The CLIC™ Chronicles: A future fuelled by hydrogen? Building the path for cleaner energy

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The CLIC™ Chronicles: A future fuelled by hydrogen? Building the path for cleaner energy

Renewable, clean, efficient and non-toxic – hydrogen power would seem to be the perfect form of sustainable energy. Yet it has not taken off in the same way as other renewables. Why? Instability, expense and storage are the reasons frequently cited. But governments in the UK1, Germany2 and Japan3 are now looking to see whether using hydrogen energy could help to reduce emissions. Moves like these will help decarbonise economies, a vital shift if we are to move towards a circular, lean, inclusive and clean (CLICTM) model.

Renewable, clean, efficient and non-toxic – hydrogen power would seem to be the perfect form of sustainable energy

Gaznat is paving the way for progress in hydrogen power usage. Based in western Switzerland, this company has become known as a supplier and transporter of natural gas. But it has also shown its commitment towards a carbon neutral energy mix by 2050 through its work in developing new sustainable technologies, most notably in the "Power-to-gas" sector, where surplus electricity produced by renewable energy sources can be stored in the form of hydrogen.

We talked to chief executive René Bautz about what the future holds for hydrogen.


How do you see hydrogen power developing over the coming decade and how will the public and investors see it emerge in a daily context?

Hydrogen is an energy carrier that has been used for many years. With the objectives of carbon neutrality, zero net emissions of greenhouse gases linked to human activities by 2050, the use of hydrogen has many benefits such as the absence of pollution and CO2 emissions, which makes it a major asset in energy transition. New production technologies such as electrolysis (where ionic substances are decomposed into simpler substances using an electric current) or thermolysis (the chemical decomposition caused by heat) are being developed to limit emissions, but are still expensive and complex to implement on a large scale.

…the use of hydrogen has many benefits such as the absence of pollution and CO2 emissions, which makes it a major asset in energy transition

However, thanks to the multiplication of new installations such as "Power-to-gas"4, reduction in costs due to economies of scale are expected. The current hydrogen market is estimated at around 120 million tons per year, mainly for industrial applications such as oil refining, ammonia and methanol production. This represents approximatively 2% of the total world primary energy demand with a market value of 132 billion euros (considering that this production is mainly based on fossil fuels). The development of new applications, particularly in the mobility and industrial sectors, could increase these market shares. In addition, injection into natural gas networks could also help develop the use of hydrogen on a larger scale. According to IRENA5, the potential for the production of green hydrogen (without CO2 emissions, from renewable energies) is estimated at 140 million tons in 2050 which corresponds to the annual consumption (primary energy equivalent) of Japan. In the case of significant drops in production and transport costs, hydrogen energy could even cover 18% of final energy needs in 2050, according to the Hydrogen Council.

In the case of significant drops in production and transport costs, hydrogen energy could even cover 18% of final energy needs in 2050, according to the Hydrogen Council

What are the principle problems that face hydrogen in terms of a widescale adoption?

The first challenge related to the large-scale use of this energy is its cost. Major efforts must be made to improve the efficiency of hydrogen production and reduce equipment and logistics costs. Today, the production of hydrogen by electrolysis is five times more expensive than the price of a natural gas molecule purchased on the market. Another challenge is logistics. Hydrogen is characterised by a high mass energy density and a low volume density. As a result, it must be compressed at a high pressure to reduce its volume. Hydrogen can also be liquefied for transport at -253oC. This is a much lower temperature than liquefied natural gas (-163oC). New technologies are being developed for storage, including absorption processes based on metal hydrides.

Is the public at large aware of the benefits offered by hydrogen?

When hydrogen is mentioned in the public, we often think either of the hydrogen thermonuclear bomb, or the Hindenburg airship that exploded in 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey. These events received a lot of attention and made a lasting impression. However, modern hydrogen-related technologies such as electrolysers, hydrogen fuel cells or filling facilities are still largely unknown to the public, as are the benefits that can be derived from this energy, especially for the environment.

…modern hydrogen-related technologies such as electrolysers, hydrogen fuel cells or filling facilities are still largely unknown to the public, as are the benefits that can be derived from this energy, especially for the environment

Which country is leading the way in research and progress in the area?

A number of countries have realised the strategic importance of developing an economy based in part on hydrogen. Japan is a forerunner in this field and published its hydrogen strategy in 2017. It wishes to develop its production based on blue hydrogen, made from fossil energy but with CO2 capture, as well as on green hydrogen, made from renewable energies through electrolysis. The Tokyo Olympic Games should showcase the development of these Japanese technologies, supported by major industrial groups such as Toyota, Honda or Mitsubishi. Japan has approached other countries, such as Australia, to produce and import a share of hydrogen in order to achieve this transformation. As part of its "Green Deal" strategy, Europe estimates that a quarter of all renewable energy could be used to produce renewable hydrogen between 2030 and 2050. Germany and France have decided to strengthen their cooperation in the field and to develop the large-scale production of electrolysers to decarbonise industrial sites. California is also relaunching its hydrogen program with the development of 1,000 hydrogen filling stations by 2030 to supply about 50,000 vehicles. Switzerland wants to test the use of hydrogen, particularly in the trucking sector with a fleet of 1,600 South Korean trucks. In addition, several development projects in the field of power-to-gas are being planned or built.

Japan is a forerunner in this field (…). It wishes to develop its production based on blue hydrogen, made from fossil energy but with CO2 capture, as well as on green hydrogen, made from renewable energies through electrolysis

What do you think of the green generation of hydrogen via renewable energy? What are the challenges and possibilities?

The fight against climate change will require the production of green hydrogen, i.e. hydrogen from renewable sources (by electrolysis or steam reforming from biomethane). Today, more than 78% of the hydrogen produced in Europe is grey hydrogen, which is made from fossil energy and it is not decarbonated. The production of low-carbon hydrogen represents less than 1% of total production. The production of green hydrogen is extremely expensive (around €150/MWh) compared to the natural gas price of €16/MWh on the spot market. However, the European Commission has presented an ambitious plan for the development of a green hydrogen strategy by 2030. Green hydrogen can only be developed through the support of incentive programs (f.e. financial support or adapted regulations) and cost reductions through economies of scale.

The fight against climate change will require the production of green hydrogen…

What industries do you see as benefitting from the use of hydrogen? How do you envisage ‘establishment’ industries such as steel and manufacturing adapting to it?

Green or decarbonated hydrogen is one of the means to reduce emissions from high emitting segments such as cement, steel or chemicals. In particular, it provides energy for high-temperature processes. In the field of mobility, hydrogen could make a non-negligible contribution, especially in intensive applications and when a good autonomy - long journey - is required (such as for trains, commercial vehicles and long-range transport). Aviation is also interested. Airbus has unveiled its strategy to fly a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035. It will probably be necessary to use liquid hydrogen to achieve sufficient energy density.

Green or decarbonated hydrogen is one of the means to reduce emissions from high emitting segments such as cement, steel or chemicals

What is the importance of government supports in growing the use of hydrogen and reaching the economies of scale that will be necessary for the sector to grow?

The development of an energy economy based on hydrogen is first and foremost an industrial issue. However, a clear framework is needed from governments to remove uncertainties about future investments. In the IEA report for the G20 meeting in Japan in 2019, five points were defined to support the scale-up of hydrogen. Firstly to plan medium and long-term objectives with roadmaps for hydrogen development. Then to stimulate demand to help scale up with clear regulations. After that, to limit investment risks with a clear subsidy policy, risk guarantees, consistent certification of origin, etc. Then to support R&D and pilot projects and the exchange of experience. And finally to harmonise standards and eliminate trade barriers. This five-point strategy is still in use today.

1 https://www.ft.com/content/0c8d3e67-fb6c-4a74-b941-2fa8697d751c
2 https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-national-hydrogen-strategy
3 https://www.ft.com/content/c586475e-7260-11e9-bf5c-6eeb837566c5
4 Power-to-gas: Power-to-gas allows the storage of excess renewable energy using hydrogen or synthetic methane. It is interconnected between the electricity and natural gas networks.
5 https://www.irena.org/

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