Often mentioned as a viable solution to address the climate crisis, “green hydrogen” promises the ability to transform water into hydrogen fuel using renewable energy.
But research from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) suggests the fuel will supply just 1% of the world’s global energy by 2035.
That’s predicated on a business-as-usual approach to investment in the green hydrogen industry, according to a study published in Nature Energy.
Green hydrogen is the golden fleece of climate energy solutions. Implemented, it uses wind or solar technology to power an electrolyser that splits water atoms into oxygen and hydrogen. This is compared to other ‘colours’ of hydrogen, particularly carbon-emitting ‘grey hydrogen’ which uses steam methane reforming to convert fossil fuels (like gas) into hydrogen.
The research calculates a global production capacity increase of at least 6000 times current levels by the midpoint of the century is needed for green hydrogen to meet the Paris climate agreement’s net zero targets.
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In contrast, it points to a 10-fold increase in already available renewable electricity sources.
“The broad success of green hydrogen is not at all a given,” says study co-author Falko Ueckerdt.
“Even with electrolysis capacities growing as fast as wind and solar power, there is strong evidence of short-term scarcity and long-term uncertainty in terms of green hydrogen availability.
“Both impede investment in hydrogen end-uses and infrastructure, reducing green hydrogen’s potential and jeopardising climate targets.
“Historic analogues suggest that emergency-like policy measures could foster substantially higher growth rates [of green hydrogen] expediting the breakthrough and increasing the likelihood of future hydrogen availability.”
Ueckerdt says these policy settings could enable targets to be met in the next 17 years (although a 2040 target is more likely) pointing to massive public infrastructure projects like Chinese domestic rail investments and French nuclear powerplant constructions, as well as wartime mobilisation, as examples.
Australia’s national hydrogen strategy developed by the former Morrison Government committed $146 million to hydrogen projects. These included both ‘green’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen projects (‘Blue’ hydrogen refers to carbon-emitting steam methane reforming with a carbon capture mechanism intended to prevent emissions reaching the atmosphere).
The new prime minister Anthony Albanese spruiked his desire to position Australia as a global “renewable energy superpower” in his victory speech in May. However, the authors of the paper argue nations like Australia would need to foster rapid investment in supply chains to enable exceptional growth of electrolysis technology if green hydrogen is to be part of that mix.
Given the lag that is likely to confront those seeking to implement green hydrogen in domestic energy services, they emphasise the need for governments to first start with deployment of existing clean energy options.
“Short-term scarcity and long-term uncertainty are two sides of the same coin,” says study co-author Gregor Nemet, a professor of public affairs from Wisconsin-Madison University.
“These could be resolved together through stronger policy support that engenders shared expectations of rapid growth.”
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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