TMCnet Feature
July 20, 2020

Should Renewable Energy be Used to Produce Hydrogen? Turab Musayev Weighs In

The colorless gas hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, accounts for the vast majority of atoms in the human body, and just may be humanity’s salvation when it comes to solving the climate change crisis that threatens to decimate our planet’s ecosystem and habitability.

Hydrogen just may be the ultimate energy source according to Turab Musayev, commodities trading expert who has worked for energy companies BP and Marathon Oil. Its biggest selling point says Turab is that it burns cleanly, leaving nothing but water in its wake.

Thus, harnessing hydrogen as an energy source for powering the grid and even motor vehicles (through the use of hydrogen fuel cells) is all but a necessity for countries around the world as they vow to achieve net-zero emissions within the next 30 years as part of the Paris Agreement.

Currently, the cost of producing and distributing hydrogen from renewable sources (termed “green” hydrogen) is prohibitive compared to dirtier options that involve the use of coal and natural gas. The latter, dubbed “grey” hydrogen, does not lower CO2 emissions, but is nonetheless favored by many industries given its energy density, light weight, and storage and transfer capacity, says Turab Musayev, being used extensively in the production of steel, ammonia, and methanol, among other uses.

However, those costs are poised to come down dramatically over the next decade if the hydrogen movement receives the necessary investment. The Hydrogen Council predicts that with $70 billion of investment over the next decade, green hydrogen production costs could be lowered by as much as 50% by 2030.

While green hydrogen still has a ways to go to catch grey hydrogen in terms of cost effectiveness, it has already surpassed “blue” hydrogen, which is created through a process requiring natural gas called steam methane reforming.

That blue H2 process would not only require many countries to import natural gas from places like Russia, but it also fails as a net-zero energy system, as it can’t capture all of the methane being emitted. And methane is a particularly egregious planet-warming substance, trapping 84x more heat than carbon dioxide.

Nonetheless, proponents of blue hydrogen claim that, unlike green hydrogen currently, it can be produced at the scale necessary to replace even dirtier fossil fuels and grey hydrogen.

How Renewable Energy is Converted Into Hydrogen

Unlike blue hydrogen, green hydrogen is a completely zero-emissions gas, achieved by using renewable energy to split water molecules into their constituent parts (hydrogen and oxygen) through a process called electrolysis using an aptly named device: an electrolyser. The resulting hydrogen can then be burned for clean energy or stored in a fuel cell for other uses.

As promising as green hydrogen is, Turab Musayev admits that the proponents of blue hydrogen do have a good argument against it for the foreseeable future in that the infrastructure and renewable energy capacity simply isn’t available at this point to make green hydrogen a viable global energy option.

According to an International Energy Agency report, it would require about 3,600TWh of renewable energy to produce enough green hydrogen just to replace the hydrogen produced by fossil fuels alone, let alone to replace fossil fuels entirely.

For context, the global production of renewable energy stood at just 5.9TWh in 2016.  Needless to say, that’s a massive renewable energy hill to climb before green hydrogen can even be considered a realistic option, regardless of cost.

It’s also entirely possible that by the time green hydrogen is readily available and cheaper, an even better option will have come along to displace it. Turab Musayev points to the plans being launched by a Canadian startup called Proton Technologies as one example.

The company is currently testing its plans to produce clean, ultra-cheap hydrogen using its Hygenic Earth Energy concept that would see it capture hydrogen from underground oil and gas reservoirs by lighting the hydrocarbons on fire.

At temperatures above 500 degrees Celsius, syngas comprised partly of hydrogen, is produced when steam or water vapor reacts with the hydrocarbons. That hydrogen is then separated and captured through a patented process that has been proven effective above ground, but which could yet prove challenging when deployed several kilometers below the surface.

Proton Technologies believes that it could produce this clean hydrogen for just $0.10-0.50 per kilogram, a fraction of the $0.80 per kilogram figure that green hydrogen isn’t expected to achieve until 2050.

So while using renewable energy to produce hydrogen is certainly a worthy goal that could ultimately prove to be the most reliable method of lowering our carbon emissions, there are some significant hurdles that will need to be overcome in the years and decades to come.

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