An H2 (hydrogen) gas molecule
Green hydrogen was a bystander on the world’s decarbonization scene just a few years ago. Now the technology is emerging into the commercial sphere, and the impact on the global economy could range far and wide. With that in mind, here are five green hydrogen developments to watch that range in scale from small to large.
Buildings running on green hydrogen, and integrated with solar power
The falling cost of renewable energy has been the main driver of the green hydrogen trend. Low-cost wind and solar power help make the case for electrolysis, in which an electrical current is deployed to separate hydrogen gas from water.
Hydrogen can also be produced from water through a photoelectrochemical reaction. This method cuts out the electrical current in favor of applying solar energy directly to water, using a catalyst to trigger the reaction.
A team of scientists from the U.S. and South Korea has invented a photoelectrochemical system that could turn practically any building into a power plant. The system is designed around transparent components that can be integrated into buildings. The hydrogen would be used in fuel cells, to generate zero-emission electricity for use on site.
This project is still in the laboratory phase. However, the field of building integrated solar is maturing, thanks in part to new transparent solar cell technologies. Further, fuel cell technology has also improved in recent years.
Turning individual buildings into green hydrogen energy producers would serve two key purposes. It would help decarbonize the building sector, which is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The technology also dovetails with a broader movement toward more resilient, distributed energy resources. Hydrogen-producing buildings could store excess hydrogen for later use, or sell it for power needs off-site.
An electrolyzer on every wind turbine
The intermittent nature of wind and solar power is another factor driving the green hydrogen trend. The connection is especially close for wind power. Wind speeds are generally more optimal at night, when electricity demand is low. Rather than curtailing production, wind turbines could continue to generate electricity at night to produce green hydrogen for use during the day.
Existing electricity transmission lines can smooth the way to link green hydrogen production and wind farms. However, transmission bottlenecks are already popping up. As a workaround, the leading global wind firm Siemens Gamesa is developing a hydrogen electrolysis system that can be integrated directly into individual wind turbines.
In addition to supporting the vision of distributed, decentralized energy systems, this approach also opens up the potential for co-locating wind turbines with different transportation options for hydrogen, including pipelines as well as highways and railways.
Siemens is also applying its electrolyzer-on-a-turbine technology to offshore wind farms. The current plan is to use undersea pipelines to bring the hydrogen on shore.
Green hydrogen for green ammonia
Another approach to the distributed hydrogen strategy involves locating wind-powered electrolysis systems at individual farms. The end goal would be to produce green ammonia fertilizer, by combining green hydrogen with ambient nitrogen from the air.
There are multiple benefits to this approach. It would enable farmers to cut their carbon footprint, by reducing or eliminating the use of conventional ammonia fertilizer produced from fossil-sourced hydrogen. It would also help foster resiliency and decentralization in the agriculture industry, and it offers the potential for farmers to use excess fertilizer as a revenue stream.
The University of Minnesota established the first known wind-to-ammonia system in 2013, at its campus in Morris. Supportive public policy would be needed in order to mainstream the idea, and the researchers are making a strong case for that. An update on the project last year lists numerous opportunities for scaling up, including the availability of existing ammonia transportation and storage infrastructure.
The auto industry goes green
In addition to generating zero-emission electricity in a fuel cell, hydrogen can be deployed as a zero emission, combustible fuel for industrial processes. That has caught the attention of the global steel industry.
Steelmakers rely heavily on fossil energy, but some of their leading customers have been raising the pressure to decarbonize. That includes automakers, which are beginning to deploy sustainable sourcing as a leading marketing tool.
In a report last year, Bloomberg NEF noted that steel currently accounts for 7 percent of global greenhouse emissions related to human activity. BNEF estimates that it would take about $278 billion to bring steel production close to eliminating all carbon emissions by 2050. Along with green hydrogen, recycling would also play a central role in the strategy.
The steel maker SSAB, the energy company Vattenfall and the iron ore producer LKAB have already collaborated on a green hydrogen system for steel production called Hybrit. The venture is currently in the pilot phase and is on track for commercial operation by 2025.
Scaling up for the global green hydrogen economy
Based on the activity so far, there is ample room in a decarbonized global economy for a distributed, decentralized green hydrogen model.
Still, centralized hydrogen production will most likely play a key role in accelerating the pace of decarbonization. Aside from building owners, farmers and steel makers, there are many other existing use cases for hydrogen in food processing, pharmaceuticals, and toiletries, among other fields. The market for hydrogen fuel cells in various transportation sectors is also growing. In addition, the emerging area of maritime ammonia fuel will propel the demand for green hydrogen.
Green hydrogen stakeholders are already scaling up. One such project is a 12 tons-per-day electrolysis facility planned for the city of Lancaster, California by the global firm SGH2.
That project will soon be outdone by an agreement between the fuel cell firm Plug Power and the compressed natural gas specialist Certarus. The agreement calls for an initial delivery of 10 tons daily in 2022, with the expectation of 1,000 tons daily by 2028. The end users will include mining, power generation and other industrial uses.
That’s an impressive plan, but it has already been surpassed by a proposed wind-powered electrolyzer facility in Chile, which is expected to deliver 880,000 tons per year.
It will take years for the hydrogen economy to unglue itself from fossil energy, but it looks like the die has been cast.
Image credit: Adobe Stock
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.