Hydrogen key part of green economy, but as part of diversified energy ecosystem

7th September 2022 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

While hydrogen is expected to become a key element of the green economy worldwide, owing to the need to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to limit climate change within a short space of time, it is expected to be part of a diversified energy ecosystem. 

There are applications for hydrogen in many sectors, but the sectors that have historically used hydrogen are expected to lead in its adoption, followed by other critical uses, air and gas handling products company Howden Renewable Hydrogen global market director Salah Mahdy said on September 6. 

"The world needs to decarbonise a range of industries and sectors, including transportation, heavy processes, heavy industry and agriculture. Hydrogen provides an opportunity to be used as a clean fuel and energy carrier to decarbonise, basically, all industries and sectors," he pointed out. 

However, while hydrogen is expected to be used in many diverse applications, the initial uses will be within industries that already manage hydrogen as part of their inputs, attendees of the 2022 Hydrogen Economy Discussion production, storage and distribution infrastructure session heard. 

"Hydrogen will take the same road as oil and gas. The oil and gas industry faced the same situation in terms of needing to develop infrastructure from scratch to move and store oil and gas.  

“The challenge facing hydrogen this time is that the whole process of transitioning to the use of hydrogen and building the infrastructure must be accelerated. We have a limited time to reach net-zero in just more than 25 years," Mahdy noted. 

The solution is to have a firm pipeline of infrastructure because costs are dramatically impacted by the presence or absence of infrastructure to provide easy links between production and consumption markets, he added. 

There are various potential scenarios for hydrogen's growing use, including from small-scale local production and consumption to large-scale, centralised systems with distribution and export, all depending on the competitiveness of the hydrogen produced, said oil and gas specialist engineering firm Chiyoda Corporation hydrogen business department deputy GM Osamu Ikeda

"Further, ports will play an important role in the global hydrogen network, linking to shipping, rail and trucking, primarily in a hub-and-spoke model.  

“However, new technologies such as electrolysers can potentially lead to higher-energy, lower-cost applications locally, and transport from central hubs that leverage economies of scale to produce hydrogen will typically determine the cost of the hydrogen," he added. 

Smaller-scale hydrogen production and transportation may become more economically viable and drive infrastructure development, but mass production remains the most viable in terms of cost of energy and the type of infrastructure needed compared with scaling up from smaller, local production, he said. 

There has been a global acceleration in hydrogen projects, driven partly by the need for energy security precipitated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and there are lots of potential offtakers in the market and many agreements being forged with countries that are able to produce hydrogen cost-competitively.  

Similarly, lots of funds are being set aside to develop port infrastructure and export terminals, said industrial solutions company thyssenkrupp Uhde sub-Saharan Africa CEO Rajend Govender

Further, hydrogen is not only relevant for uses such as heavy vehicles and transportation in the mining, shipping and locomotive sectors, but is also relevant for decarbonising the motor vehicle and steel sectors. 

"Hydrogen is an enabler for a green value chain because, if green hydrogen can be produced, it can replace a large quantity of fossil-fuel-based compounds," he emphasised. 

Further, there is considerable demand for hydrogen in export markets, particularly Europe, and Africa must look at the processes and infrastructure needed to prepare to export hydrogen.  

However, there remain significant challenges in transporting hydrogen, with ammonia being the current most viable means, he added. 

The hydrogen value chain comprises three pillars, namely production, storage and transportation. Production is mostly settled, with the cost of electricity needed typically being 80% of the final input costs, said North-West University and Department of Science and Innovation National Centre of Competence Hydrogen Infrastructure director Professor Dmitri Bessarabov. 

"Transportation and storage of hydrogen remains an issue, with several technologies competing but none have been ruled out. The scale of infrastructure depends on the minimum requirements of the application.  

“Export infrastructure would probably be in the form of ammonia, while local consumption would want to be located close to the centre of production," he said. 

There are several small-scale infrastructure trials under way and, in some cases, small-scale infrastructure is sufficient in terms of costs for the intended, local-use applications, which also eliminates the need for storage and transportation. 

However, in terms of medium-scale uses, such as to enable hydrogen transportation and use on the highway from Limpopo to the Port of Durban for example, South Africa needs to consider what standards and codes to adopt to enabler suppliers, distributors and use of hydrogen for transportation, such as adopting codes for hydrogen fuel vehicles, Bessarabov added.

Ikeda emphasised that Japan's aim was to diversify its energy mix to improve energy security, as well as to decarbonise its emitting sectors. Clean energy and hydrogen are important elements and options to support energy security. 

Mahdy concurred, noting that governments worldwide are considering all energy sources, including nuclear, to bolster energy security. However, this has also driven significant focus on the hydrogen economy, with many examples of policy support, including the US Inflation Reduction Act, which will put $1-billion in place to support clean energy in general, and open the doors for more hydrogen to be used. 

Meanwhile, 2050 is only one industrial investment cycle away, emphasised intergovernmental organisation International Renewable Energy Agency policy programme officer Emanuele Bianco during a later session. 

"Any measure taken now will remain in place at least until then, and a step-change and full measures are now necessary to drive decarbonisation," he highlighted.