Hydrogen: A quick reality check

Editor’s note: What follows is a short report from the United States Energy Assn’s (USEA) webinar, “The Role of Hydrogen and Renewable Gas in Decarbonization,” June 12, 2020, moderated by Llewellyn King, executive producer and host, White House Chronicle. Panelists from Guidehouse, which acquired Navigant Consulting Inc in October 2019, were Mark Eisenhower, partner, Energy, Energy Sustainability & Infrastructure, and Daan Peters, director, Utilities & Energy Companies.

If you are struggling to make sense of all the information coming at you about hydrogen (H2) as the fuel of the future, be content in knowing that color coding has come to the rescue. Grey H2 is what is typically available today, a byproduct of petrochemical and other industrial processes. Blue H2 is grey H2 with the CO2 captured, stored, and or reused. Green H2 is that produced in splitting water by electrolysis using non-carbon generated electricity, primarily solar and wind but also nuclear.

According to the Guidehouse consultants, H2 enriched natural gas can be transported and distributed in the existing and extensive natural gas pipeline systems around the world. However, some modifications will be required, especially to valving and compressor stations. H2 requires three to five times the compression energy as natural gas. H2 is also far lighter than natural gas, making it more susceptible to leakage from all flanges, joints, and connector components. Existing pipelines would have to be “cleaned” if they were to transport 100% H2.

Other work around the world has shown that existing gas turbines can burn mixtures of H2 and natural gas, again with some modifications.

But H2 is not going to make a dent in the electricity industry’s energy source mix unless (1) natural-gas prices rise substantially, (2) the value of carbon rises substantially, (3) governments enact mandates for the use of H2 or otherwise act to elevate the value of carbon, (4) electric and gas industries make substantial investments in H2 infrastructure, and/or (5) green H2 production costs decline substantially (for example, if renewable electricity costs continue to decline).

Guidehouse noted that Europe is making a bigger and faster push to H2 than the US. Developers and governments are “looking to build 180 GW of offshore wind and using at least part of this electricity for the electrolysis operations, Germany wants to ramp up H2 production “very quickly,” and Japan (heavily dependent on imported liquefied natural gas) seeks to bring large quantities of H2 from Australia.

The Guidehouse participants also noted that most carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects have failed, although most were at coal plants. When asked how H2 compared with use of grid-scale storage options—such as large batteries, compressed air energy storage, or pumped-storage hydroelectric—the panelists responded that H2 may be better for “long-term, seasonal” storage.

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