than it is to build major new transmission lines, especially for interstate transmission.
Hydrogen can be transported from wind and solar farms by ship, rail, truck or pipeline. In that capacity, hydrogen doubles as a transportable energy storage medium. It enables wind and solar developers to maximize their investment in renewable energy, because they can keep generating power to run electrolyzers even during periods when electricity demand is otherwise low. That is a particularly keen advantage for wind power, since electricity demand tends to fall at night even as wind speeds pick up.
In addition to being used as a fuel, hydrogen is commonly used in a range of industries and in agriculture. With a variety of transportation options in hand, wind and solar developers have additional opportunities to help green the supply chain across multiple sectors of the global economy.
So far, green hydrogen has been produced at pilot and demonstration scales. Now it appears that the leading global wind developer Ørsted is ready to scale up to serve four sectors at once: cargo shipping, aircraft, buses and ferry boats.
Last May, Ørsted announced a green hydrogen partnership with the shipping firm Maersk, Copenhagen Airports and the airline SAS. Logistics support is also in the mix through the Danish firm DSV Panalpina and the ferry firm DFDS.
The project is expected to begin delivering green hydrogen at a relatively small scale in 2023, but the partners expect to ramp up production in the ensuing years to achieve more than 250,000 metric tons (approximately 275,600 tons) of zero-emission hydrogen fuel.
“If realized as envisaged, the project will be located in the Greater Copenhagen Area and could supply renewable hydrogen for zero-emission buses tendered by Movia and heavy-duty trucks managed by DSV Panalpina, renewable methanol for A.P. Moller - Maersk vessels and renewable jet fuel (e-kerosene) for SAS airplanes and air transport out of Copenhagen Airports,” Ørsted explained.
The Copenhagen project will leverage offshore wind power, and Ørsted expects the project to influence similar developments elsewhere. Somewhat ironically, that trend is already under way with the help of leading fossil-energy stakeholders that are pivoting to green hydrogen.
The stirrings of a green hydrogen economy are also apparent in the U.S. The nation has yet to take advantage of its vast offshore wind resources, but Ørsted and other leading global firms have already lined up offshore wind leases along the Atlantic Coast, and a flurry of activity is expected after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
Interest is also picking up along the Pacific coast, where deep water prevents the construction of conventional offshore wind platforms. Instead, new floating wind turbine technology will be deployed.
The Gulf Coast presents another sort of challenge, mainly because wind speeds in the region are less than optimal. Political opposition has also been a factor, as it has been for Atlantic wind development. However, a recent Energy Department study laid out pathways for Gulf Coast offshore wind development, and the state of Louisiana is already on board with the plan.
Offshore wind development is just one piece of a broader green hydrogen policy assembled through the U.S. Department of Energy. Outgoing President Donald Trump has been openly dismissive of wind power and has championed the cause of fossil energy, but all throughout his term in office the Energy Department has continued to pour money into green hydrogen and other projects and partnerships that accelerate decarbonization.
In the latest measure, for example, the Energy Department has just committed an additional $33 million to its Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technologies Office for a suite of research and development projects that support the H2@Scale initiative for accelerating hydrogen production in the U.S.
The projects will enlist the Energy Department’s National Laboratories network in collaboration with two new initiatives aimed at decarbonizing long-haul trucking, the Million Mile Fuel Cell Truck and H2NEW consortia.
While long haul trucking puts the focus on the domestic green hydrogen market, the global cargo shipping area is also a key opportunity for U.S. decarbonization.
Louisiana, for example, hosts the largest-tonnage container shipping port in the western hemisphere, the Port of South Louisiana.
Other major ports in the U.S. include the Port of New York and New Jersey and the Port of Los Angeles.
These seaports have already been the focus of long-running efforts aimed at relieving port cities from local air pollution related to shipping and logistics. The two interests have often collided, but green hydrogen offers a pathway to stimulate significant economic development while cleaning the air.
Image credit: U.S. DOE/Facebook
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.