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GREEN HYDROGEN - A sustainable pathway to energy transition & climate neutrality

Updated: Jul 13, 2023


The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that by 2040, the world economy would be needing at least 25-30% more energy than now. This will naturally escalate the CO2 emissions from the usage of coal and oil. The world then has a bleak future for achieving the net zero emissions by 2050 and so tackling the greatest environmental challenge – ‘Climate Change’ becomes unsurmountable. However, this scenario can be upturned and a path to near-total decarbonization can be achieved. For this, the fundamental energy system should switch to using alternative energy sources based on green electricity and green molecules, such as biofuels and green hydrogen.


This energy transition is one of the most pragmatic ways to achieve a low-emission global economy and attain climate neutrality. Globally, there is an increased interest in green hydrogen and its potential to design the energy sector’s future. Particularly, Europe is taking steps to come up with an EU-wide green hydrogen strategy.


This blog will give you a good idea of what green hydrogen is and how it is different from other hydrogen in the market; the usage and benefits; current barriers; how this sustainable fuel can be brought to the mainstream and how the barriers can be overcome through the right policies and finally why it should be the future of the global energy sector.


What is green hydrogen and how is it different from other hydrogen?

Before getting into what green hydrogen is, it will be useful to know the classification made in the energy business to identify different types of hydrogen. Interestingly, an array of colours is used to describe them based on the method used for its production. As per the colour scales, the main hydrogen types are Grey, Blue, Green, Pink and Yellow. Let’s check how these colorful gases are produced and how they differ from each other. Blue hydrogen is produced using special methods Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) or Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR), which splits natural gas into hydrogen and CO2, but captures and stores the CO2. This capturing of greenhouse gases (GHS) is done by another process called Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) and therefore aids in mitigation of harmful release of GHG in the environment. Grey hydrogen which has been produced for many years is a similar process to blue hydrogen – SMR or ATR are used to split natural gas into Hydrogen and CO2. But the CO2 is not captured and is released into the atmosphere, which leads to a staggering 830 million tonnes of Co2 per year! Given this alarming data, it is important to go for a renewable hydrogen - green hydrogen.


Green hydrogen is a clean renewable hydrogen that is produced by a chemical process called electrolysis. In this method, electric current is used to separate hydrogen from the oxygen in water. If the electricity used is generated from renewable energy sources like wind or solar or hydro, then the energy produced does not emit any Co2. It only emits water vapour leaving no residue in the air, making it the cleanest of all hydrogen. Like green hydrogen, pink hydrogen is made via electrolysis, but using nuclear energy as its source of power. Another type made by electrolysis is yellow hydrogen, where electrolysis is achieved solely through solar power (unlike green which could use a combination of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar or hydro power).


What are the uses and benefits of green hydrogen?

Green hydrogen has the one of highest potential to drive the upcoming energy transition, achieve carbon neutrality and mitigating climate change. It could grow into a multitrillion dollar global market. Some of its prime usage and benefits are:

Usage:

  • Industry: It can be used in the place of industrial hydrogen specially in major sectors such as chemical industry, petrochemical industry, and steel industry.

  • Domestic use: It can be put to domestic use by adding it to natural gas and burning it in thermal power or district heating plants.

  • Energy carrier: It can be used as a precursor for other energy carriers such as ammonia, synthetic hydrocarbons.

  • Transportation: It can be used to directly power fuel cells in cars, trucks, industrial boats, ships and even planes thereby providing a sustainable mobility alternative. This could boost the market for fuel cell electric vehicles.

  • Fertilizers: it can be used in the Haber-Bosch process which converts hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia to use in fertilizers. This process could augment food production and feed the growing population.


Benefits:

  • 100% Clean, renewable, and sustainable energy: Since it does not emit any Co2 in the air, it is one of the cleanest energies and uses natural resources making it sustainable.

  • Storable: It can be compressed and stored easily in ad hoc tanks for a long time. It can even be stored underground if it is needed same as natural gas and on a seasonal basis.

  • Versatile: It can be transformed into synthetic gas or electricity which can be sued for commercial, industrial or mobility purposes.

  • Transportable: It is very light and can be transported easily. But bulk transportation would require dedicated pipelines.

  • Short supply of electrolyzers: Water, electrolyzers and electricity are needed for producing large amounts of green hydrogen. But the shortage of electrolyzers is a challenge which in turn increases the cost of renewable electricity.


Current barriers to green hydrogen’s use in energy sector

Despite its extraordinary capacity for a sustainable future, there are few hiccups that currently prevent it from being considered by the governments, private parties, and research groups as an alternative to grey hydrogen:

  • Expensive: The electricity needed to generate energy from renewable resources for electrolysis have high cost. But as prices of solar and wind energy costs are being made cheaper than before, green hydrogen could be produced at a reasonable price.

  • High energy consumption: Production of green hydrogen involves lot of energy than other fuels. But this can be offset with the benefits that they have as well as the fact that they use renewable energy.

  • High water consumption: A report by the IEA claims that it needs nine litres of water for every kilogram of green hydrogen produced. Estimates claim that for every kg of green hydrogen produced, 32 kg of water is needed if solar energy is used and 22 kg if wind energy is used. The challenge is to utilise municipal and industrial wastewater without impurities that could lower the efficiency and performance of electrolysers.

  • Safety issues: Hydrogen is a highly volatile and flammable substance and therefore adequate caution is required to prevent its leakage and explosion.

  • Inefficiency: Some critics suggest that the whole process of producing hydrogen, compressing it, and turning it into electricity is inefficient as one could get nearly 40% energy back out compared to batteries that give 90% energy out.

  • Huge investment cost: The implementation of a dedicated infrastructure and research for using green hydrogen are significant – predicted to be around USD 300 billion. Reports suggest that by 2050, the demand for green hydrogen might be around 700 million tonnes.


Can green hydrogen be brought to the mainstream of energy sector?

There are ways in which green hydrogen can be the main component of the energy sector:

  • Bring down costs: The high cost involved in producing green hydrogen and its inefficiency compared to other fuels need to be overcome. The costs can be brought down in many ways including improving the efficiency of electrolyzers, using advanced pathways such as photoelectrochemical approach, in which sunlight and specialized semi-conductors are used to break water into sunlight and hydrogen.

  • Robust policy: Every country’s green hydrogen policy should cover key areas such as the a. Finance for hydrogen policy b. Government & private sector support policies c. Vision and mission for manufacturing, importing, exporting hydrogen level of ambition for hydrogen b. level of support required c. finance and d. technological policies should be including for electrolysis process and its application in various sectors, for market growth, readiness, market penetration.

  • Sturdy system: It is important for the end users to understand the quality and origin of the hydrogen that they are using for various purposes in different sectors. So, a standardization or a certification system must be in place to authenticate this. Clear labelling method could be used to facilitate end users or consumers to know the hydrogen they are procuring.

  • Integration into other energy systems: Once green hydrogen becomes mainstream, policies should cover its integration into the broader energy system. Governments, businesses, industries, consumers and public at large should be involved to minimize the barriers and maximizing the benefits of green hydrogen for a sustainable future.

  • Adapting new technologies: Since India’s water resources are depleting, new technologies that can minimize the disadvantages of green hydrogen have to be deployed. For instance, usage of large amounts of water for production of green hydrogen can be take care of by investing in research & technologies that can use seawater for electrolysis without treatment. Some countries like Spain are also using treated freshwater in electrolysis to produce fresh water.

Why green hydrogen should be the future of the global energy system?

To achieve the global climate commitments and net zero emission targets, it is vital to make the energy transition from grey through blue to green hydrogen. Although green hydrogen comes with some disadvantages, just like any other fuel, due to its enormous potential to provide a secure clean energy future and possible exports, it holds high hopes for a sustainable future. Realizing this, at least 10 countries including China, Japan, Canada, and the latest being Portugal, which has unveiled a national hydrogen strategy worth 7.7 billion USD up to 2030, are moving towards a green hydrogen economy. These countries are taking steps to be at the forefront of developing this high potent product that could be used across sectors and could turn out to be the best alternative energy source.


Europe is a lead player in this area and are creating new structures to manufacture competitive electrolyzers, transportation, and hydrogen installation. India has also geared up to join this bandwagon and has pledged to achieve net zero emission goals by 2070 and become self-sufficient by 2047. Knowing green hydrogen’s phenomenal potential to decarbonize its economic growth path, India has introduced several policies and guidelines such as the green hydrogen policy, national green hydrogen mission and harnessing green hydrogen by Niti Ayog. The challenges such as high cost and dependency on limited natural resources for production of green energy in India remains a challenge. To know more about India’s efforts and future for green hydrogen, visit [Blog Link]


Way forward

Currently, out of about 70 million tonnes of hydrogen that is consumed worldwide, only 1% of hydrogen is produced based on water electrolysis powered by renewable energies out of which a miniscule of 0.1% is green hydrogen primarily because of the lack of infrastructure and the cost involved. Only if the high cost involved for building this structure could be decreased; the renewable energy prices are slashed, cost of hydrogen installations is brought down, and robust policies and systems are in place can green hydrogen become the mainstream pathway to a sustainable future.

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