As the world has grown to recognize the seriousness of climate change and the ever-intensifying need to develop new forms of green, clean, energy production, there have been a number of new technologies that have been hyped up in the headlines as the energy of the future, but which never quite got out of the R&D stages. Think algal biofuel, which was all over the news for years, touted as a sort of green-energy silver bullet but which has never been able to reach anything close to commercial viability. Nuclear fusion, too, continues to be the subject of endless news reports and think pieces, but is still lightyears away from being a viable means of energy production. And now, the viability of another green energy wunderkind is being thrown into question: green hydrogen.
Green hydrogen has been the topic of much hope and many R&D efforts as a potentially viable replacement for hot-burning combustion fuels like coking coal, which have proven extremely tricky to replace with greener alternatives. Hydrogen burns extremely hot like fossil fuels but leaves behind nothing but water vapor. This makes it an extremely attractive possibility for high-emissions industries like steelmaking, which continue to rely on huge quantities of coking coal, and which therefore have a problematically enormous carbon footprint.
While hydrogen leaves behind no greenhouse gases when it is combusted, however, the process of making that hydrogen can have its own hefty carbon footprint. Hydrogen is only as green as the energy used to make it. There are quite a few ways of producing hydrogen, and most of them are quite energy-intensive, such as using electrolysis to split water molecules into two hydrogens and one oxygen. Lots of hydrogen is already being produced in this manner, but the electric currents used in the process are most often derived from fossil fuels. This is known as gray hydrogen. Green hydrogen, in theory, is hydrogen made from completely renewable energies. Some industry insiders refer to a third category -- blue hydrogen -- as hydrogen made from natural gas, which has somewhat lower greenhouse gas emissions than oil or gas.
In order to make green hydrogen a commercial fuel source for the future, we will have to have plentiful, and indeed, excess, amounts of green energy. As the current global energy crunch shows, we are a long, long way from that reality. Currently, clean energies make up such a small relative share of the global energy mix that the idea of a large-scale green hydrogen industry is somewhat fantastical.
Just this week, at CNBC’s Sustainable Future Forum, Siemens Energy CEO Christian Bruch said that there is currently “no commercial case” for green hydrogen. “We need to define boundary conditions which make this technology and these cases commercially viable,” Bruch said. “And we need an environment, obviously, of cheap electricity and in this regard, abundant renewable energy available to do this.”
While we’re clearly not there yet, Bruch contended, we could be soon if the right steps are taken. “You need the fine print and the policies to incentivize or make it mandatory: to switch from grey to green, to switch from gas to hydrogen, to switch from coal to hydrogen,” he said. “And then it will happen very fast.”
The transition can’t happen fast enough. Later this month representatives from all over the world are headed to Glasgow for the 26th annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP26. This is exactly the kind of forum in which big policy transitions and commitments to incentivize promising green energy technologies like green hydrogen can materialize in an actionable way. While there is still a lot of work to be done before green hydrogen could become a commercial reality, there is no time to waste. Helping industries like steelmaking go green with the help of hydrogen would be a huge step forward and an invaluable development for battling climate change.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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