clean energy

What role can hydrogen realistically play in the energy mix?

Hydrogen has become one of the hottest topics in the energy world, and Keith Wipke said it could play an important role in an emissions-free future. Wipke is the laboratory program manager for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and he said their research suggests U.S. demand for hydrogen could double or even quadruple by 2050.

Most hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, in a process that emits carbon dioxide. In order to be carbon-free, hydrogen would need to be made either from renewable electricity, such as wind or solar, or from natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage, which removes emissions and stores them underground. Both processes remain expensive. And even if gas were paired with carbon capture equipment, in order to be climate-neutral, companies would need to make sure no methane is leaking from the wells, tanks and pipelines that produce the fuel and carry it to market.

Today, hydrogen is used primarily in industrial processes, including oil refining. But Wipke said it has tremendous potential in heavy-duty transportation, from trucks to marine shipping or even aviation. These sectors are harder to electrify because of their long-haul demands: Batteries must either be extremely large and heavy or recharged frequently to carry that much power. Hydrogen could be used directly as a fuel in these vehicles, or in fuel-cells, which produce electricity. Wipke said hydrogen could also play an important role in removing emissions from some industrial processes, including steel manufacturing, and that it can be paired with biomass to produce chemicals and plastics.

“There’s basically a lot of places that hydrogen could be used that it’s not currently,” he said.

The outlook is more complicated in the electric power sector. Hydrogen is usually not a great option for generating power, Wipke said. It’s more efficient to simply make the electricity directly from either renewable sources or from natural gas with carbon capture and storage, rather than convert that electricity into hydrogen, transport it and then burn it in a power plant. But Wipke said it could play a role as a form of long-term storage, to make a renewables-powered grid more resilient. If the electric grid were powered largely by wind and solar, which are intermittent, it could help provide backup power when severe weather takes solar or wind sources offline for several days.

All told, Wipke said, his team’s research suggests that because of its versatility, hydrogen could make up from 4 percent to 17 percent of the energy system by 2050.

“They talk about hydrogen being the pocket-knife of the energy industry, it can do a lot of things,” he said. “It may not be the best blade at cutting things, but it also has scissors and it can open cans and saw wood. All these other things that a kitchen knife can’t do.” 

Nicholas Kusnetz

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