It was billed as the fuel of the future – touted as the solution to everything from Europe’s reliance on Russia’s fossil fuels to Asia’s growing appetite for sustainable energy.
After years of being dubbed a potential game-changer, green hydrogen is finally getting serious financial and workforce commitments from governments and big business.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, which has a vast area with almost constant supply of sunlight or wind, is emerging as a hub for green hydrogen production in the region, which relies on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar for fuel production.
Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest A 2 GW electrolyser and ammonia production plant is under construction in Queensland and plans to use the project to start green steelmaking.
There are four other green hydrogen projects under construction in Australia, including a plant in Western Australia that is half the size of Belgium and is expected to generate up to 26 gigawatts (GW) of power — enough to produce 90 terawatts — Annual hours (TWh), accounting for about one-third of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2020.
Europe has bigger plans. In Spain, the HyDeal Ambition project will come online in 2025 with an expected capacity of 67GW. Germany is pouring 9 billion euros ($9.4 billion) into the sector to help end its reliance on natural gas and coal, including a 100-megawatt electrolyser in Hamburg, a hydrogen research center in Bavaria, which works with Audi, BMW and Siemens cooperation, and the “Hydrogen Alliance” with Morocco.
In Texas, Green Hydrogen International announced plans to build an electrolyzer to produce clean rocket fuel for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Hong Kong-based Intercontinental Energy is looking to build a 14GW electrolyser in Oman, while Kazakhstan has announced a 30GW plant.
China is the world’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, has built 30 green hydrogen plants since 2019, and has dominated the hydrogen fuel cell market. Its production of hydrogen-fueled vehicles nearly halved last year to 1,777, according to the China Automobile Association.
“What we’ve never had before is the strong attraction of the global market for decarbonisation. People really want to see things change,” Daniel Roberts, head of the energy technology research programme at Australia’s CSIRO science agency, told Al Jazeera.
“Every six months, Siemens and others release a cheaper, bigger electrolyser. It’s amazing how quickly things go from not having green hydrogen to massive investment.”
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and in 1804 Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz developed a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine by extracting hydrogen from water by electrolysis.
The process of placing the negative and positive electrodes in water and charging forces the hydrogen contained in the water to rise to the surface for capture.
Hydrogen, made from coal and natural gas, is already widely used to produce methanol for plastics, a reducing agent and ammonia, a key ingredient in artificial fertilizers and diesel. But it’s a dirty business. Black and grey hydrogen is known to release 800 million tons of greenhouse gases every year—roughly the same amount as Germany.
Green hydrogen is a zero-emissions alternative that uses renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to power electrolysis, leaving only steam. Because it ignites more easily than gasoline or natural gas, it could play an important role in decarbonizing industries such as shipping, aviation, steel and cement manufacturing that are hard to electrify.
“It’s a fuel that’s going to save the planet,” the mining magnate turned green hydrogen fighter told U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and others at the Green Hydrogen Global Conference in Barcelona, Spain, in May. Ministers: “It’s a fuel that can save the planet.”
Talking about a hydrogen-based green revolution is not new.
The term “hydrogen economy” was coined by the American scholar Lawrence Jones in the 1970s, and over the past half century it has repeatedly disappeared and resurfaced as new inventions have taken advantage of it.
The introduction of the world’s first hydrogen-powered tractor by New Holland Agriculture in 2009 is a textbook example. Trials have shown that it can perform all the tasks of the manufacturer’s diesel-powered tractor with zero emissions and near-silence. But it was never commercialized.
“Hydrogen has come and gone a few times because the technology is not ready, the government has no willingness to change, and the cost has not come down to the point where it can compete with existing energy sources. It’s almost like the rings of a tree,” CSIRO Roberts said.
Despite the huge potential, less than 1% of the global share of hydrogen production is currently green, according to Statista. The closest thing to a green hydrogen plant in operation today is Air-Liquide’s 20-megawatt low-carbon electrolyzer, which is powered by Canadian hydroelectric power. But the trend is changing rapidly: According to Statista, the number of green hydrogen projects more than tripled between December 2020 and August 2021 alone.
Statista predicts that production of green hydrogen will climb from the current level of less than 1 metric ton per year to 160 million tons by 2050. But considerable hurdles remain for the hydrogen economy to take off, most of which come down to cost.
Large electrolyzers are still too inefficient, too few in number, and require massive increases in wind and solar production to reduce input costs. Green hydrogen currently retails at $5.50 to $6 per kilogram, more than double the retail price of petrol or diesel, according to Indian credit rating agency ICRA. Hydrogen fuel cells are also far less energy efficient than rechargeable battery electric vehicles, which is why some environmentalists believe green hydrogen will distract from electrification.
“There are currently some industries that are burning fossil fuels that will be difficult to electrify, such as steel production and cement production. For these, it might make sense to burn green hydrogen,” Greenpeace EU spokesman John Hyland told Al Jazeera .
“However, when electrification and energy savings will successfully decarbonize these sectors, it does not make sense to burn hydrogen in city buses or in the heating systems of buildings. There is also a danger that the overuse of hydrogen in Europe will also lead to the Importing green hydrogen in large quantities, where production will use a lot of renewable electricity, would otherwise help decarbonize the local economy.”
CSIRO researcher Roberts said green hydrogen should not be seen as a panacea or the “fuel of the future” because the problem of decarbonisation is too large and complex to be solved with a single new technology or fuel source.
“This is One Fuel for the future. That’s part of the solution,” he said.
“In order to be carbon neutral, we need electrification where it makes sense, such as commuter transportation and certain aspects of heating. But once you use something like a big engine on a boat, or you want to refuel a truck quickly, you will need Hydrogen. Together they can provide an effective way out of this mess.”