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Time to get real: amid the hydrogen hype, let’s talk about what will work

For 50 years hydrogen has been championed as a clean-burning gas that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The idea of a “hydrogen economy” is now enjoying a new wave of enthusiasm — but it is not a silver bullet. Amid the current hydrogen hype, there is little discussion about when the technology can realistically become commercially viable, or the best ways it can be used to cut emissions.

Here’s where we can focus hydrogen investment to get the best bang for our buck.

An industrial skyline
A poorly targeted hydrogen strategy will slow emissions reduction. AP

Hydrogen sucks up energy and space

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but rarely is it freely available. It must be unlocked from water (H2O) or fossil fuels such as methane (CH4), then compressed for transport and use. These steps waste a lot of energy.

To be transported, for example, hydrogen must be kept under high pressure or extremely low temperature. And in terms of energy storage, even heating up stones is more efficient.

The world must reach net-zero emissions within 30 years to avert the worst climate change. That means using renewable energy as efficiently as possible to maximise emissions reductions and minimise the land space required. So we must be strategic in how and where we use hydrogen.

Hydrogen pathways. Staffell et al 2018. The role of hydrogen and fuel cells in the global energy system.

Use hydrogen in places electricity won’t go

In most applications, renewables-based electrification has emerged as the most energy efficient, and cost-effective way to strip emissions from the economy.

Yet there are some industries where electrification will remain challenging. It’s here renewable hydrogen — produced from wind and solar energy — will be most important. These industries include steelcementaluminiumshipping and aviation.

A renewable hydrogen export market may also emerge in the long-term.

Renewable hydrogen will also be important to replace existing hydrogen produced by fossil fuels. But this alone will require a significant increase in electricity generation, to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This is a major challenge.

What about cars and trucks?

Road transport is one area where we believe hydrogen will not play a major role. In fact, Telsa founder Elon Musk has gone as far as to call hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles “mind-bogglingly stupid”.

Hydrogen vehicles will always consume two to four times more energy than battery electric vehicles. This is simply due to the laws of physics, and cannot be resolved by technological improvements.

In the case of hydrogen-powered vehicles, this will mean higher costs for consumers compared to battery-electric vehicles. It also means far more space for solar panels or wind turbines is needed to generate renewable energy.

What’s more, electric vehicles already have longer driving range and continuously expanding charging infrastructure, including ultra-fast chargers.

Comparing the amount of electricity that is lost for hydrogen cars versus electric cars. Volkswagen AG

Most global car makers have recognised the lack of advantage for hydrogen cars and instead invested about US$300 billion in the development and manufacturing of electric cars. Toyota and Hyundai — the last main proponents of hydrogen cars — are also ramping up efforts on electric cars.

As for trucks, the US Department of Energy does not expect hydrogen semi-trailers to be competitive with diesel until around 2050, mainly due to the high cost and low durability of hydrogen fuel cells.

While hydrogen trucks may have a role to play in 20 to 30 years, this will be too late to help reach a 2050 net-zero target. As such, we must explore energy-efficient options already widely deployed overseas, including electric trucks, electrified roads and electrified trailers.

A hydrogen vehicle at a refuelling station
Hydrogen vehicles are less energy-efficient than electric vehicles. Kydpl Kyodo/AP

A truly strategic plan

Hydrogen derived from fossil fuels is currently used to make products such as fertiliser and methanol. Supporting the transition to renewable hydrogen for these uses will be an important first step to scale up the industry.

If produced at regional shipping ports close to aluminium, steel or cement plants, this will provide further opportunities to expand renewable hydrogen use to minerals processing, while creating new jobs.

As hydrogen production scales up and costs fall, excess hydrogen would be available at ports for fuelling ships — either directly or through a hydrogen derivative like ammonia. Hydrogen gas could also be used to make carbon-neutral synthetic fuel for planes.

If an international export market emerged in the future, this strategy would also mean renewable hydrogen would be available at ports to directly ship overseas.

Finally, if the development of hydrogen truck technology accelerates before 2050, renewable hydrogen would be available to power the significant number of semi-trailers that travel to and from shipping ports.

Shipping containers and cranes at a port.
Daean Lewins/AAP

Let’s get real

Renewable hydrogen is a scarce and valuable resource, and should be directed towards sectors most difficult to decarbonise.

Delaying the electrification of road transport and energy on the promise of hydrogen will ultimately only benefit the fossil fuel industry.


Courtesy: The Conversation

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Government, private sector collaborate to build SA’s Hydrogen Platinum Valley

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is collaborating with companies in the energy sector to carry out a feasibility study for the establishment of a Platinum Valley. The collaboration agreement is led by DSI, partnering with Anglo American, energy and services company ENGIE, and clean energy solutions provider Bambili Energy. The feasibility study, which is the first phase of the Platinum Valley initiative, will drive the planning, design, construction and commissioning of projects related to the development of a Hydrogen Valley.

The project will be implemented through the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI), which will also fund projects to take intellectual property through the Hydrogen SA (HySA) centres of competence to market in partnership with the private sector.

“The study will support plans to create a Hydrogen Valley along the Bushveld complex and larger region stretching from Anglo American’s Mogalakwena platinum mine near Mokopane to Johannesburg and Durban,” DSI explained.

The study aims to identify tangible opportunities to build hydrogen hubs in this key economic and transport corridor, leveraging the regional platinum group metals (PGMs) mining industry and exploring the potential for hydrogen production and supply at scale. 

“PGMs play an important role in polymer electrolyte membrane electrolysis used to produce hydrogen, as well as in hydrogen fuel cells,” DSI explained.

The DSI said the agreement has the potential of creating direct opportunities for economic and community development while contributing to decarbonisation efforts.

Meanwhile, the department believes that science, technology and innovation will play a key role in supporting the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan for South Africa. 

The Hydrogen Valley is one of the first projects that will be implemented in partnership with the private sector to support the Platinum Valley initiative. 

In addition, small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) will be supported to take advantage of opportunities in the green economy as part of the just transition to a green economy.

“The aim is to boost economic growth and job creation, drive the development of new industries, increase value-add to the country’s platinum reserves, and reduce the country’s carbon footprint.”

Also, hydrogen and fuel cells offer several advantages to the transport sector – comparable refuelling times to internal combustion engine vehicles, longer ranges and space efficiency.

Anglo American is deemed as one of the leaders in initiatives to promote the adoption of hydrogen fuel cells vehicles for commercial use, facilitating the creation of consortiums of industry partners to promote the development of hydrogen freight corridors in the United Kingdom, South Africa and China, among others. 

Anglo American’s PGM business CEO, Natascha Viljoen, said: “The transition to a low-carbon world is an opportunity to drive the development of cleaner technologies, create new industries and employment, and improve people’s lives”.

She said the company was an early supporter of the global potential for a hydrogen economy, recognising its role in enabling the shift to greener energy and cleaner transport.

“Our integrated approach includes investing in new technologies, supporting entrepreneurial projects and advocating for policy frameworks that enable a supportive long-term investment environment for hydrogen to deliver that potential,” she added.

Meanwhile, the department said Bambili Energy has played a pivotal role in ensuring that the HySA catalyst and membrane electrode assemblies developed by the HySA Catalysis centre of competence are integrated into commercial products through its partnership with global original equipment manufacturers. 

ENGIE, a French company, aims to accelerate the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy through reduced energy consumption and more environmentally friendly solutions.

It has provided co-funding for the techno-economic analysis that will be conducted on identified hubs within the Hydrogen Valley corridor. 

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