At the time of writing this article, wildfires are devastating the east coast of America, and the world remains in a state of standstill due to the virus pandemic. The effects of climate change are no longer a distant threat: we are already living through them.
It’s clear to most people that our blase attitude to fossil fuels must change. We need to really start getting behind the mainstream adoption of renewables.
While solar PV is our one true love, we’re all for embracing a wide range of renewable technologies. Especially in instances where the use of solar isn’t quite right.
In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel: a renewable option that’s becoming increasingly popular. This powerful fuel is non-polluting and could deliver power on an industrial scale, given the right infrastructure.
What is it, and how does it work?
Like electricity, hydrogen is an ‘energy carrier’: it does not produce its own energy, but it carries energy produced by another system.
Usually, hydrogen is produced by electrolysis (splitting hydrogen from water), or thermal processing of natural gas. This informative blog post explains other ways hydrogen may be obtained.
Here are the two most important things you need to know about hydrogen fuel:
- It’s a clean fuel: when consumed, the only byproduct is clean water. That means no pollution and no carbon emissions.
- Obtaining hydrogen is difficult, and requires a lot of energy. Hydrogen is the most common element in our atmosphere, but it never exists naturally in its pure form.
When the hydrogen has been obtained, it may be used in a similar way to natural gas. Here’s what the world’s favourite encyclopedia has to say:
“[Hydrogen] can be delivered to fuel cells to generate electricity and heat, used in a combined cycle gas turbine to produce larger quantities of centrally produced electricity or burned to run a combustion engine; all methods producing no carbon or methane emissions”.
We highly recommend this video about hydrogen fuel; it explains it much better than we ever could!
What are the green credentials of hydrogen?
Overall, hydrogen is pretty green, but it’s not a straightforward answer.
As we mentioned above, producing hydrogen is both difficult and energy-intensive. For it to be considered a renewable fuel source, it must be produced using renewable electricity. This is known as ‘green hydrogen’.
The slightly-less-green version is called ‘blue hydrogen’. This is hydrogen production where the associated carbon emissions have been captured, offset, or reused. Unfortunately, around 95% of the world’s hydrogen is ‘grey hydrogen’, produced using fossil fuels (usually natural gas).
While green hydrogen seems like the clear winner, it’s not that simple. This is also the most expensive method of producing hydrogen. This lack of affordability means we can’t embrace widespread hydrogen fuelling just yet. However, an EU-funded project, CHANNEL, is currently exploring how we can produce green hydrogen in a cost-effective way.
What are the pros and cons of hydrogen fuelling?
- No harmful emissions, and has the potential to be completely renewable
- Infinite supply: hydrogen is the most common element in our world
- Capable of delivering large amounts of power
- Suitable for use in heavy plant or machinery, where other renewable technologies may not be appropriate
- Laborious process to obtain the hydrogen
- Most current options are not green
Where is hydrogen fuel being used?
Although not currently a mainstream renewable option, hydrogen is already being applied in some cases.
Germany, in particular, is already pushing ahead with its first national hydrogen strategy. As part of its COVID economic recovery plans, the German government is investing €9 million in repurposing old gas pipelines to create a hydrogen grid.
In the UK, we are proceeding a little more cautiously, but progress is still happening. Keele University is trialling the use of a natural gas and 20% hydrogen blend. This fuel is being used in the gas hobs at the university canteen. This small step reduced the amount of C02 produced through cooking and heating the university, without making significant infrastructure changes.
Interest in hydrogen fuelling is also being explored closer home. Hydrogen East is a “bringing together interested parties and key stakeholders on hydrogen specifically in the East of England.” East Anglia is home to several large offshore wind farms. Hydrogen East proposes that any surplus energy may be deployed for hydrogen fuelling in the region.
Here’s what Johnathan Reynolds, a founding member of Hydrogen East (and also Managing Director of energy group Opergy), said about the initiative:
“Today, East Anglia is already a rich and diverse ‘energy powerhouse’, and with almost all forms of power generation either on or immediately off its coastline. We have a wide range of innovative businesses pushing the boundaries of research and demonstration projects in hydrogen, energy storage, capturing, storing and using CO2, and novel clean energy solutions.
“Working in partnership with a wide range of partners, Hydrogen East will identify options, map and promote them and deliver a viable route map that sees East Anglia as a leading ‘hydrogen region’. It offers a major opportunity to integrate and transform our clean energy sectors across gas, renewables and nuclear, become a regional leader and create thousands of jobs in the long term.”
We’re certainly very interested in the work of Hydrogen East, and will be keeping our eyes peeled for future developments.
While hydrogen fuelling is not a ‘silver bullet’ for fighting climate change, this innovative technology certainly has a role to play.
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