A NewtonX global macro-economic report focused on the rise of the global middle class predicted that while the global population is expected to grow by over 15% by 2050, the global middle class will grow at more than twice that rate in that same time period.
This growing middle class will consume energy with vigor: from the obvious global warming culprit, cars, to less obvious sources of energy consumption like home electricity. In past articles, I’ve outlined niche solutions for key areas in which energy conservation is absolutely necessary — in this article I will present broad findings across multiple NewtonX projects dealing with energy sources and humanity’s carbon footprint.
Viewed holistically, one energy source appeared throughout hundreds of qualitative and quantitative surveys: Hydrogen. According to a member of the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO initiative, comprehensive adoption of Hydrogen would avoid 6 Gt (Gigatonnes) of CO2 emissions, create a $2.5 trillion market for hydrogen and fuel cell equipment, and provide sustainable employment for millions of people. Here are the key areas in which analysts believe hydrogen could provide a viable and actionable solution to minimizing global warming.
As we’ve previously written, traditional batteries pose major environmental hazards. One solution to the battery problem in transportation is a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), which uses a fuel cell (Hydrogen) instead of a battery to power its electric motor. This type of power is not suited to all forms of transportation, though, and would need to be used for specific scenarios in conjunction with Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) for a truly green solution. FCEVs are best suited for long-range requirements with heavy payloads. Trucks and buses currently consume a large share of total transportation energy, and if they were completely converted to FCEV, this would achieve almost a third of hydrogen’s total CO2 elimination potential in transportation.
FCEVs produce 20-30% fewer emissions than traditional cars, and emit very little CO2. Hydrogen-fueled cars can also go significantly further without refueling, and expend less energy because of the reduced weight of hydrogen vs. batteries. Furthermore, they require fewer resources and energy expenditure in the manufacturing process than BEVs do.
Already, FCEV buses, medium-sized cars and forklifts are available today, and according to executives, over the next five years there will be more models of medium and large sized cars, buses, trucks, and trains powered by hydrogen. Walmart and Amazon both recently invested in hydrogen-powered forklifts for their warehouses.
NewtonX consulted with Vincent Dewaersegger, Senior Manager at Toyota to determine why Hydrogen cars are not as popular as EV’s (yet), and he explained that the main reason is that developing a Hydrogen car is more complex than a battery electric. Furthermore, he cited price as a barrier to adoption: “Current purchase price of FCEV models [is a barrier]: however, we expect significant cost reductions at each new generation models. In our view, cost of FCEV would be at the same level as current the Hybrid EV within 10-15 years.” Additionally, he noted that more infrastructure would be needed for consumers to buy FCEVs: “Customers are not ready to give up convenience. So once sufficient hydrogen stations will be in place, we foresee a significant increase of hydrogen cars on the road. We see many ambitious expansion plans in many countries (Germany, France, The Netherlands, …).”
According to the Hydrogen Council, hydrogen could build on existing gas infrastructure for heat and power in buildings, which would lower the cost of implementation significantly. Over 50% of household energy is used to heat space and water, and currently, most heat is generated by burning fossil fuels.
Fuel cells, which convert the chemical energy of hydrogen and an oxidant into electricity could be used in combined heat and power (CHP) applications in buildings. In this application, the same system can produce electricity and heat, which would improve the efficiency of the fuel cell system. Traditional CHP systems (which use engines) have a high heat to power ratio, which leads to heat dumping — fuel cells, though, have a 1:1 heat to power ratio. NewtonX Hydrogen experts estimated that this could increases efficiency by 30%. Furthermore, unlike electricity, hydrogen is easy to store for long periods, which makes it ideal for the seasonally dependent nature of heating.
Already, pilot communities have begun experimenting with hydrogen powered CHP systems. In the industrial city of Ulsan in South Korea, 130 households were connected to CHP units running on purified hydrogen from nearby petrochemical companies. An initiative in the UK aims to decarbonize the heating system in Leeds. It will replace natural gas with hydrogen from four steam methane reformers.
One of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels are the chemical and petrochemical industries. These industries use roughly 25 EJ of fossil fuels primarily in the form of natural gas, oil, or coal to produce 8 EJ of hydrogen for feedstock (raw material used as fuel) per year. To reduce emissions from this process, two things are needed: first, Hydrogen used as feedstock needs to be decarbonized by producing it from clean sources, and second, clean hydrogen needs to replace other fossil fuels as feedstock.
To decarbonize feedstock hydrogen, two routes are viable: the first is by producing carbon from clean sources — which could either be natural gases with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), which consists of capturing CO2, transporting it, and securely storing the CO2 emissions underground in depleted oil and gas fields or aline aquifer formations, and the second is through electrolysis from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. Clean hydrogen produced in these ways could also replace other feedstocks such as carbon from natural gas or coal.
Of the three primary use cases for hydrogen in reducing carbon reliance, feedstock has seen the least investment. While there are groups who are investing — such as Carbon Recycling International, whose plant in Iceland, produces hydrogen from electrolysis and captures CO2 from a geothermal power plant — this use for Hydrogen is currently speculative. NewtonX researchers included this use case, however, because experts indicated that
The dirty side of hydrogen
While NewtonX research indicated that hydrogen is a major source of executive interest and investment, these same executives did not believe that it is the perfect fuel. Rather, it’s a massive improvement to numerous energy sources utilized today.
Other solutions — including pure solar and wind power — are cleaner. The problem is they are not as easily stored or converted into the types of energy that we need in vast abundance today. For that reason, in addition to the uses for hydrogen outlined above, it is also a much-needed solution to storing intermittent energy from wind and solar power. When Hydrogen is produced from renewable energy it is fully clean. When it is produced from burning fossil fuels, however, it is simply a cleaner alternative.
Will a Hydrogen fueled world ever happen?
“The move to Hydrogen is fundamentally linked to enabling a sustainable and renewable energy society, where hydrogen will play the roles of energy storage and decoupling of production and refueling,” declared Dewaersegger.
Both advocates and skeptics of Hydrogen acknowledged its use, but also its associated costs and the barriers to consumer adoption. According to a statement provided to NewtonX by the Hydrogen Council, “Large-scale deployment of hydrogen transport solutions would require major investments in hydrogen infrastructure. Serving a fleet of 10 to 15 million FCEVs, for example, would require the equivalent of roughly 15,000 large filling stations** by 2030. Developing and building this refueling infrastructure could cost roughly $20 billion – about $1.25 to 1.5 million per large station. These costs are significantly lower than current costs in many countries: in Germany, an average small to medium-sized station costs around €1 million ($1.2 million); in Japan, the costs are three to five times higher due to regulatory requirements and geographical and geological conditions.”
Global renewable energy leaders, however, are committed to reducing emissions and humanity’s carbon footprint through the use of Hydrogen, and as associated costs decrease and consumer/governmental interest increases, we will see Hydrogen become increasingly integral to the pursuit of green energy consumption.