What is Green Hydrogen and Is It a Game-Changer?
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (and the third most abundant on Earth) – and it has the potential to fuel our vehicles, power our electricity plants, and provide an outlet for excess renewable energy without pumping out carbon dioxide and driving climate change.
To stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, we must transition from polluting fossil fuels to emissions-free energy. One such clean energy is green hydrogen.
While the fuel is barely even on the radar in the United States, around the world, a green hydrogen rush is underway. And governments, scientists, and activists alike are taking a close look at how it could help end the reign of fossil fuels and slow the world’s warming trajectory.
But what exactly is green hydrogen, anyway?
What It Is and How It Is Made
Hydrogen is described as a “versatile energy carrier” by the International Energy Agency since it has a diverse range of applications and can be deployed in multiple sectors such as industry and transport.
For hydrogen to have a net environmental benefit, it must be produced from clean sources, rather than from fossil fuels – the current standard method, which is very carbon and methane intensive.
Green hydrogen, however, is produced using renewable sources like wind and solar to power an electrolyzer that splits and captures hydrogen from water molecules. The only biproduct is water vapor. And it is also is a clean burning fuel, one that can be produced in a gas or liquid form.
Once stored, the gas or liquid green hydrogen can be transported anywhere in the world.
Why Is It Key
Thomas Koch Blank of the Rocky Mountain Institute says, “Green hydrogen has high potential to address many of the things that keep people awake at night because the climate change problem seems unsolvable.”
Developing hydrogen using green methods could help eliminate the 830 million metric tons of CO2 that are emitted annually when produced using fossil fuels. That is equivalent to taking roughly 179 million cars off the roads for a year.
Here, you may be thinking: “That sounds great and all – but what exactly is hydrogen used for?”
Well, though it’s far from the first fuel you think of, we have already been using hydrogen to fuel our cars since the nineteenth century and later planes and even spacecraft.
Green hydrogen can also help when excess renewable energy is produced. Instead of storing this energy in batteries, the extra electricity could be used to drive the electrolysis of water, effectively “storing” the electricity in the form of hydrogen.
Roxana Bekemohammadi, executive director of the Western States Hydrogen Alliance, predicts hydrogen “will power the future of zero-emission mobility” for diesel trucks, buses, locomotives, and aircraft.
The Promise In Green Hydrogen
Hydrogen is unlikely to remain a niche fuel for much longer – in the US and around the world. The element could play a critical role in the decarbonization of our economies.
Energy analysts suggest that green hydrogen has the potential to leapfrog blue and gray hydrogen — both of which are produced using fossil fuels, but the former employs capture and storage for carbon emissions — as the most cost-effective form of the energy before the end of this decade.
“The last 15 percent of the economy is hard to clean up — aviation, shipping, manufacturing, long-distance trucking,” said Rachel Fakhry, an energy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the advancement of green hydrogen could represent a turning point.
These industries are harder to electrify because they often require fuel that is high in energy density or heats to particularly high temperatures. Green hydrogen is three times as energy-dense as jet fuel, making it an especially promising zero-emissions technology for aircraft.
“Cost-competitive green hydrogen and cross-industry partnerships will be mandatory to bring zero-emission flying to reality,” said Glen Llewellyn, vice president of Zero Emission Aircraft for Airbus. According to Llewellyn, hydrogen-powered aircraft could be in the skies as soon as 2035.
Green hydrogen has the potential to replace coal and gas as fuel sources in steel manufacturing too. Commercial hydrogen-based steel plants could be poised for operation by the 2030s.
Hydrogen can also offer the high temperatures needed for glass, cement, and chemical manufacturing.
Who Has Backed Green Hydrogen?
Around the world, nations have been publishing hydrogen roadmaps as part of their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the power, transportation, or industrial sectors.
The EU has laid out plans to install 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers and produce as much as 10 million metric tons of renewable hydrogen by 2030.
Germany has allocated the largest share of its clean energy stimulus funds to green hydrogen. Meanwhile, Spain has pledged $10.5 billion over the next 10 years to create a green hydrogen network in the country.
In the Middle East, oil-laden Saudi Arabia is constructing a green hydrogen facility in its futuristic city of Neom. Once developed, the plant will be capable of producing 650 tons of green hydrogen fuel per day – enough to power 20,000 hydrogen-fueled buses.
Japan has already opened one of the world’s largest green hydrogen plants.
So while globally green hydrogen has begun to take off, in the United States it is just now gaining attention.
US President-elect Joe Biden has called for a climate plan that looks at the possibility of developing green hydrogen cheap enough to fuel power plants within a decade.
The US Department of Energy announced a $100 million investment to help develop large, affordable electrolyzers and to create new fuel cell technologies for long-haul trucks.
The State of California is driving the push for green hydrogen in the United States. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, is helping fund the construction of a green hydrogen-fueled power plant in Utah.
In a world where new and evolving solutions to the climate crisis are critical, green hydrogen is showing more and more of us the potential it offers in helping countries everywhere break their addictions to fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy.
What You Can Do
When it comes to the crisis, business as usual will not cut it.
As discussed above, it’s not going to cut it in electricity production. Or industry. Or transportation. And green hydrogen is just one of many solutions being developed to fight back.
But it also isn’t going to cut it in agriculture, either. And that’s an entirely different animal.
Learn more about the threats to our food systems and the ways we can fight back in our latest free e-book, Climate-Smart Cooking and the Future of Food.
A sustainable future is in sight – but we cannot take it for granted. We must fight for the future we all believe in. Now, more than ever, our planet needs us.