Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Whether Green Hydrogen hype or hope?

Dr. M. Suresh Babu,  Dean, TKR Engineering College

Hydrogen indeed holds significant promise as a clean energy source with the potential to play a crucial role in the transition away from fossil fuels and towards a more sustainable energy future. Its versatility and potential for zero-emission use across various sectors, including transportation, industry, and power generation, make it a valuable asset in combating climate change.

Governments worldwide are recognizing this potential and are increasingly incorporating hydrogen into their climate strategies and energy policies. The enthusiasm for hydrogen stems from its ability to produce energy through a variety of methods, including electrolysis of water using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. When produced this way, hydrogen is often referred to as “green hydrogen” because it generates zero emissions.

Furthermore, hydrogen can be stored and transported relatively easily, offering flexibility in energy distribution and serving as a complement to intermittent renewable energy sources. This feature addresses one of the key challenges of renewable energy—its variability—and enhances grid stability.

Cost of green hydrogen is a challenge

However, challenges remain, including the cost of green hydrogen production compared to conventional methods and the need for infrastructure development to support its widespread adoption. Governments are thus investing in research and development, incentivizing private investment, and implementing supportive policies to overcome these hurdles and unlock the full potential of hydrogen as a clean energy solution.

As policymakers aim to reduce reliance on fossil fuel imports and mitigate climate change, hydrogen presents a compelling opportunity to decarbonize various sectors of the economy while fostering energy security and innovation. By prioritizing hydrogen as a key component of their climate strategies, governments can accelerate the transition to a more sustainable and resilient energy system.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is essential to achieving net-zero emissions, and heat pumps are a crucial technology in this endeavor, particularly for heating buildings. Heat pumps work by extracting heat from external sources, such as the air, ground, or water, and transferring it into buildings for heating purposes. This process is highly energy-efficient, as it requires only a small amount of electricity to operate the pump compared to the heat energy it produces.

One of the key advantages of heat pumps is their ability to utilize renewable electricity, such as solar or wind power, to operate. As renewable energy technologies continue to advance and become more cost-effective, the overall carbon footprint of heat pumps decreases, making them even more attractive for heating applications.

Furthermore, heat pumps can provide heating even in cold temperatures, as they are designed to extract heat from external sources regardless of outdoor conditions. This makes them suitable for use in a wide range of climates, further enhancing their versatility and applicability. In addition to their environmental benefits, heat pumps can also offer economic advantages, such as reduced energy bills over the long term and increased energy security by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Net-zero emissions

As governments and policymakers prioritize the transition to net-zero emissions, promoting the widespread adoption of heat pumps for building heating is a crucial step. By investing in infrastructure, incentivizing deployment, and raising awareness about the benefits of heat pumps, societies can accelerate the shift towards cleaner and more sustainable heating solutions, helping to mitigate climate change while improving energy efficiency and resilience.

The insights from McKinsey, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the importance of prioritizing heat pumps as a primary solution for building heating in achieving global net-zero emissions. Heat pumps are proven to be highly efficient, cost-effective, and readily deployable technologies that can significantly reduce carbon emissions from buildings. On the other hand, the promotion of hydrogen, particularly when derived from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS), as a primary solution for building heating faces challenges in terms of both environmental impact and economic viability. While hydrogen has its place in specific sectors such as heavy industry and transportation, its widespread use in buildings is not supported by current evidence and analysis. Moreover, relying on hydrogen derived from fossil fuels with CCS to maintain existing gas infrastructure risks perpetuating dependence on fossil fuels and delaying the transition to cleaner energy sources. This approach may also divert investments away from more sustainable alternatives, hindering progress towards achieving net-zero emissions.

As the world endeavors to address climate change and decarbonize the economy, it’s essential to prioritize evidence-based solutions that maximize emissions reductions while promoting economic growth and energy security. Heat pumps, alongside other renewable energy technologies, offer a more viable path towards achieving these goals in the building sector, aligning with the findings of leading global analyses and expert assessments. The influence of the fossil fuel industry in promoting hydrogen as a solution for various sectors, including building heating, transportation, and electricity generation, is indeed significant and warrants careful scrutiny. The industry’s efforts to maintain its relevance and profitability in the face of increasing pressure to transition away from fossil fuels are evident in its promotion of hydrogen as a “clean” alternative. While hydrogen does have potential applications in specific sectors, such as heavy industry and long-distance transportation, its widespread use as a replacement for natural gas in buildings raises questions about its environmental and economic viability, particularly when derived from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry and its associations, such as Eurogas, underscore the importance of transparent policymaking and decision-making processes that prioritize evidence-based solutions and consider the long-term implications for climate change mitigation and energy transition. As policymakers and stakeholders navigate the transition to a low-carbon economy, it’s crucial to critically evaluate the role of hydrogen and other emerging technologies within the broader context of decarbonization efforts. This includes assessing the environmental impacts, cost-effectiveness, and scalability of hydrogen compared to existing alternatives, such as renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.

Future of energy infrastructure

Ultimately, decisions regarding the future of energy infrastructure and policy should be guided by scientific evidence, public interest, and the imperative to address climate change effectively, rather than influenced solely by the interests of incumbent fossil fuel industries. Exactly, hydrogen is not a primary source of energy but rather an energy carrier or vector. This distinction is crucial to understanding its role in the energy transition. Hydrogen must be produced through a process called electrolysis or from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, oil, or coal, through processes like steam methane reforming (SMR) or coal gasification.

The fact that the majority of hydrogen produced globally comes from fossil fuels underscores the importance of addressing the carbon emissions associated with its production if hydrogen is to be a truly sustainable and low-carbon energy carrier. Currently, the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change unless coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The interest of the fossil fuel industry in hydrogen stems from its potential to maintain the demand for fossil fuels through the production of hydrogen, even as the world transitions to cleaner energy sources. However, to realize the full potential of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier, efforts must focus on scaling up the production of green hydrogen through electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources. Investments in research, development, and infrastructure for green hydrogen production and distribution are critical for realizing its potential as a key component of the transition to a low-carbon economy. By prioritizing the development of green hydrogen and reducing reliance on fossil fuel-based hydrogen production, societies can accelerate progress towards net-zero emissions while fostering innovation and energy security. The emergence of “blue hydrogen” as a term referring to hydrogen produced from fossil gas with some greenhouse gas emissions captured during production highlights the complexities and controversies surrounding hydrogen production methods and their environmental implications.

While blue hydrogen theoretically involves capturing and storing CO2 emissions to mitigate its climate impact, concerns have been raised regarding the overall emissions profile of the production process, particularly related to fugitive methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas—and the challenges and costs associated with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The controversy surrounding blue hydrogen reflects broader debates within the energy transition about the role of fossil fuels and the extent to which their use can be mitigated through technological solutions. Some argue that blue hydrogen may not represent a significant improvement over simply burning methane due to the potential for increased emissions from methane leakage and the uncertainties surrounding CCS technology.

Critics, including Chris Jackson’s resignation from the UK’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, highlight concerns that supporting blue hydrogen could perpetuate dependence on fossil fuels and hinder efforts to achieve decarbonization goals. As the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensifies, particularly in the context of rising fossil gas prices and geopolitical tensions, the attractiveness of blue hydrogen as a transitional solution may diminish. The evolving discourse around blue hydrogen underscores the importance of rigorous assessment and transparent decision-making processes in evaluating different energy options within the broader context of climate change mitigation and energy transition. Ultimately, the transition to a sustainable and low-carbon energy system will require careful consideration of multiple factors, including technological feasibility, economic viability, and environmental sustainability.

Understanding the efficiency and energy losses associated with different energy conversion processes is crucial for evaluating the viability and cost-effectiveness of various energy pathways. In the context of hydrogen production and its use for heating, it’s important to consider the overall energy efficiency and associated costs compared to alternative options, such as direct electrification using heat pumps.

The hydrogen pathway for heating involves multiple conversion steps, including electrolysis to produce hydrogen, transportation, and combustion in a boiler. Each of these steps incurs energy losses, leading to lower overall efficiency and higher energy consumption compared to direct electrification. The efficiency of electrolysis, the process of splitting water molecules to produce hydrogen, typically ranges from 60% to 73% in practice, with room for improvement. While the hydrogen industry acknowledges the potential for efficiency gains, it’s essential to recognize that these losses contribute to the overall energy intensity and cost of hydrogen production. In contrast, direct electrification using heat pumps for heating can achieve higher efficiencies and lower energy consumption, as heat pumps extract heat from external sources (such as the air, ground, or water) and transfer it into buildings with minimal additional energy input.

Heat pumps are cost-effective

Independent analyses have consistently shown that, under current conditions, heat pumps offer a more cost-effective and energy-efficient solution for heating compared to green hydrogen. The high cost of hydrogen production, coupled with its lower energy efficiency compared to electrification, makes it less competitive for widespread use in heating applications, particularly in buildings.

While blue hydrogen may have been considered potentially cost-effective in certain scenarios, the recent surge in fossil gas prices and the associated challenges with carbon capture and storage have cast doubts on its economic viability compared to alternatives like heat pumps.

Ultimately, the transition to a low-carbon energy system requires careful consideration of both technological feasibility and economic factors. Evaluating the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impacts of different energy pathways, including hydrogen production and electrification, is essential for making informed decisions that support the goals of decarbonization and sustainability. While heat pumps may experience decreased efficiency in colder temperatures, they still outperform green hydrogen in terms of energy efficiency and primary energy consumption for heating applications. Even with a coefficient of performance (COP) of 1.5 in colder conditions, heat pumps would still generate three times more heat per unit of electricity than green hydrogen, making them a more efficient and practical option for heating.

Furthermore, the challenges associated with transitioning existing gas infrastructure to accommodate hydrogen add another layer of complexity to the feasibility of widespread hydrogen use for heating. The UK gas grid, like many others around the world, is not currently designed to transport hydrogen, and significant investments would be required to retrofit the infrastructure. The estimated cost of £22 billion to make the UK gas grid hydrogen-ready is substantial, comparable to the total current value of the gas grid itself.

Additionally, the logistical challenges of geographically based conversions and potential disruptions to gas supply during the transition process highlight the practical limitations of hydrogen as a heating solution. Turning off whole areas of the gas grid at a time for conversion and reconnecting them could leave communities without heat or hot water for extended periods, posing significant risks and challenges. In contrast, heat pumps offer a more straightforward and scalable solution for decarbonizing heating systems, particularly in buildings. Their compatibility with existing electrical infrastructure and relatively simple installation process make them a more practical and efficient choice for transitioning away from fossil fuel-based heating systems.

Considering both energy efficiency and practicality, heat pumps emerge as a preferred option for heating, offering a pathway to decarbonization that is both technically feasible and economically viable in the context of existing infrastructure and energy systems. There is an  urgency of decarbonizing our energy systems to address climate change effectively. With atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continuing to rise and the impacts of climate change becoming more evident, there’s a clear need to accelerate the transition to low-carbon alternatives in all sectors, including heating and transportation. Given the scale and immediacy of the challenge, it’s essential to prioritize solutions that offer the quickest and most cost-effective path to decarbonization. Opting for hydrogen for heating would not only be more expensive but also slower to achieve, requiring significantly more primary energy compared to alternatives like heat pumps.

Dependence on fossil fuels

The time and resources required to retrofit existing infrastructure, develop new technologies, and implement hydrogen-based solutions for heating would likely delay the decarbonization process, potentially exacerbating the impacts of climate change and prolonging our dependence on fossil fuels.  In contrast, solutions like heat pumps offer a more immediate and practical pathway to decarbonizing heating systems, leveraging existing infrastructure and technologies to achieve significant emissions reductions in a shorter timeframe.

To meet the challenges posed by climate change and rising fossil fuel costs, it’s crucial to prioritize solutions that deliver rapid and tangible emissions reductions while remaining economically viable and scalable. By focusing on solutions that offer speed, efficiency, and affordability, we can accelerate progress towards a sustainable and resilient energy future while mitigating the impacts of climate change.

A critical challenge in the energy transition: the risk of wasting time and resources on less viable solutions, such as hydrogen for heating, due to political inertia and industry lobbying. This delay not only prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels but also perpetuates confusion among citizens about the best path forward for decarbonizing heating technologies.

As governments grapple with the complexities of energy policy and face pressure from various stakeholders, including the fossil fuel industry, there’s a real risk of diverting attention and resources away from more effective and efficient solutions, such as electrification and energy efficiency measures. The urgency of addressing climate change requires decisive action and a clear focus on solutions that deliver tangible emissions reductions in the shortest possible time frame. This means prioritizing strategies that maximize speed, affordability, and scalability, while minimizing the risks of delay and continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Decarbonizing heating systems will undoubtedly be challenging, but it’s essential to prioritize solutions that offer the greatest potential for rapid and widespread adoption. By recognizing the limitations and costs of hydrogen for heating and redirecting efforts towards electrification and energy efficiency, decision-makers can accelerate progress towards a sustainable and resilient energy future. Ultimately, the transition away from fossil fuels requires courageous and forward-thinking leadership that is willing to confront vested interests, prioritize evidence-based solutions, and act decisively in the best interests of both current and future generations.

Dr. M. Suresh Babu
Dr. M. Suresh Babu
Dr. M. Suresh Babu has been a Professor, Dean and Principal in various engineering colleges and institutions in Hyderabad and Anantapur. His approach to teaching is “For the student, by the student and to the student.” He is associated with several Civil Society Organizations like Praja Science Vedika and Election Watch.


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