Hydrogen: the time has come !
Earlier this year the International Panel on Climate Change published a special report following the Paris climate conference commitment of a 1.5°C target ceiling for global warming. It issued a stern warning: greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall by 45% in 2030 from 2010 levels to meet the Paris objective.
Even more worrying was that, due to the relentless growth of emissions in the last few years, the annual rate of emissions would actually need to fall by an astounding 5.7% annually from 2018 levels – compared to just 4.4% if emissions had indeed peaked in 2015 as once expected.
A French professor of economics, Patrice Geoffron, has found a name for this effect: the “hairpin paradigm”. It simply states that if emissions keep rising, the rate at which they actually need to fall is becoming steeper and steeper.
CO2 emissions are considered as abstract by many people. They become much easier to understand with a simple equation: emissions = fossil fuels. Greenhouse gas emissions are indeed to a very large extent the result of fossil fuel burning (oil, natural gas and coal). So, if we need to address the existential threat of climate change and the hairpin paradigm, and considering the incompressible lag time for any action, there is no alternative: we need to phase out fossil fuels NOW.
The International Energy Agency and other energy experts have long lamented the lack of proper alternatives. After all, fossil fuels have so far provided mankind with an incredible service: highly reliable and reasonably cheap supply for industry, heating, cooling, power and transportation. And nowhere is this service more important than in emerging countries, where populations aspire to decent standards of living, which are inconceivable without secure and affordable energy supply.
Unfortunately, zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels have so far not been up to the task. Solar and wind may be inexhaustible and competitive as of now but they only provide electricity (20% of energy demand) and are variable. Nuclear has experienced skyrocketing costs. Biofuels are expensive and environmentally challenging.
So, what are we left with? Now imagine a zero-carbon fuel, produced from quasi-infinite solar and wind power, as easy to transport and store as oil and gas (and using sole of the same infrastructures), meeting all the needs currently met by fossil fuels, at a comparable cost. Welcome to the brave new world of green hydrogen.
The electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen is an old and tested technology. Jules Verne himself mentioned it memorably in his 1874 novel The Mysterious Island: “Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable”. Yet hydrogen could not compete with fossil fuels until there were ultra-competitive sources of power and low-cost electrolysis. This is the case now.
Solar and wind costs have reached levels close to 15 $/MWh in tenders allocated in such countries as Portugal, the US, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the UAE. Major manufacturers in Europe and China are planning giga-factories which will drastically cut the cost of electrolyzers in the next few years. Water needs are limited and can be provided for by desaination.
The resulting cost of 1 $/kg hydrogen ushers a new era: oil and natural gas parity – at least for those countries which lack domestic oil and gas resources.
Hydrogen can be transmitted with little revamping in existing natural gas pipelines and storage facilities (in particular salt caverns). As such the storage it can provide can last up to months. Compare it with battery storage where the total expected capacity is expected to reach a mere 52 minutes of global power consumption in 2040 according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Hydrogen can also easily be shipped across continents under the form of ammonia (resulting from the combination with nitrogen from the air). It can be used in chemicals, fertilizers, plastics and steel making. It can be burned in turbines to produce power, heat and cold. It can power cars, trucks, trains and soon ships and planes.
The advent of mass-scale, competitive hydrogen is great news for energy importing countries, especially in Europe. The continent is now leading the way globally with mass-scale initiatives, backed by the European Union as part of its green new deal and carbon neutrality agendas.
It is even better news for oil-importing countries in Africa (such as Morocco), Asia and Latin America: imagine the effects a highly abundant domestic green hydrogen resource feeding into industrial development, economic growth, employment and revenue enhancement for communities: a great way to meet the climate emergency while fulfilling the aspiration to prosperity of billions of people. The time of hydrogen has come!
Executive Director of TerraWatt Initiative