June 10, 2020 • 5 min read

What role can renewable hydrogen play in supporting energy demands?

In this article

Hydrogen is almost exclusively produced through fossil fuel processes today, which release large amounts of CO2 unabated into the atmosphere.

These production methods do not align with the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and limit the impacts of climate change.

Electrification, renewable energy and energy storage will get us part of the way to decarbonizing the world's most energy intensive industries, without needing hydrogen or fossil fuel energy. However, even with the rapid deployment of solar and wind, electrification can’t do everything. It will likely only meet about half of our expected final energy usage.

Can renewable hydrogen – also known as green hydrogen – fill this gap?

The inputs required to produce renewable hydrogen

To produce renewable hydrogen, you need renewable electricity and an electrolyzer. This electrolysis process splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. There are no greenhouse gas emissions at any point in this process.

This hydrogen can be stored, transported and processed for a growing range of applications. And it's possible to produce anywhere with viable renewable energy resources.

Infographic showin the process of green hydrogen and where it can be used.

What can renewable hydrogen do?

Hydrogen’s use in industry is nothing new. It’s currently required in many commercial applications such as ammonia production, refining and as a feedstock for chemicals.

However, the greatest potential of renewable hydrogen is for industries such as steel, aviation and long haul sea and road transport where there is no immediate alternative to decarbonize. The processes of these industries will have to be tackled for companies to maintain their social license, and renewable hydrogen is one way to transform them.

The big advantage of renewable hydrogen is that it leaves only water vapor behind when burned. For industries that require heat, such as foundries and glass and steelmakers, this could reduce the need for fossil fuels. 

Renewable hydrogen can also be a tool to deal with variability in electricity systems. In times of excess solar and wind power production, it can be converted into hydrogen to be used elsewhere. Or even to produce electricity.

There are also opportunities to use hydrogen to fuel heavy transport like trucks, trains and even aircraft.

Infographic explaining three colors of hydrogen: gray, blue and green.

The challenges of renewable hydrogen

The biggest challenge today is system cost. To reduce the costs of renewable hydrogen production, the industry needs to reach economies of scale.

We’re already seeing new pathways emerge in some of the projects we’re working on, including installing 36 gigawatts of electrolyzer capacity on an artificial island off the Netherlands and injecting hydrogen into high pressure natural gas pipelines in Canada.

There are also concerns about conversion efficiency. However, in a system that’s going to be increasingly reliant on abundant, low cost renewable energy, efficiency is not the main worry. It’s going to become less of an issue as more renewable energy is generated.

People often see renewable hydrogen in competition with renewable electricity, even getting into debates about whether we need both. However, even with an increase in renewables, we will still only meet about half of the necessary decarbonization requirements. Renewable hydrogen can pick up the shortfall.

The demand profile for hydrogen is growing

Commercial applications of hydrogen are nothing new. However, carbon intensive heavy industrials like oil refineries and petrochemical plants are now taking leading roles in lower carbon emissions hydrogen projects across the world.

In particular, owners of gas pipelines are looking for a decarbonized component of their business, oil refineries are looking for less carbon intensive feedstocks, and ammonia and fertilizer manufacturers want to reduce their reliance on gas suppliers.

What needs to happen for renewable hydrogen to fulfill its potential?

To reduce the cost of producing renewable hydrogen, projects need to move ahead. The industry needs to start building plants to grow confidence, expertise, and economies of scale. And there are multiple ways to reduce costs, such as standardizing production facilities, collaborating across industries, and embracing digital technologies to deliver projects more efficiently.

Renewable hydrogen is a complex industry. And like anything new, there are some challenges to overcome. But renewable hydrogen has a role to fill in decarbonizing industries that need more complex solutions than renewable electricity alone.

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