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Hydrogen’s close-up

Hydrogen’s close-up

It’s getting cheaper to make the energy-storing gas using renewables – and that could help the world through the energy crisis.

British energy policy is hung up on a misconception – that the country cannot be powered by renewables. Not only is a renewable-driven energy grid essential for a liveable planet – it is entirely possible. 

The old argument against an energy grid based on renewables rests on the fact that weather is unreliable. Sometimes the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing. Energy storage was the nut the renewables sector had to crack to keep the lights on, and the falling cost of green hydrogen may be about to prise that nut wide open. 

How it works. Renewable electricity generated when demand is low – at nighttime, for instance – can be used to power electrolysis machines that break water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is light, energy-dense and storable. When burned it produces no direct pollutants or greenhouse gases. And it can be used alongside natural gas to cook or heat homes: existing infrastructure could be diluted up to 20 per cent with hydrogen in the National Grid. 

In 2019, the International Energy Agency’s Dr Fatih Birol said hydrogen had “gained unprecedented momentum,” and the world had a “unique chance” to make it part of the future of energy. Three years on, as war and Covid upend world markets, hydrogen is ready for its close-up.

  • It’s getting cheaper to produce. In 2019, less than 0.1 per cent of hydrogen produced worldwide was green, mainly because gas – the raw material for “blue” and “grey” hydrogen – was cheaper than renewables. The IEA estimated that the cost of producing green hydrogen would fall 30 per cent from 2019-2030, but it is now likely to fall even faster. Solar power is 88 per cent cheaper than anticipated a decade ago, according to Carbon Brief, while gas generation is now four times more expensive than new solar and wind. One result was that last Wednesday an Australian company said it was able to produce green hydrogen from water at 98 per cent cell energy efficiency for $1.50/kg. In 2020, producing hydrogen using renewables cost between $3/kg and $6.55/kg, and blue hydrogen made in a process using natural gas and carbon capture cost $2.40/kg.
  • Demand is growing, having already tripled between 1975 and 2019. In 2020, ten governments around the world adopted hydrogen strategies. Germany was already planning to build 5GW hydrogen capacity by 2030 before the war in Ukraine and the scramble for a new energy mix. It’s now planning a new hydrogen pipeline from Norway. The European Commission this month added 15 million tonnes to the 5.6 million tonnes of hydrogen it already wants in the energy mix by 2030.
  • It’s already being used. In the UK, hydrogen buses are running in Aberdeen and London. Hydrogen projects have been proposed at the Port of Shoreham, in the Cromarty Firth near Orkney and at an onshore wind farm close to Glasgow. In 2020, close to 70 MW of electrolysis capacity was installed, twice the previous year’s record.
  • More projects are planned. In the UK, EDF is planning a hydrogen hub in Teeside and the National Grid is to start blending hydrogen with natural gas from 2025. In the Texas, the world’s largest green hydrogen project, powered by wind and solar, could produce 60GW of hydrogen (and fuel for Elon Musk’s rockets).

Bob Seely, the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, told a national audience at the weekend: “We are never going to be entirely dependent on renewables and that is just a hard fact.” But his “hard fact” is an assertion. The technology for a 100 per cent renewable energy mix with large scale hydrogen storage is readily available. As the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse told the same audience, the UK could meet its own demand and be a renewables exporter. All that’s missing is the will and investment to make it happen. 

Slow & inefficient transition

Episode two of our myth-busting new podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy will be available for Tortoise members to listen to from 23 March. This week, can a country run on 100 per cent renewables?


Scoping it out
The US Securities and Exchange Commission has approved a landmark plan to require listed companies to disclose climate-related risks and greenhouse gas emissions. Under the rules, companies would provide information on direct and indirect emissions, known as Scope 1 and 2. This would be extended to Scope 3 – suppliers, business travel and any assets a company leases – for the largest companies. But the proposal faces challenges on multiple fronts: progressives are pushing for Scope 3 disclosure across the board, while corporate lobby groups are likely to launch court cases arguing that the plan damages the bottom line and opens the door to litigation. Question: what about private equity? What if anything will (or can) the SEC force the $18 trillion PE sector to disclose about its emissions? Chair Gary Gensler has been vocal about promoting emissions transparency, but are private markets part of his plan, and how will they react if so? 


Buying the dip
As Europe and the US strangle shipments of Russian oil, India is ramping up imports. Cargoes have quadrupled in the last month, as Indian buyers prioritise sizable discounts on crude from the Urals over any potential public backlash. According to the FT, Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexander Novak and the Indian oil minister Hardeep Singh Puri spoke on the phone last week. “We are interested in further attracting Indian investment to the Russian oil and gas sector and expanding Russian companies’ sales networks in India,” Novak said. Chances are he’ll get what he wants. Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd. Corp. are two of the companies looking to strike deals before the summer. Jennifer Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, said buying Russian oil wouldn’t violate US sanctions but she urged India to “think about where you want to stand when history books are written”. Shell issued an abject apology earlier this month after buying 100,000 tons of Russian crude at a discount of $28.50 a barrel.

engagement and activism

Vital statistics
63 organisations recently signed up to a long-running campaign to get the International Energy Agency to publish its enormous trove of global energy data free of charge. The IEA is funded mainly by governments, while a fifth of its budget comes from data sales to researchers. But if developed nations in the IEA were to cover that cost instead, it would amount to just 0.03 per cent of their total public sector energy research and development budgets. Hannah Ritchie, a researcher at Our World in Data who is spearheading the campaign, says that “those fees keep researchers and policy experts in poorer countries out of the conversation”. So why not do away with them? Climate change is an all-hands-to-the-pump problem, and requires solutions to be shared globally. It took a pandemic to end what Hans Rosling famously called “database hugging disorder” in the fields of medicine and epidemiology. Time for energy to follow suit.


Unexplored extremes
Scientists were shocked this week by research that found that parts of Antarctica are 40C warmer than usual for this time of year. Another source of worry is a recent study that says marine cold spells – periods of exceptionally cold water – have dropped in frequency by a quarter since the 1980s. For fish, that means fewer mass die-off events due to cold, but also fewer places to take refuge from marine heatwaves, which are increasing as a result of global warming. “Extreme events, either warm or cold, can bring an ecosystem to the edge,” said Sofia Darmaraki, a physical oceanographer. “Establishing the oceans’ baseline climatology… is a burning question for the [scientific] community.” The study is the first of its kind focusing on extreme cold-water events. Gathering more information on the phenomenon could also help fisheries’ long-term planning and establishing sustainable catch limits. 

Thanks for reading.

Ellen Halliday

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre. Edited by Giles Whittell.

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