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Energy of the future? Green hydrogen – a source of hope and a challenge

07.03.2023 6 Reading Time

klimaVest: Redakteurin Annemarie Fountoukas
Annemarie Fountoukas

Hydrogen – is this the substance that will be used to make the energy of the future? It has been used in industry for a long time – for oil refining or steel production, for example – in fact, for decades already. One kilogramme of this odourless and colourless gas contains 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas. As a fuel, it is clean, versatile and produces no direct greenhouse gas emissions. It sounds like hydrogen could quickly catapult us to a climate-neutral economy. So, what are we waiting for?

Only available in bound form

Let’s start with a close-up: on the one hand, hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe, but its mass percentage in the Earth’s biosphere is only 0.87 percent. Most of this is, in turn, bound up in water – the H2 of H2O. In general, hydrogen only occurs in nature in a bound form. And that, as you've already guessed, is the crux of the matter. Pure hydrogen must first be separated. This process is not only costly, but also time-consuming and energy-intensive. 

Some colour theory

There are various options for hydrogen production. For the sake of simplicity, they are linguistically identified by a colour. If hydrogen is separated from water by electrolysis and only electricity from renewable energies is used for this purpose, this is referred to as green hydrogen. If the starting material is a fossil fuel such as natural gas, the separation takes place using heat. The hydrogen obtained in this way by releasing CO2 is referred to as grey.

However, if the resulting CO2 is stored, production is considered CO2-neutral, which is expressed in the designation as blue hydrogen. If hydrogen is obtained by the separation of methane, we speak of turquoise hydrogen. This form of production is only CO2-neutral if renewable energies are used and the carbon released is bound.

Difficult: CO2-neutral production and safe transport

But even that is not the whole truth. Due to its low density, hydrogen is extremely difficult to store. The lightest gas in the universe is highly explosive. For safe storage, it must either be pressed in special containers under high pressure or stored as a liquid at minus 253 degrees Celsius.  Transport or export via pipelines, ships or trucks is also correspondingly challenging.

It is easy to deduce from basic colour theory why we cannot simply get started with the hydrogen energy bundle. Until the share of renewable energies increases significantly, therefore dropping the price, the production of green hydrogen – which can be the only product of choice in terms of the climate – will not be affordable. However, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), this could be the case from 2030. By then, production costs should drop by 30 percent thanks to the expansion of the clean energy infrastructure.1

The German Federal government is putting all its levers in motion

Despite all the challenges, the German federal government has identified hydrogen as a source of hope in the fight against climate change. The National Hydrogen Strategy adopted in June 2020 aims to reduce CO2 emissions in the industrial, transport and energy sectors, strengthen Germany’s competitiveness and open up new markets using hydrogen technology.2

The international future laboratory “REDEFINE Hydrogen Economy (H2E)” set up by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) is already researching alternative, environmentally-friendly production methods for green hydrogen. 

International partnerships booming

In addition, the BMBF had already started to establish new strategic hydrogen partnerships in Europe and around the world via research. Such a partnership was concluded with sunny Namibia in August 2021. In November of the same year, the HyGATE funding action was launched in a joint effort with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Its objective is to set up research projects to develop and demonstrate innovative green hydrogen technologies along the entire value chain.  Shared interests were also pursued with Saudi Arabia, which is why the second German hydrogen diplomacy office was opened there in February 2022.  In August of the same year, the BMBF gave the green light for German-New Zealand hydrogen projects.  A few months later, the Ministry began funding a German-Canadian joint project at the University of Bayreuth.  A German-Japanese research project also started almost at the same time.  The list was endless.

A mammoth task, but feasible

The Federal government is very active – there is no question about that. However, building a sustainable global hydrogen economy is a huge task and has its price. In order to cover up to 15–20 percent of energy consumption with hydrogen, its production would have to be increased five to seven times, which would cost 12.6 trillion euros according to the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC). In addition, 30,000 terawatt-hours of electricity from renewable energy sources will be added on top each year.

It will therefore take some time and effort before green hydrogen can replace coal-fired electricity production, operate gas power plants, drive motor vehicles or is converted into climate-friendly fuel. But the way forward is mapped out. And klimaVest will also soon be taking this path.