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Creating supply and demand to build the hydrogen economy

Hydrogen technologies are rapidly improving and will become increasingly cost competitive over the next decades

Hydrogen has found its way to the top table of global discussions about CO₂ emissions, as policymakers realise that renewable electricity alone will be insufficient to get us to net zero by 2050. It has become increasingly clear that hydrogen can complement renewables and help decarbonise the sectors that renewables cannot reach.

There is a global effort to make hydrogen commercially viable for a range of applications and establish robust demand for it over the next decade.

Hydrogen has two key roles to play as the world seeks to achieve net zero: enabling greater use of renewable electricity and decarbonising every part of the global economy, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors. For both roles, technologies are either available or in advanced stages of development.

What is needed now is evidence that the demand for hydrogen will grow. This will be required by both policymakers and companies considering whether to invest in hydrogen production capacity—which will need to be between seven and 11 times greater by 2050 if it is to play these two major roles in cutting CO₂ emissions.

Facilitating renewables

To enable greater use of renewable electricity, hydrogen can play a role in two key areas: storing renewable electricity and providing a clean source of reliable power to complement inherently ­variable ­renewables.

An almost symbiotic relationship is emerging between hydrogen and renewables. As wind turbines and solar PV panels become cheaper, so does the cost of producing green hydrogen from renewables through electrolysis. And, as renewables advance in the energy mix, their inherent variability becomes an increasingly ­pressing issue.

Hydrogen has the potential to provide storage at huge scale and efficiently over long time periods, certainly much more so than batteries. For example, it could be used to capture the excess electricity generated by offshore windfarms during the North Sea’s fierce winter winds or in solar farms during intense desert summers.

As a considerable amount of time will be needed to produce hydrogen efficiently using water electrolysis, it is imperative that we realise another carbon-free production method

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS)* and Magnum Renewable Development are building the world’s largest project of its kind, Advanced Clean Energy Storage in the US state of Utah. Renewable hydrogen will be produced and then stored in a series of underground salt caverns, one of which will store 150,000MWh of hydrogen.

Stored clean hydrogen can then further facilitate renewables by conversion back into electricity during times of peak demand or slack generation, as well as stabilising grids, which requires power plants capable of using hydrogen fuel.

To meet this end, MHPS has developed hydrogen-fired gas turbine systems that only require the minimum conversion of combustors and the surrounding system and components in existing gas turbines, substantially reducing cost hurdles. In 2018, MHPS successfully tested a combustor that is able to use natural gas with a hydrogen mixture of 30pc by volume and is working to further reduce NOx emissions and dampen the potential to backfire associated with hydrogen. Following this success, MHPS has moved to the next phase of its programme to achieve gas turbines running on 100pc hydrogen.

MHPS is now working with Vattenfall to deploy this technology at its Magnum power plant in the Netherlands. This project aims to convert one of the three existing units, which house M701F gas turbines (440MW/unit), to be 100pc hydrogen-firing by 2025.

Blue hydrogen

While producing hydrogen through water electrolysis and renewable energy produces no CO₂ emissions, it is not yet always economically viable.

As a considerable amount of time will be needed to produce hydrogen efficiently using water electrolysis, it is imperative that we realise another carbon-free production method for hydrogen over the medium term. Building the scale needed to fulfil these functions will require the intermediate step of decarbonising traditional hydrogen production through carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). This process recovers the large amount of CO₂ that is generated when producing hydrogen in this way and either reuses it or stores it in the ground so that it will not enter the atmosphere. With the world’s best track record for commercial CO₂ capture plants, MHI Group believes CCUS to be an initiator and accelerator to building the hydrogen society.

Decarbonising the global economy

To decarbonise the global economy, hydrogen can be utilised in CO₂-intensive but hard-to-abate sectors in a variety of ways. Hydrogen can be used in heavy industry as a feedstock in production processes and as a source of heat, in long-haul and heavy transportation applications such as shipping, and for power and heating of residential and commercial ­buildings.

Developing and commercialising solutions in all of these areas is essential for establishing a robust and viable market for hydrogen over the coming decade.

Industrial heat

In industry, quite often the energy application comes in the form of extreme levels of heat that cannot be simply electrified. The steel industry, for example, is so carbon intensive it actually produces more CO₂ than steel—roughly 1.8t of CO₂ per 1t of liquid steel.

The industry is already feeling the pinch from carbon pricing in some parts of the world. In Europe, for example, CO₂ pricing rose sixfold between 2017 and 2019, and is expected to continue to rise as new rules in the EU Emissions Trading System come into place in 2021 that tighten the supply of emissions credits.

Hydrogen can be used both as a feedstock for industry’s raw materials and in heat applications to help decarbonise sectors such as chemicals, cement and ­steelmaking.

An almost symbiotic relationship is emerging between hydrogen and renewables

As a part of MHI Group, Primetals Technologies is developing different solutions to contribute to the decarbonisation of these hard-to-abate sectors. Among these is a technology using hydrogen in place of natural gas as a reduction agent for iron ore. Hydrogen-based fine-ore reduction (HYFOR) can become the world’s first direct-reduction process for iron-ore concentrates that removes traditional pre-processing treatments of the material.

Transportation applications

While hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) more often hit the headlines, hydrogen is forecast to have a far greater impact in long-haul freight, shipping, public transportation and potentially aviation, where the limited range and efficiency of the batteries make them unsuitable.

Germany started to operate two hydrogen-fuelled trains in 2018, and Japan and other countries are operating some hydrogen-fuel cell buses. Ammonia is suitable for shipping, where its odour and toxicity are lesser problems than in populated areas. There are several projects underway that involve blending in hydrogen to create aviation fuel.

MHI Group believes that the IMO’s emissions targets will drive demand for ammonia as a low-carbon shipping fuel. Ammonia can be made from hydrogen and is a denser gas, providing a potential solution for the shipping of hydrogen in large volumes.

Heating buildings

The heating of buildings and water, and use of heat in industry, accounts for more than half of global energy use. In Europe, heat and hot water account for 79pc of energy use by EU households, the vast majority of which rely on natural gas boilers. Hydrogen offers a potential alternative that could make use of existing gas infrastructure.

In the UK, work is underway to test this theory. The H21 project is testing gas infrastructure’s potential to carry a 100pc hydrogen heating network, with a live trial scheduled to take place in either 2021 or 2022.

In Japan, a demonstration scheme has been running since 2009 installing hydrogen fuel cells to provide heat and electricity for homes. The ENE-FARM programme is expected to reach 300,000 installed units this year and has a goal of installing 5.3mn units by 2050.

ENE-FARM is a high efficiency hot water and heating system that also enables households to generate power. It does so through a chemical reaction that combines hydrogen extracted from liquefied petroleum or natural gas (city gas) with oxygen in the air—the opposite principle to electrolysis of water—and utilises the generated heat. The systems are comprised of a fuel cell unit and a hot water storage unit.

For larger scale utilisation, MHPS developed a hybrid system called MEGAMIE, which combines solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology with a micro gas turbine to generate both electricity and heat. The first commercial use of MEGAMIE is a 250kW-class unit operating in the basement of a multi-purpose high-rise building in front of Tokyo Station. Moreover, a 1MW-class unit is under development. MEGAMIE can run on LNG, biogas or hydrogen as a fuel.

* Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) will change its name and start operation under the new name, “Mitsubishi Power”, once it receives approvals from antitrust authorities in several countries, and necessary procedures for the transfer of all stock held by Hitachi, Ltd. to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. have been completed

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