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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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A Major Existential Threat Is Arising For Natural Gas

Two recent explosions at hydrogen fueling stations may have soured the fuel’s reputation, but there is increasingly optimistic sentiment for it, with two reports last week claiming it will have an important role to play in the energy mix of tomorrow.

One of these, led by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology, said hydrogen could come to replace natural gas as a fuel for heating in the country.

“We are now in a position to seriously consider the viability of using hydrogen in the UK’s gas grid for use by homes and businesses which could significantly contribute to the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector,” the lead author of the report, Dr. Robert Sansom said in a press release.

The fascinating part is that the hydrogen would be produced from natural gas: a process called gas reforming. This means hydrogen will not exactly replace natural gas, but rather become a gas-derived fuel to be used for heating. However, as is so often the case, the hydrocarbon-free alternative—hydrolysis—is too expensive to apply at the large scale needed to produce fuel to heat the 85 percent of UK homes that currently use natural gas.

In all fairness, the authors note, “Hydrogen has not been deployed at scale anywhere in the world and so any proposal will need to compensate for this lack of experience. We know hydrogen produces no carbon emissions when burned but it is also important to fully investigate and understand the overall environmental impact a switch to hydrogen is likely to make. It’s fundamental that these areas, as well as others identified in the report, are comprehensively addressed before a programme of large-scale deployment is considered.” Related: Putin’s $40 Oil Lie

In other words, for now, the stated benefits of hydrogen, even if it is derived from natural gas, which kind of compromises the zero-emissions purpose, are more theoretical than practical. It will be a while before the switch from gas to hydrogen begins.

Yet practical improvements of existing hydrogen technology are being made as well. Recently, a team of scientists announced an improved hydrogen tank that could make the fuel more popular among drivers. Japan, one of the largest energy importers in the world, wants to build a “hydrogen society” and is spearheading the hydrogen drive.

The latest to come on board with the hydrogen idea is the International Energy Agency, which on Friday released a report, which was—no coincidence—released in Japan during the G20 summit. The report says “Hydrogen can help to tackle various critical energy challenges, including helping to store the variable output from renewables like solar PV and wind to better match demand. It offers ways to decarbonise a range of sectors – including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel – where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions.”

To enable these, the IEA offers four principal directions of work, including turning industrial ports into “nerve centers” for the launch of larger-scale hydrogen use; utilizing existing infrastructure to transport it; expanding the use of hydrogen as a fuel in road transportation; and launching trade routes for the fuel. Related: Pompeo Makes Hard Claim: Strait Of Hormuz Will Remain Open

As good as all this sounds, the report agrees with what the UK’s IET researchers say: producing hydrogen from anything but fossil fuels is prohibitively expensive at the moment. And that’s not all. Hydrogen production is not emission free.

“Today, hydrogen is already being used on an industrial scale, but it is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal. Its production, mainly for the chemicals and refining industries, is responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined,” the IEA report said.

There are several ways to eliminate these emissions, whether through carbon capture and storage or by producing more hydrogen from renewable power. But, once again, these are more theoretical scenarios than processes that could be enabled at this point in time. For now, in other words, hydrogen remains more of an energy equivalent of an exotic fruit.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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