When you imagine a clean energy future, what does it look like? For most people, the idea conjures images of spinning fields of wind turbines and massive solar farms. But while wind and solar are excellent and increasingly efficient and affordable forms of clean energy production, they have their limitations. The first and most commonly known drawback to wind and solar is that these forms of energy production are variable, which is to say that they can’t produce power inconsistent quantities around the block. Wind and solar power both depend on weather patterns, which humans still haven’t found a way to control despite all of our other nature-defying feats, and the time of day -- you can’t extract energy from the sun’s rays if only the moon is out. This means that, unlike with conventional fossil fuels, the flow of energy to the grid from wind and solar comes in stops and starts that can’t always be reliably predicted. Humans, however, demand energy more or less constantly, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
Of course, there are solutions to this. There are many forms of energy storage and smart-grid solutions which maintain an even flow of carbon-neutral energy to your municipal grid. And these technologies are advancing all the time, especially as cash begins to flow into the energy storage sector as it’s become clear that it will be a significant mainstay of our greening economy.
But even with reliable and cost-effective energy storage, wind and solar can’t completely replace the capabilities and advantages of burning fossil fuels. For one thing, electric furnaces just can’t run hot enough to displace fossil fuels in industrial processes such as making steel. So does that mean that we will have to rely on coking coal forever? Fortunately, there’s another solution.
Green hydrogen, unlike solar and wind, is combustible, and it burns at high temperatures without leaving behind any greenhouse gases -- just water vapor. “Replacing the fossil fuels now used in furnaces that reach 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit) with hydrogen gas could make a big dent in the 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions that now come from industry,” Bloomberg Green wrote in a recent report titled “Why Hydrogen Is the Hottest Thing in Green Energy.”
And greening the steel industry isn't the only argument for green hydrogen. Bringing us back full circle, hydrogen can also store energy and could be an integral part of the future energy storage industry, allowing wind and solar to be scaled up without relying on lithium-ion batteries, which rely on finite rare earth minerals and metals. Hydrogen, meanwhile, is a truly renewable resource and green energy storage option.
It should be noted, however, that hydrogen is only as green as the energy used to make it. Green hydrogen is made using clean energy, whereas gray hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. Some people also make a distinction for blue hydrogen, which is made with the more emissions-friendly natural gas. So while not all hydrogen is good for the environment, green hydrogen, which is virtually emissions-free from cradle to grave, could be a huge and invaluable part of a cleaner, greener future.
“But meeting the ambitious plans being made for [green hydrogen] means building a giant industry almost from scratch,” Bloomberg Green reports. And therein lies the problem. For all its advantages, green hydrogen is still just a budding industry with high production costs and significant barriers to entry. In order to become competitive with blue and gray hydrogen, green hydrogen would need to achieve a production cost of less than $1 per kilogram. Right now it costs between $2.50 and $4.50 a kilogram -- which is to say, not even close. An analysis by BloombergNEF projects that this kind of cost-cutting may be achieved by 2030, but that is only the case in a scenario in which both electricity production and electrolyzer capacity are vastly increased “at a time when the world’s generators and grids already will be straining to keep up with demand from newly electrified vehicles.” As Oilprice has already reported, the U.S. desperately needs to modernize its power grid for a number of reasons, and green hydrogen is just another one to add to the list.
The good news is that there are already a lot of forward-thinking actors in both the private and public sectors who are leading the charge toward green hydrogen and laying the foundation to scale it up over the next decade. The European Union has made green hydrogen a central part of its Green Deal and plans to build enough electrolyzers to convert 40 gigawatts of renewable electricity into hydrogen by 2030. Australia has also made ambitious plans to work green hydrogen into its economy, and a number of energy companies are throwing themselves into the mix as well. It’s almost certainly a matter of when, not if, green hydrogen will get up and running, and the major players seem to be aware that the sooner that happens, the better for all of us.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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