In 1792, William Murdoch, an engineer with the company Boulton & Watt, switched on the lights in his home in Cornwall, in southwest England, and made history. He was the first person to use piped ‘coal gas’ for residential lighting. The fuel, also known as ‘town gas,’ consisted of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
More than 200 years later, the world is coming full circle: Countries around the globe are putting their legislative weight behind hydrogen as a carbon-free alternative to fossil-fueled energy generation. By mid-2019, more than 50 programs supporting a transition to hydrogen were underway worldwide.
But despite the growing alignment on hydrogen, the speed of this shift will depend on scaling the carbon-free production of hydrogen and making it easily accessible.
The U.S. and European Union (EU) have recently both announced plans that will help build the infrastructure necessary to get countries hydrogen-ready. Alongside this, international partnerships are forming to advance the production of hydrogen.
What else will it take to realize a hydrogen society? Five key developments.
1. Advanced ‘
A large share of hydrogen is still being produced from fossil fuels. Less than 0.1 percent of global volumes is generated through electrolysis of water. But it’s the only way of making green hydrogen – that is, carbon-free – because it can be powered by electricity from renewables such as wind and solar.
Still in its infancy, electrolysis cannot currently produce enough hydrogen at an affordable cost.
To build a market, power-to-hydrogen facilities need to proliferate, production methods have to mature and costs need to come down.
A move in the right direction is Germany and Morocco’s recent announcement that they will jointly build a 100 MW renewable energy plant that will power a green hydrogen manufacturing site in Morocco.
2. Enough low-carbon ‘blue’ hydrogen to build demand
With the current global push for hydrogen, industry analyst IHS Markit predicts that green, renewable hydrogen could be cost-competitive by 2030.
It expects costs – which have already fallen by about half since 2015 – to reduce by a further 30 percent by the mid-2020s. This will be due to economies of scale, greater renewable energy volumes to be converted and the falling cost of renewables.
But to get there, legislators face a chicken-and-egg scenario.
To scale the production of green hydrogen, there needs to be sufficient demand for hydrogen in the first place. This means making enough hydrogen available to encourage the energy sector, transportation and industries like steel and cement to move away from fossil fuels.
Blue hydrogen will be critical to build and supply the market until green hydrogen comes of age.
The European Commission (EC) was criticized when it announced in July 2020 that its hydrogen strategy would see a role not only for renewable hydrogen but also for low-carbon blue hydrogen. The latter combines traditional, fossil-fuel production of hydrogen with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to avoid the resulting CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.
The EC has highlighted that low-carbon production of blue hydrogen will be critical to build and supply the market until green hydrogen comes of age.
3. Greater accessibility
As the slow progress of the electric vehicles market has shown, easy access to widely available matching infrastructure – i.e. charging stations – is critical to building demand. That’s why developing the underlying infrastructure for hydrogen will be fundamental to success.
Transport methods for hydrogen include compressed gas storage, which is only suitable for small to medium quantities, and liquefied hydrogen, which is more cost-effective as it allows for larger volumes to be carried. An alternative is converting hydrogen to ammonia, which is a denser gas and enables the shipping of large volumes. Mitsubishi Shipbuilding has already introduced a multi-gas carrier capable of holding both LPG and ammonia.
Pipeline networks are another option. But as Hydrogen Europe reports, as of 2016, only 4,500km of hydrogen pipelines were in place globally, and primarily in the U.S. That said, plans for a European ‘hydrogen backbone’ announced in July 2020 could see a pan-European pipeline network emerge over the next few decades. The goal is for it to cover nearly 23,000km across 10 European countries by 2040.
And while the backbone is key, end-user infrastructure and cost must not be forgotten: building a well-dimensioned network of refueling stations, especially for passenger fuel-cell vehicles, and selling hydrogen at a viable delivered price for heavy transportation need to be prioritized over the next few years.
4. More applications in heating
Closing the loop from hydrogen’s original use in the home, the hydrogen transition will also need to tackle home heating.
Half of the world’s energy consumption goes toward heating, which also contributes 40 percent of CO2 emissions as fossil fuels continue to dominate in this area. While industrial processes account for half the heat produced, another 46 percent is used to heat buildings and water, and a smaller share is used for cooking.
In Japan, a demonstration plan has been running since 2009 installing hydrogen fuel cells to provide heat and electricity for homes and businesses. The ENE-FARM program is expected to reach 300,000 installed units in 2020.
In Europe, heat and hot water account for 79 percent of household energy use, with the vast majority of European homes relying on natural gas boilers. That presents a significant opportunity for hydrogen as a carbon-free alternative that can use the existing gas grid.
The H21 project is currently testing if the U.K. gas network – converted from hydrogen-heavy ‘town gas’ in the 1970s – could carry hydrogen again.
Meanwhile, manufacturer Worcester Bosch has presented its first hydrogen gas boiler prototype. The prototype is ‘dual fuel,’ so it can run on both hydrogen and natural gas. The manufacturer expects that the familiarity of the concept and associated infrastructure will simplify the transition for consumers.
5. Common standards
Thinking back to the era of William Murdoch and those who followed him, standardization has played a significant role in growing the addressable market for gas, as well as for electricity and many other industries, over time.
We can no longer rely solely on pioneers and inventors. We need collective action between industry and government to build the necessary infrastructure.
Analysts point to a lack of harmonization as a barrier to market entry and, with that, to the expansion of the hydrogen economy. Harmonization and international cooperation, therefore, need to be top of the political agenda.
In its hydrogen strategy, as well as advocating an international harmonization of standards, the European Commission has made a point of highlighting the importance of integrating the EU’s entire energy system, overcoming national and sectoral silos.
Globally, initiatives such as the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meetings provide an important platform to align and promote hydrogen internationally.
These initiatives show that we can no longer rely solely on pioneers and inventors like Murdoch. We need to bring together industry leaders, civil society, governments and regulators to build the infrastructure necessary for a global shift to hydrogen − and lower carbon emissions.
About the author
A leading industrial firm, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group (40 billion USD annual revenue) is finding new, simpler and sustainable ways to power cities, improve infrastructure, innovate manufacturing and connect people and ideas around the globe with ever-increasing speed and efficiency. For over 130 years, the company has channeled big thinking into innovative and integrated solutions that move the world forward. MHI owns a unique business portfolio covering land, sea, sky and even space across industries from commercial aviation and transportation to power plants and gas turbines, and from machinery and infrastructure to integrated defense and space systems.
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