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Green hydrogen: The future of fuel?

New technology promising despite costly challenges

(Photo: iStock)

The transportation sector is researching and adopting the use of alternative fuels such as hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries. The majority of hydrogen produced today comes from natural gas and coal.

Green hydrogen is hydrogen that is produced using electrolyzers powered by renewable electricity, according to a 2020 study entitled “The Role of Green and Blue Hydrogen in the Energy Transition — A Technological and Geopolitical Perspective” and written by Michel Noussan, Pier Paolo Raimondi, Rossana Scita and Manfred Hafner. Renewable electricity can come from a myriad of renewable energy sources including wind, solar and hydro. 

“While transportation currently accounts for a marginal share of global hydrogen demand, this sector is among the most promising for the development of hydrogen technologies, due to its heavy reliance on oil products and to the few low-carbon options in some applications,” the study said. 

Green hydrogen has promising potential

A 2020 regional assessment for the potential of green hydrogen in Europe stated that the cost of electrolyzers is expected to halve by 2030 due to economies of scale. It also said electrolyzers will be better able to compete with fossil-based hydrogen in areas with ample, cheap renewable electricity available by 2030.

“No one knows for sure, but right now it’s starting to look like hydrogen fuel cells are in the lead [compared to battery electric-powered vehicles], and many experts think that will continue,” said Matt Waller, the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, in an interview with FreightWaves last month. Waller said hydrogen fuel cells could be better for the environment than electric batteries because there isn’t any poisonous material to dispose of with hydrogen, and the only byproduct is water.

Renewable energy faces challenges with intermittent energy production depending on the amount of sun, wind or waves each hour, day or season. Using excess renewable energy to produce green hydrogen when it’s available could help solve this inefficiency and lower costs because excess energy is cheaper during nonpeak hours, according to the 2020 European assessment.

Costs and renewable energy demand create barriers

The cost of green hydrogen production, storage and distribution are current barriers for hydrogen adoption. “The Role of Green and Blue Hydrogen” study noted that fossil-based hydrogen solutions currently cost less than using electrolyzers for green hydrogen, but prices are expected to drop as experts learn more about electrolyzers and renewable electricity generation in the coming decades.

The demand for using renewable energy to decarbonize electricity is rising rapidly. The incoming Biden administration reportedly has plans to make decarbonization a priority in several industries. Green hydrogen production could require some of that renewable electricity to be reallocated to hydrogen production.

In addition to fighting competition for the use of renewable electricity, hydrogen-powered vehicles would need fueling stations. There is a big push to create an expansive charging station for electric vehicles, so building the necessary fueling infrastructure for hydrogen-powered vehicles could be difficult.

Green hydrogen uses about 10-15 liters of pure water per kilogram of hydrogen output, according to the 2020 study. It said producing green hydrogen in places where solar energy would be readily available such as deserts could be an issue because water scarcity is a growing concern due to climate change.

Green hydrogen gains ground

In December, seven global companies announced the Green Hydrogen Catapult initiative, a coalition to scale up green hydrogen fiftyfold in the next six years. “The bold vision and leadership of businesses can propel green hydrogen along an exponential growth trajectory to support economic recovery and deep decarbonization sooner than anticipated,” said Nigel Topping, COP26 high level champion for Global Climate Action. 

“We’re talking about delivering zero-emission flight to society,” Glenn Llewellyn, vice president of zero-emissions aircraft at Airbus, said in a webinar related to the company’s ambitious goal of creating the world’s first zero-emissions commercial aircraft by 2035. The aircraft would achieve zero-emission status by relying on green hydrogen for energy.

Major hydrogen fuel solutions provider Plug Power acquired United Hydrogen Group and Giner ELX in 2020. Plug Power plans to use electrolyzer technology from Giner ELX along with United Hydrogen Group’s liquefaction plants, according to a release. These strategic acquisitions are in line with Plug Power’s goal for green hydrogen to represent 50% of its source mix by 2024.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.