Thursday 5 March 2020

Clean Energy with Hydrogen?

cloud at sunset

The Tokyo Summer Olympics have been designed to showcase hydrogen as part of a clean energy future. The Olympic flame will be powered by hydrogen and 100 hydrogen-fuelled buses as well as 500 cars with hydrogen fuel cells will service the event.

In Europe, 13 countries and 31 regions have joined the European Hydrogen Valleys Partnership to support the development of fuel cell hydrogen projects. China has been rapidly increasing production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and has started introducing hydrogen-powered buses. Japan has started using hydrogen fuel cells as a residential energy source.

As countries around the world explore opportunities to exploit hydrogen as a clean energy carrier, let’s take a look at what is involved.

Grey, Green, and Blue
Hydrogen is relatively cheap and easy to produce in a number of different ways. At the moment, the majority is produced from natural gas, which generates significant carbon emissions. This is known as grey hydrogen as it continues to rely on fossil fuels.

Blue hydrogen is considered cleaner as it employs carbon capture to store or reuse the CO2 emissions. However, carbon capture has had mixed results to date and is technically unproven on a large scale.

The cleanest of all, although by far the least common, is green hydrogen, which is produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Heavy Industry
Hydrogen is currently being used on-site by industry, particularly for the production of the ammonia in nitrogen fertilizer and in oil refining where it’s added to heavier oil for transport fuel production.

Expanded use of hydrogen by fertilizer and petrochemical industries could help develop a business case for further development of hydrogen’s role in producing green energy. “In the highly cost-focused heavy industry, the requirement is thus for a cheap power source with a high capacity factor – typically baseload production at or below spot market prices. This could come from hydro power plants” or offshore wind.


There has been some experience with hydrogen fuel cells for powering cars and larger vehicles. “A fuel cell is an electrochemical power generation device that combines hydrogen fuel, with oxygen from air, to produce electricity, with water and heat as the only by-products.”

British Columbia is a world leader in hydrogen fuel cell technology. The province currently has 2 fuelling stations with plans for 4 more by the end of 2020.

Various projects are underway in Europe, including hydrogen boats, buses, tractors, and bicycles. Communities are experimenting with hybrid buses combining hydrogen fuel cells and batteries/capacitors. “All the energy required for the bus to operate is provided by hydrogen stored on board. Hydrogen offers higher energy density compared to electrical storage systems such as batteries, this enables a longer range compared to systems where the batteries are used as stores of energy.”

Long-Term Plans
In the short term, British Columbia plans to take advantage of the province’s natural gas industry to produce blue hydrogen. “The longer-term goal is to use B.C.’s abundant water and electricity to produce ‘green hydrogen’ through electrolysis for export, mainly to Asia, where the biggest market is.”

Japan has plans to ship hydrogen produced from brown coal via carbon capture in Australia to Japan where they hope to develop a nation-wide network of filling stations. “Get it right and hydrogen offers a way to fully decarbonise Japan’s transport sector, using fuel from a reliable strategic ally, while providing the automotive industry with a fresh source of competitive advantage over international rivals. The only problem is that this visionary infrastructure does not yet exist.”


The Benefits and Disadvantages of Hydrogen Energy
Energy from hydrogen has the potential to improve air quality and increase energy security. Using hydrogen to store large quantities of electricity from wind and solar appears promising and could address concerns about peaks and lows in renewable energy production. Hydrogen could also help to decarbonize sectors such as heavy industry, long-haul transport, chemicals, iron, and steel, which have found it difficult to reduce carbon emissions.

There are, however, a number of disadvantages to using hydrogen in green energy production.

Green hydrogen produced through electrolysis from excess electricity has the potential to be an effective way of storing excess electricity. However, this isn’t feasible until there is sufficient renewable energy to make a green hydrogen plant cost-effective.

Although hydrogen pipeline systems are already in place in some regions, that is not the case world-wide and changes to the current infrastructure could be expensive. Hydrogen’s low density increases transportation costs and experience with hydrogen refuelling stations has been mixed with serious incidents at stations in Norway, South Korea, and California.

Hydrogen cannot always compete with other energy sources on the basis of energy efficiency. “For example, hydrogen boilers for residential heating and hydrogen fuel cell cars are considerably less energy efficient than their electricity based competitors such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.”

Hydrogen has limited applicability in combustion technologies. Many see hydrogen as an intermediary in Power-to-X type of technologies where the hydrogen is further synthesized to generate carbon-neutral synthetic methane, which can be used as a direct replacement for fossil natural gas.

See Also
Geothermal Energy in Saskatchewan
Energy-Saving Options in Europe
The Transition to Renewable Energy in Saskatchewan
The Future of Renewable Energy in Indigenous and Remote Communities
Renewable Energy Success Stories from Indigenous and Remote Communities in Alaska
Wind Energy in Saskatchewan: Opportunities and Challenges
First Nations Power Authority
Saskatoon Solar Power Co-operative