Coal, oil, and natural gas are floundering under an onslaught of wind and solar power, as clean electricity battles its way into the light transportation and building energy areas. Other economic sectors are still holding the fossil fuel fort, but not for long. A new report indicates that wind and solar can ultimately prevail in those sectors, in the form of renewable hydrogen. Sneak attack!
Wind, Solar, & Renewable Hydrogen
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is an abundant fuel that emits no carbon. It can be burned as a combustible fuel, or it can generate electricity in a fuel cell.
So much for the good news. The problem is that hydrogen does not exist on its own. It has to be teased out of something else. Right now that something else is primarily natural gas, with coal also in the mix. So much for the free lunch!
On the bright side, hydrogen gas can be produced by applying an electrical current to water. Think H2O and you’re on the right track.
The process, called electrolysis or “water-splitting,” was a non-starter back when fossil fuels were relatively cheap and wind and solar were still relatively expensive (setting aside hydropower, which is its own thing).
Now that wind and solar costs have dropped, the financial prospects are coming into sharper focus. The key idea is that renewable hydrogen can function as a long duration, transportable, bulk energy carrier and energy storage platform for wind and solar power.
That’s it. That’s the sneak attack.
Renewable Hydrogen & Ground Transportation
With all that in mind, let’s turn to a brand new report from BloombergNEF that outlines the prospects for renewable hydrogen in various sectors, under the title, “Hydrogen Economy Offers Promising Path to Decarbonization.”
The basic argument is that wind and solar (and other renewables) can’t carry the full weight of global decarbonization as direct sources of electricity, but renewable hydrogen can fill in the missing pieces.
Before the new report hit the Intertubes last week, CleanTechnica had the opportunity to speak with Kobad Bhavnagri, who is lead author and head of industrial decarbonization for BNEF, to shed some additional light on the topic.
In a nutshell, fuel cell passenger cars and other light duty ground vehicles may still continue to struggle for a foothold in the hydrogen economy of the future, but the new report foresees plenty of wiggle room for renewable hydrogen elsewhere.
Bhavnagri explained that “basically we are much more bearish on the prospect of hydrogen vehicles in everything but [larger] trucks.”
The reasoning is that batteries are a less expensive solution for other vehicles, including passenger cars, SUVs, and light trucks. However, the power density of hydrogen would make it more economical for 18-wheelers and other heavy duty vehicles.
That trend already appears to be taking hold. Auto manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai that have been dipping into fuel cell passenger cars are now signing fuel cell truck deals, with and without the renewable angle.
It’s also possible that some use of hydrogen fuel cell cars and other lighter-duty vehicles could emerge in niche markets.
“In the nuanced view, hydrogen could have a role as a technology for certain uses where a battery doesn’t work well, for example, apartment dwellers without access to chargers. The extent of the market is not known but could be as high as 25%,” Bhavnagri said.
Renewable Hydrogen: Where The Rubber Hits The Road
So much for the transportation sector. As described by the new BNEF report, the real action in the renewable hydrogen area will take place off-road.
“You have to get your head above electricity if you really want to make a difference,” is the way Bhavnagri summed it up.
Before getting farther afield, Bhavnagri noted that the hydrogen economy is not here yet. It may even fail — as it has in the past — to take shape, unless policymakers leverage subsidies to create demand and scale up production.
Even with policy support, BNEF does not foresee a substantial role for hydrogen in the coming years. They’re looking at a 10-year period for scaling up, building up experience (and a supply chain), and getting costs down.
Bhavnagri explained that decarbonization will still make progress because battery technology is available now, and will continue to make an impact.
However, if and when the hydrogen economy hits, it’s going to hit big.
“To decarbonize power supply, the cheapest thing is renewable electricity, and for storage batteries are the best option,” he explained. “That’s not going to change. Hydrogen is for applications where you can’t use electricity and a battery can’t give you enough storage and discharge.”
Bhavnagri pointed out that electricity is only 18% of final energy consumption.
“We’ve been focusing on electricity because we have the tech to clean that up,” he said, “But for the 82% of energy that is met by molecule fuel, if we’re going to decarbonize that, the balance will change.”
The idea is that in a zero carbon economy, electricity will do much more that 18%. However, BNEF foresees clean electricity topping out at about 40-60%.
So, what to do about that other 40-60%?
Aside from heavy duty vehicles, Bhavnagri referenced high temperature processes like steel making, glass, aluminum making, and cement as good prospects for renewable hydrogen.
Chemicals (green ammonia is a big one) and energy storage for power generation are also be in the mix.
That includes long duration energy storage as well as dispatchable power in circumstances where hydrogen storage is more attractive than battery storage.
“Hydrogen is about much more than vehicles,” Bhavnagi said in conclusion. “The emphasis on transport is a bit misplaced. For the hydrogen industry to succeed it’s all the other sectors, too.
Lots to chew on there! Especially considering that all of this is premised on massive public subsidies at a time when fossil fuel stakeholders still wield considerable influence over national policy (looking at you, US).
When you’ve had a chance to read the report, add your thoughts in the comment thread.
Image: Hydrogen economy via US Department of Energy.
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