Hydrogen reminds me of blockchain. Once upon a time, not so long ago, everybody would discuss blockchain. Blockchain this and blockchain that. Blockchain was by far the IT technology of the 2010s the same way Gigi Hadid was by far the IT girl of the same decade. Blockchain was energy’s Gigi (or Lewis Hamilton for those that prefer an F1 analogy).
But now we are going through the 2020s, so, as it often happens, things change. IT girls retire and perhaps technologies do not, but they do open the way for other trends, other ITs to take their place in our collective pop culture. The energy sector is no exception.
Enter hydrogen, the new IT for the energy sector of the 2020s and supposedly the solution to most of our clean energy problems. And just like that, we have a new trend.
The European Commission has created a robust Hydrogen Strategy divided in three phases. For the first one, which expands from 2020 up to 2024, the strategic objective is “to install at least 6 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers in the EU and the production of up to 1 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen28, to decarbonize existing hydrogen production”. Then phase two, from 2025 to 2030, “hydrogen needs to become an intrinsic part of an integrated energy system with a strategic objective to install at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers by 2030 and the production of up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU”. Finally, phase three, from 2030 and towards 2050, “renewable hydrogen technologies should reach maturity and be deployed at large scale to reach all hard-to decarbonize sectors”.
Alstom SA is set to introduce the first hydrogen-powered passenger trains in Germany, according to Bloomberg, by next March. And in addition to their German project, they have one more in the making, ordered by France’s national railroad. And the French manufacturer is not the only one with an eye on hydrogen-based transportation. Siemens AG is also currently developing hydrogen trains, some of which are scheduling test runs in 2024. Moreover, the World Bank is looking into hydrogen in order to decarbonize maritime transport. All that in order to reach the Green Deal’s goals and help create a greener future.
One ‘small’ problem is, that “the only kind of hydrogen that we are producing now in Europe is grey” says Ilaria Conti, Head of Gas at the Florence School of Regulation and an Enlit Impact Circle member. What does grey mean? That the production of hydrogen currently takes place via Steam Methane Reforming (SMR), where high-pressure steam (H2O) reacts with natural gas (CH4) resulting in hydrogen (H2) and the greenhouse gas CO2 (TNO). It can also be produced, to a lesser extent, from coal, but I don’t really want to think about it. And although as Ilaria confirms “the grey hydrogen can be transformed in green” and thus become truly clean, unfortunately, for now, it is rather expensive to do so.
Furthermore, hydrogen is a very light gas, and as such, it is highly flammable, so it needs to be handled with care especially when transported. It is also lighter than natural gas and can escape more easily from valves and seals, so this is one more thing to take into consideration when discussing the already existent infrastructure…
To summarise, hydrogen might be a clean resource at the point where we use it, but its production can be a dirty little polluter. And although we still haven’t solved the major issues that come with it, we have based loads of our hopes in it. This shows something for our collective pop culture, our ITs or even our Ids if you prefer a more Freudian analogy. Are we right to base so much hope into hydrogen? I hope so, what do you think? Share your thoughts via firstname.lastname@example.org.