The Push for Hydrogen
A few of us at Blackfish completed the European Galileo Master course on hydrogen in early 2021. We have always been keen to learn more about this field, as there is tremendous global potential for hydrogen use in transport, and provide theoretically endless storage capacity for the grid. But after the course we found ourselves with even more questions than we had at the start! So here, we aim to answer some of the basic ones (using the 5W1H method).
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen exists naturally as a molecule, consisting of two hydrogen atoms. The chemical formula of hydrogen is H₂. An element of hydrogen has one type of atom, and it cannot be broken down into other substances. The gas produces no smell, it has no colour and burns invisibly, so it has to be treated with care. Hydrogen holds three times more energy per kg than petrol, at 33.3kW/kg, but being so light it needs to be highly compressed to make it viable to transport or use effectively.
Why do we want it?
Hydrogen can be used as a source of fuel to power cars, trucks, boilers, and also to produce electricity via a fuel cell. The real beauty of hydrogen is that when it burns, the liquid coming out of the ‘exhaust’ is water. No fumes, CO2, NOx or gasses that cause smog, greenhouse gas emissions -it’s clean. In 2018 the global demand for hydrogen was 74Mt, but with significant investment happening in projects around the World, this is predicted to increase exponentially. If it can be generated without creating CO2 then it is truly a green source of fuel.
Where can we get it from?
You must be thinking -this is great: a substance that generates no emissions during the transfer of energy, that can be stored and used at any time to meet the demand? Where can we get this stuff? That is when the story gets a little cloudy.
The truth is, hydrogen can be produced in many ways, and there are colours defined for the different methods of producing hydrogen:
- Black or brown hydrogen – produced from hydrocarbon-rich feedstock, such as methane gas or coal. Producing hydrogen in this way is very dirty, and for every ton of hydrogen it produces 10-12 tonnes of CO2.
- Blue hydrogen – essentially the same as black or brown but with a significant amount of CO2 captured in an additional step, and stored. The process of doing this step is called carbon capture storage (CCS - see notes at the end for more information on this).
- Pink Hydrogen – created using electricity from nuclear power. So very low carbon emissions but not without different but very serious drawbacks.
- Green hydrogen – produced from renewable electricity using electrolysers. This is the only truly clean method of generating hydrogen, although currently it only represents 1% of the global hydrogen production.
Who is pushing for this?
There is already considerable investment in specific UK regions and projects, some of which include:
- £4.8m from the UK Government for Holyhead Hydrogen Hub
- £20m from Innovate UK for phase 2 of the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC)
- £30m from the UK Government for the Pale Blue Dot, Acorn CCS and Hydrogen project concept
- £12.3m from Innovate UK for Hyflyer II project
- £3m from Scottish Government for tidal-powered hydrogen generation project in EMEC
When you compare this to the £800m the UK Government invested in CCS last year (on top of the £1b the O&G companies invested themselves), it does seem like a pitiful amount.
The above are only a few of the Government-backed projects, and there are many more private companies that have their own projects in the pipeline. Earlier this month BP announced that they will go ahead and develop a 1GW blue hydrogen plant in Teesside, and TechnipFMC have announced the Deep Purple project of producing green hydrogen and storage from offshore wind.
When will the transition happen?
The UK Government has a target of 5GW production by 2030. The cost of a hydrogen car is currently beyond the reach of the average consumer, and there are some significant infrastructure hurdles to overcome before you can travel endlessly within the UK, which is clearly demonstrated by the current availability of H2 filling stations shown in the accompanying figure.
There is a Welsh company called RiverSimple developing a hydrogen powered vehicle and deploying some Beta Tests in Monmouth and Milford Haven, where the hydrogen source will be in place for users. The car is a nimble 655kg unit, with modest performance, aimed at practicality rather than high performance.
The range of hydrogen powered vehicles is where most of the advantage lies compared to battery powered cars, and the time to re-fuel. The average travel time by car in 2019 was 35 minutes in England which means a moderate battery powered vehicle would be ok for most journeys, however drivers always seek the flexibility to do longer journeys. With a hydrogen powered car, a range of 120 miles would not be an issue provided the refuelling strategy is taken care of within the UK.
The sooner the cost reduction can begin, the more rapid the transition to hydrogen.
How much does it cost?
Hydrogen currently cost between £10/kg in the UK. Depending on the type of FCEV you have, a kilogram of H2 will get you roughly 60-70miles, so there’s lots of scope for commercial-scale cost reduction once the technology has developed to large enough capacities.
One problem currently is that there is no business case for building a Giga-Watt-scale hydrogen facility in isolation. The demand side has to be created as well. This means that a potential project has to engage with intensive energy users to try and get them to convert their fleet of cars/vans/buses/other to use hydrogen, which is no mean feat.
Hydrogen provides an answer to the ongoing debate about the intermittency of renewable generating devices. It essentially means there is potential for the UK to be truly self-powered by wind, solar, tidal and wave energy in the future.
Consumers need to know where their energy is coming from, in a similar way that you know the energy mix when you purchase electricity from your supplier (and we will forget the controversy facing this currently regarding trading REGO’s). If you’re a conscientious user, and care about the environment, and can afford to pay a little extra (in some cases) you would choose to buy your energy from renewables. There has to be a similar mechanism with hydrogen.
Many criticise the low efficiency factor of the conversion of electricity to hydrogen back to electricity, which is estimated to be 65-70% overall. But the truth is, when you compare this to an internal combustion engine, it is approximately double the efficiency!
There are multiple sources quoting repeatedly that more investment is still needed to reduce the cost of CCS. You have to question the appetite of Governments for such investments, and whether they are seen to be propping up the sector when renewable energy is continuing to come down in cost, and increase capacity factors. It can also be used to generate green hydrogen without generating CO2.
No Carbon Capture Storage system can achieve 100% efficiency, so any form of CCS cannot be classed as assisting the UK’s ambition of being net zero by 2050. It in fact does the opposite. It burns more fuel while extracting the oil in the first place (offshore), and the storage will inherently need to be monitored for thousands of years. This makes it a problem for future generations, and could be a very risky time bomb which could so easily be avoided by some simple forward thinking visionaries.
The future should only be green hydrogen.
Side note on CCS in more detail:
There has been increasing pressure on EU leaders recently to push the hydrogen transition, and the EU has responded with its clean hydrogen agenda, and the EU Hydrogen Strategy. In fact, many countries currently have a hydrogen strategy in place. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) feature in many of them, so let’s focus on this.
CCS is when the carbon is captured, transported and stored, in most cases about 1km underground, and monitored for thousands of years. Oil and gas companies have been investing billions into CCS technology for years, in order to reduce the cost. But it is still a technology in development, and can all that CO2 really be stored or used safely? Let’s briefly look at a real life example:
Kemper in Texas USA , had an operational CCS in 2014. The quoted efficiency of capture is 90% (so this would mean for every ton of hydrogen produced, between 1 and 1.2t of CO2 would be produced). But then, the gas is transported 82 miles to an oilfield where it is used to pump more oil from the earth. The scheme got ditched in 2017 due to leaks, high costs (estimated $2.4b, but the final bill was over $7.5b before it was ditched), and political influences (Trump slashing R&D funding).
Further to this, there was a report by Element Energy in 2013 regarding the cost of Carbon Capture and Storage, detailed in this high-level review. The findings are not promising at all, especially for retrofit solutions. The solutions are highly dependent on locations, with the North Sea highlighted as the most likely area. The monitoring of pressure at sites will be essential for hundreds of years, which will no doubt push the cost up higher. Also, “each shoreline hub faces distinct spatial and scale challenges in supporting CCS growth”.
Blackfish cost comparison of EV and hydrogen cars https://blackfishengineering.com/2018/11/05/electric-vehicles-cost-analysis/ and https://blackfishengineering.com/2021/02/12/electric-vehicle-cost-analysis-revisited/
ITM Power Swindon branch