The lightest element in the periodic table, the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, and the long-promised secret weapon to win our battle against climate change. These are all common features of hydrogen. A clean-burning molecule, it can help to decarbonise a range of sectors that have been hard to clean up in the past.
Hydrogen has been touted as the "fuel of the future" since the 1970s but five decades later, that vision has yet to materialise. Perhaps part of the problem is using the label "future". That always gives us the illusion that we have the luxury of time. But today, in a post-pandemic world where the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest it has ever been in human history, it seems like that future has arrived. So, what are the three golden rules we need to remember to make that future a reality today?
The first is to be realistic. With more nations committing to green hydrogen strategies and new ground-breaking projects taking place around us, it is important to not lose track of where we stand in this journey. We are still at the very beginning. Knowing where we stand means knowing exactly what needs be done to reach our targets. The reality is that we still have many challenges to overcome when it comes to the production, transportation and storage of an element such as hydrogen.
It all starts with the conundrum of "green" hydrogen, which can be produced from water with electrolysis, an energy-intensive but carbon-free process, if powered by renewable electricity. That sounds like a perfect solution, but of course there's a catch. According to Bernstein analysts, hydrogen made from fossil fuels currently costs between $1-$1.8 per kilogram. Green hydrogen can cost around $6/kg today, making it significantly more expensive than the fossil fuel alternatives.
The transport and storage of hydrogen are also one of the main stumbling blocks in the road to a hydrogen-based economy. The nature of H2 as an element particularly makes this difficult. Its flammability, low density as a gas and liquid, and high diffusivity pose serious safety risks throughout every step of the distribution mechanism. Its transportation, storage and final delivery to the point of use also incur significant costs. Other chemical alternatives for hydrogen storage, such as methanol and ammonia, could be the answer due to their high-storage density and less electricity demand for storage. Some of the infrastructure required to pull this off is already in place because hydrogen has long been used in industrial applications. However, we still lack the means to support widespread consumer use of hydrogen as an energy carrier.
Next, we need to build on momentum. Hydrogen has been in use for many decades in sectors such as refining and chemical industries. But its use as an energy source has started receiving increased interest in recent years. Over the past year alone, we saw great progress with industrial giants such as Germany, Netherlands, Britain, Australia and Japan, announcing hydrogen strategies.
2020 was dubbed ”the year of green hydrogen” and it is crucial to build up on this momentum. At Siemens Energy we are also playing a massive role in steering this momentum toward the region. One of the major milestones occurred in May as we inaugurated the first industrial-scale, solar-driven green hydrogen facility in the Mena region in partnership with Expo 2020 Dubai and Dewa. The integrated facility is regarded as a pilot project and was developed with electrolysis, storage and re-electrification capabilities, to maximise the benefits. Daylight solar power from the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, where the facility is located, will enable the production of around 20.5 kilograms of hydrogen per hour at 1.25 megawatts of peak power. This is the first time green hydrogen is being produced at an industrial scale in the region.
This was made possible by partnerships. Collaboration between the private and public sectors is the only way forward to transform the energy sector. The real value of these pilots is not in the numbers, but in the lessons that we will learn along the way that will guide us in the development of a green hydrogen industry across the region.
Finally, it is important to learn from the solar and wind energy. The good news is that we have been on a similar path before. Once upon a time, the integration of solar and wind power into the energy mix felt like a sought-after dream. Today, we are emerging from a record-breaking year for renewable energy in 2020. New renewable energy capacity – primarily solar and wind – made up a whopping 90 per cent of the power sector’s growth globally last year, according to the International Energy Agency.
These numbers would have sounded like pure fiction only a decade ago. We have many lessons to learn from the journey of solar and wind energy, which can inform our quest for a hydrogen-fuelled world. Going back to my first point, it all starts with setting ambitious and realistic targets that are grounded in comprehensive and integrated national energy plans. National plans equate to government backing that has proven momentously integral in the growth of the renewable energy sector. Wind farms and solar parks have become an indispensable part of the generation expansion plans of almost every country in the world. That came after years of consistent planning, raising awareness and commitments made on a global level from the major stakeholders in the industry.
Hydrogen has the potential, and certainly the merits, to get there eventually but it is in our hands to make that possible. Are we doing enough? That is a question every private and public entity should be asking itself. It all starts with asking the right questions.
Dietmar Siersdorfer is the managing director of Siemens Energy Middle East