“Green” hydrogen: Where are we at?

One of the biggest challenges in transitioning to renewable energy has been the usefulness of fossil products for fueling long-distance transportation. Cars, trucks, planes, and boats all generally rely on fossil fuels for power. Hydrogen is periodically proposed as an alternative, for those vehicles that can’t functionally be run from batteries, or tied to a grid like trains. The problem is that most hydrogen currently available also comes from processing of fossil fuels, which is why George W. Bush was so willing to promote it as an “alternative” to oil. Disingenuous greenwashing aside, however, hydrogen does work, and as with the power for electric cars, the question is more about where it comes from.

The idea of using renewable energy to produce hydrogen for fuel has been around for a long time, as have proposals to use nuclear power for the same purpose. In both cases the scale of production needed will be massive to make any real dent in the fossil fuel economy. Whether or not hydrogen from splitting water becomes a major part of fueling human society, it has the potential as a portable fuel source to replace oil or gas, and I think it’s good that it’s being explored. Japan’s efforts to rebuild and re-invent the Fukushima region are what drew my attention back to this. They’ve opened a solar powered electrolysis plant to act as a pilot project for later mass production.

The Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) uses a 20MW solar array, backed up by renewable power from the grid, to run a 10MW electrolyser at the site in Namie Town, Fukushima Prefecture.

A consortium including Toshiba, Tohoku Electric Power and Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) said the project is the largest electrolyser yet to produce hydrogen from clean power sources. The FH2R system can produce up to 100kg of hydrogen an hour, said the partners.

The project will be used as a test bed for mass production of green H2, with initial output directed to fuel hydrogen cars and buses in Japan – including some to be used at the Tokyo Olympics later this year.

My rough calculation based on the numbers from this article indicates that that’s enough to fuel about an average week’s commute for 18 fuel cell-powered cars. That’s not a lot, but it’s not meant to be at this stage.

Shell is partnering with the Gasunie natural gas company, and the Groningen Port Authority in the Netherlands for a much larger installation powered by offshore wind turbines: 

The electricity would be brought onshore at Eemshaven where it would be used to produce hydrogen for northern European industry and distributed via Gasunie’s current network.

The factory will have capacity to produce 800,000 tonnes of hydrogen a year. ‘Green hydrogen, produced via renewable sources such as wind and solar power, is central in the Dutch climate agreement and in the European Green Deal,’ the three companies say.

Hydrogen is widely used in industry but is currently mainly produced with gas.

Last October, Groningen hosted a major conference on developing a hydrogen based economy.

Economic affairs minister Erik Wiebes said at the time the region has everything it needs, including infrastructure (gas pipelines, deep-sea port), the space and the knowledge to make the transition to a hydrogen economy a reality.

The offshore wind farm will kick off with production of some three to four gigawatts by 2030, expanding to 10 gigawatts by 2040. This would be enough to supply 12.5 million households, or more than the total number of households in the Netherlands, the project group said.

This is encouraging news, if it holds up. The fact that it’s being run by fossil fuel corporations make me worry that it’s an attempt at greenwashing that will never amount to much. Fossil fuel corporations should have turned their vast resources to creating alternative energy sources decades ago, when the climate had not yet been destabilized, but better late than never, I suppose.

Another concern has been transport and storage of hydrogen. The Groningen project, and a plan to power LA with hydrogen both rely on existing natural gas infrastructure, and in the case of LA, on continued use of natural gas, at least in the short term. The potential of hydrogen should not be used as an excuse to increase use of natural gas, and I am worried that that’s what this is. On the surface that seems to be a matter of putting the matter into the hands of people who know how to handle volatile gasses, but the record of neglect and incompetence by gas companies, and the associated ruptures and leaks makes me worried about letting those corporations handle hydrogen, given the energy required to produce the stuff, and the amount that could be lost to their profit-driven corner-cutting.

A project in Australia is exploring a different method of storage: 

The 4.5MW Manilla Community Solar array will backed by a unique 2MW/17MWh storage system that takes green hydrogen — produced in electrolysers powered by the solar panels — and stores it in a salt-like substance call sodium borohydride (NaBH4).

This non-toxic solid material can absorb hydrogen like a sponge, store the gas until it is required, and then release the H2 with the application of heat. The released hydrogen is then run through a fuel cell to generate electricity.

This system allows hydrogen to be stored cheaply at high density and low pressure without the need for energy-intensive compression or liquefaction.

I don’t know if this would be a viable way to transport hydrogen – it seems more designed to use as a static “tank” – but I think there would be value in having options other than pipelines run by corporations who’ve already shown themselves incapable of responsible behavior.

It’s still unclear to me whether hydrogen will ever become more than a prop for the bogus argument that natural gas is a “bridge fuel”, but it seems like something that ought to be within the realm of possibility. If it happens, it will require a massive scale-up in renewable energy and/or nuclear power beyond what’s needed to power the grid. As always, that work needs to be happening faster.


  1. says

    Because of the fundamental inefficiency of the process of generating and storing hydrogen with electricity and converting it back again, I think it won’t be widely used where batteries can be used instead. As a method of using essentially free energy to make fuel (during times of surplus sun and wind power once other storages are full) its efficiency isn’t so much of an issue. I can see it being used for things like long distance cargo ships.

    In gaseous form it is highly dangerous when mishandled too, a hydrogen refuelling station in Norway went bang in a rather alarming fashion last June.


    As a chemical feedstock for more complex fuels, e.g. methanol, it has a bigger future because it can then be handled by existing equipment at low pressures. Also iron ore reduction can be done with hydrogen instead of coal.

  2. says

    Yeah. It seems worth exploring, but I doubt it’s going to be anything close to the energy panacea some seem to think it’ll be.

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    This hydrogen approach will become necessary for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. Long distance air travel needs petrol, and one can make CO2-neutral petrol with hydrogen as input along with a suitable source of carbon. This is not new. This has been done at industrial scale before, and at known costs. The only tricky part is getting a suitable source of carbon. There’s some small-scale work by several groups to pull CO2 out of the air or ocean water to be that source of carbon for the process. There’s been some hopeful success. Most of the energy requirements seem to be for the splitting of water to produce hydrogen.

  4. says

    That was my thinking Gerard. From what I can tell, hydrogen-based planes need to be designed differently to account for the volatility Lofty mentioned, and the difference in energy density.

  5. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I don’t think we’re getting hydrogen planes. Volatility is one thing. However, the lower energy density (volume, or was it weight?) is killer for conventional long-distance air travel AFAIK. For conventional long-distance air travel, you need conventional liquid hydrocarbons, specifically jetfuel, which is often just kerosene. There is no known substitute. So long as we get a working method to pull CO2 out of the air or oceans at cost, plus a clean cheap abundant source of electricity and/or process heat, we can have carbon-neutral jetfuel and continued air travel as normal.

  6. says

    Hydrogen has low energy density, even when highly compressed, not to mention that it is several orders of magnitude more dangerous than kerosene.
    It can be converted to liquid NH3 or chemically bound several liquid organic compounds from which it can be again released either for burning or electric cell. It all has still too low energy density for airplanes though.
    In my opinion, the best option is to use surplus cheap energy – where there is some – to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and bind it with hydrogen in a catalytic reaction to make methanol. That can subsequently be converted to many other things – carbon-neutral fuels, carbon-neutral plastics etc.
    The problem is energy. The technology is already here, only it is not as energy efficient (read-cheap) as burning the fossil fuels.

  7. says

    A very interesting book that I read some years ago, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy by Olah, George A goes on at length about methanol as an energy carrier, instead of hydrogen. As mentioned above, the major problem with hydrogen is the energy density, and that of course includes the size and weight of the containing system. Better play with your heavily armoured hydrogen tanks at sea level away from the bulk of the population.

  8. says

    I’ll get around to posting on it at some point, but there’s been a fair amount of progress made on making jet fuel from sugar, so it may be that biofuels are the future of air travel, insofar as it has a future.

    I do wonder whether hydrogen will ever be used for lighter-than-air craft again. Helium’s better on a number of levels, but it’s a more limited resource.

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