There’s a lot of talk about using hydrogen as a fuel to decarbonize the transportation industry. The hydrogen aircraft market could be worth $174 billion by 2040, according to Gediminas Žiemelis, chairman of the board of Avia Solutions Group.
But, currently 99.8% of hydrogen that’s produced is made using fossil fuels, according to an Earthjustice report released Tuesday.
While green hydrogen, which does not produce greenhouse gas emissions nor use fossil fuels, may be a useful fuel to reduce emissions in sectors such as aviation, maritime and long-haul trucking, the report, “Reclaiming hydrogen for a renewable future,” said it should not be considered in place of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) whenever their application is feasible.
Using renewable electricity to power BEVs is way more efficient than using it to produce green hydrogen to power hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
“Overall, it takes more than twice as much renewable energy to provide the same amount of motive power if you rely on [green] hydrogen instead of direct electrification, so that’s why BEVs have an inherent efficiency advantage over hydrogen vehicles,” Sara Gersen, senior attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit organization, and co-author of the report, told FreightWaves.
The infographic above shows that from generating renewable electricity to using it to power a vehicle, BEVs achieve a 70%-90% efficiency rate, whereas FCEVs achieve only 25%-35%.
Because of this, “Green hydrogen will always be a considerably more expensive fuel than renewable electricity,” the Earthjustice report said. It stressed that FCEVs should not be considered for passenger vehicles, buses or light- and medium-duty vehicles that travel shorter distances because they can use renewable electricity more directly via batteries.
“The only question is, what are the use cases that simply will not have a BE option and will need to rely on an alternative system like green hydrogen to get the job done?” Gersen said.
As innovations in battery technology continue reducing weight and range limitations, the applications in which green hydrogen should be considered for decarbonization are “becoming a smaller and smaller piece of the pie,” Gersen said.
She said that green hydrogen could be a useful sustainable fuel for aviation, shipping, and long-haul trucking because battery electric technology most likely will not be available in those sectors “anytime in the foreseeable future.”
Green hydrogen clarification
Companies and governments often reference “clean” or “renewable” hydrogen, but what does that mean?
The chart above shows the amount of GHG emissions released when producing hydrogen in different ways.
Some industries consider hydrogen produced using fossil fuels but capturing the related carbon emissions to be “clean.” Hydrogen produced using biogas from landfills or dairy farms can also be referred to as “renewable” hydrogen, but Gersen said this can sometimes be “purposefully” confusing.
Anytime something is greenwashed to the public as being a sustainable solution even though it releases significant amounts of GHGs, it hinders progress to reduce emissions and only increases confusion, Gersen said.
There are many ways to produce hydrogen, but the only hydrogen that results in zero emissions transportation throughout its entire life cycle is green hydrogen. This is produced using renewable electricity to power electrolyzers that separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The only emissions of green hydrogen during production are oxygen molecules. The only tailpipe emissions of hydrogen fuel cells, no matter how the hydrogen is produced, are heat and water vapor.
Despite its environmental benefits for hard-to-decarbonize sectors, green hydrogen comes with a green premium. Green hydrogen currently costs $5 per kilogram, whereas hydrogen produced from natural gas is about $1.50 per kilogram, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). But, Gersen said, “federal policy does have the power to move the needle on this.”
The DOE recently launched the Hydrogen Energy Earthshots Initiative to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% in one decade, aiming to get the price of clean hydrogen down to just $1 per kilogram.
Because the cost of producing green hydrogen relies heavily on the price and availability of renewable energy, green hydrogen prices will decrease as renewable electricity becomes cheaper.
“We would like to see the federal government laser-focused on supporting these zero-pollution technologies and not get distracted with policies that scale out the fossil fuel industry,” Gersen said. “The number one thing that we can do to bring down the cost of green hydrogen is to go big, dramatically scaling up deployment of wind and solar resources because the more we drive down the cost of renewable electricity by getting economies of scale, the lower the cost of green hydrogen.”
Hydrogen projects in different modes of transportation include:
- Hyzon’s hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks.
- Airbus’ hydrogen-powered aircraft.
- Canadian Pacific’s hydrogen-powered locomotive.