According to the International Energy Agency, hydrogen is undergoing today an unprecedented growth. On a global level, there are currently more than 50 policies and regulations supporting direct investments in hydrogen. In fact, compared to 1975 levels, the demand for hydrogen has grown threefold and is continuing to grow with a constant momentum. By a PWC report Hydrogen is expected to accelerated further post 2030. Hydrogen will play a vital role in the future energy supply due its versatile uses and some pivot characteristics related to it.

When talking about energy transition, hydrogen can be a game changer especially when produced in a climate neutral way. In recent years, it has played a central role in the energy industry and its role has been of increasing importance in global energy discussions. However, many people still wonder: why is hydrogen so important in the energy industry? What distinguishes it from other energy carriers and sources? Will it become the new go-to technology in future years?


How are utilities preparing for a hydrogen-fueled future?

Up until now, most of hydrogen investments were done by oil and gas companies. However, we recently saw an increasing interest of utilities in hydrogen to ensure a carbon-free generation in upcoming years. This is true for different regions around the globe. In Europe, it is expected that hydrogen will make up 3-6% of utilities’ total investments in terms of Capex in the utilities’ capital expenditures in the short to medium-term, excluding revenues from subsidies.

The most active European countries in hydrogen investments are Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. The Italian national gas transportation company, Snam, plans to utilize 50% of its future investments up to 2024 in replacing its gas infrastructure to one that is suitable for hydrogen transportation. On a similar note, Spain plans to install 4 GW electrolysis capacity and to have 25% of its industrial hydrogen consumption produced from hydrogen. As for the Dutch gas transportation company, Gasunie, it has announced the target of investing seven billion dollars in hydrogen infrastructure up to 2030. In the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has recently announced that it plans to reduce its emissions by 80% using existing renewable technologies and the remaining 20% is to be filled by hydrogen by 2050.

Future of power

At the moment, utilities are betting on hydrogen as an economic way to store excess renewable energy and allow a faster and more stable energy transition. Some utilities are also relying on hydrogen as an alternative greener fuel instead of coal or gas for the power plants. Unlike coal or gas, burning hydrogen does not produce CO2 which is great for carbon reduction goals, however there maybe other pollutants that may enter into the atmosphere are being studied.

Hydrogen will play a vital role in further electrifying the economies starting from the diffusion of electric vehicles and reaching sectors other than transportation. Additionally, produced hydrogen could be used as a feedstock to many industries including fertilizers and synthetic material manufacturing. The various uses of hydrogen are further demonstrated below.

What are the different uses of Hydrogen in the future? In which industries is hydrogen used?

One of the main reasons for the increasing importance of hydrogen is the possibility to use it in diverse applications allowing the substitution of polluting energy sources.

Hydrogen in transportation

hydrogen in transportation

Hydrogen could be considered as the future of transportation. With the decreasing costs of renewable energy production, green hydrogen is providing a promising fuel, especially for heavy-duty trucks. The high energy density of hydrogen allows fuel cell vehicles to travel for long distances with less refuelling compared to other vehicle types. Moreover, 1 kilogram of hydrogen allows travel up to 60 miles as compared to 1 kilogram of gasoline which permits a 20 mile travel. This characteristics makes hydrogen the optimal fuel for trucks that need to transport long distances allowing the investment in hydrogen refueling stations along major highways where those vehicles usually move. A tangible example of how hydrogen is shaping the future of heavy-duty transportation is the case of the Port of Los Angeles where Toyota is developing hydrogen fueled semi-trucks to allow pollution free operation.

Hydrogen in residential buildings

Another emerging use of hydrogen, which is relatively at its infancy, is the use of hydrogen in residential homes for several purposes. In both residential and commercial buildings, hydrogen could be directly used in hydrogen boilers to enable the production of hot water for sanitary purposes with zero-emissions compared to traditional boilers which emit carbon dioxide. An Italian business, Giacomini Group, is working on the development of such boilers as explained in the video below produced by TotalEnergies. Another rising use of hydrogen is for space heating through combined heat power (CHP) units which could be either based on the direct combustion of hydrogen or on fuel cell technology.

Zero emission boilers powered by hydrogen

Hydrogen for energy storage

One of the most promising hydrogen-based technologies is hydrogen fuel cells used for energy storage. Such systems are characterized by having high storage capacity at lower costs compared to competitive technologies such as lithium ion batteries. To unleash the full potential of hydrogen as an energy carrier, researchers have developed the technology of hydrogen storage in metal hydrides in which hydrogen is chemically bound within very fine metal hydride powder to allow obtaining higher storage capacity with less space needed.

This video shows the first commercial use of hydrogen batteries for residential purposes using the mentioned technology by the Australian company, Lavo.

What are the challenges associated to a green hydrogen economy?

Now that the importance of hydrogen is acknowledged by major energy players and regulators worldwide, there are few barriers to overcome to allow the commercial diffusion of green hydrogen, some illustrated below:

  • Insufficient production of hydrogen: Unlike other sources such as coal and gas which are directly extracted from underground deposits, hydrogen that is used is mostly produced through the electrolysis of water which requires the consumption of energy. Through this process, carbon dioxide is produced and has to be captured to have zero-emissions hydrogen. However, to allow a fast transition towards hydrogen, the production of hydrogen from local renewable energy will not be sufficient and other production techniques might be needed such as steam methane reforming which do not allow a fully carbon neutral hydrogen production. See our article on the different colors of Hydrogen explain the differences.
Hydrogen colors
Hydrogen colors
  • Transportation infrastructure: In most regions, sufficient amount of hydrogen cannot be fully produced locally thus necessitating the presence of an extensive hydrogen transport network. In fact, there is a mismatch between the place where hydrogen is needed and the place where renewable plants are located. Two solutions emerge here: either create cables to transport electricity to the location of hydrogen transportation or produce the hydrogen in the vicinity of renewables plant, which is often in coastal areas and then transport it. In both cases, the problem of needing to invest in infrastructure emerges either to transport electricity or hydrogen. This is an important issue to be solved to allow further investments in hydrogen projects.
  • Storage costs: The costs associated to hydrogen storage are high mainly due to the gas’s low density; meaning it occupies large volumes with high costs. To overcome the problem of high volumes, the hydrogen is often stored at high pressures which necessitates the usage of costly storage tanks with advanced vessel materials. In fact, this problem of needing big storage tank might hinder the further development of fuel cell passenger vehicles. There are some amazing new technologies such as HydroX emerging which enables storing hydrogen in water as an example.
  • Absence of codes and regulations: While renewable energy technologies have enjoyed the presence of regulations and subsidies to support their diffusion in the past years, hydrogen is still struggling from the absence of clear incentives and governmental standards to encourage investments in it. However, we are seeing in the past years, some governments starting to issue concrete goals regarding future hydrogen expansion which might be a beam of hope for this technology.

These and many other obstacles, still face the hydrogen industry on a global level. To conclude, it is clear that there are still obstacles to be overcome; nevertheless, hydrogen is indispensable in the fight against climate change. Thus, the above mentioned barriers should be solved to allow hydrogen play its role in the future energy transition.

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