Hydrogen’s Role in the Energy Transition – It is Complicated

Post-COVID, there has been a major focus on the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable and net zero energy productions. The urgency for this transition is driven mainly by the climate crisis, with more intense and frequent storms, droughts, and warming land and sea temperatures evident even from a decade ago.

There are many factors and ongoing debates about the pace at which this transition should happen with some arguing it is not happening fast enough, and others believing it is occurring too quickly.

For more in-depth detail about the infrastructure limitations of the energy transition, please reference my earlier article titled The Increase in Power Demands and an Aging Grid.

One of the overlooked fuels in the transition is hydrogen. Hydrogen does not have the notoriety of solar and wind, however, it has greater flexibility and accessibility than those sources.

Hydrogen’s Abundancy

Were you aware that hydrogen is the most abundant (and lightest) element on the periodic table? Hydrogen is in the earth’s atmosphere and crust and can be found in plants and animals. Hydrogen combines with carbon to form hydrocarbons in natural resources like natural gas, coal, and petroleum. And of course, hydrogen atoms bond with oxygen through electrolysis to make up the most important compound on our planet — water. This chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen atoms generates electricity.

A fuel cell converts the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen into electricity through an electrochemical reaction, producing water and any potential hydrocarbons as a byproduct. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1

Hydrogen’s Versatility

Hydrogen offers flexibility compared to solar and wind renewables. Hydrogen fuel cells are remarkable devices that generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, and they play a crucial role in various applications, and can be used to power vehicles — cars, buses, and vans, as well as provide backup energy for buildings. Hydrogen powered vehicles have comparable mileage ranges compared with gasoline powered vehicles, which can offer a significant advantage over what is considered traditional battery-storage electric vehicles (EV).

Fueling a hydrogen vehicle is much quicker than a traditional EV and is like a gas station experience. You may need to drive a little further to find a Hydrogen Station, although some conventional gas stations do offer it. Many proponents will tell you that the much longer range than a Lithium Battery EV makes the hydrogen solution worth it.

One could argue that hydrogen powered vehicles are cleaner than traditional electric vehicles because the source is hydrogen, and not system power from the grid from multiple generation sources. Of course, that also depends on how that hydrogen was sourced (as described below).

Hydrogen Extraction Rainbow

When it comes to electricity generation for grid power, it is a bit complicated. While hydrogen (the pure element) does exist naturally in our world, there is not enough in the pure form to satisfy the world’s insatiable and growing thirst for energy. See Figure 2 below. This creates a need to extract hydrogen from other sources, and this is where it gets complicated as a renewable resource.

Figure 2

The top four stripes on the rainbow (Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink/purple), in theory, will have no carbon emissions into the atmosphere, just the water from electrolysis.

The most conventional methods used for extraction include Blue and Grey Hydrogen; Blue being stored underground, while Grey is released into the atmosphere. While these sources are less carbon emitting than natural gas power burn, they are not truly net-zero.

Yellow Hydrogen using solar power does not release any carbon, but its electrical output is limited. Pink/Purple has no carbon emissions, and you can extract large quantities of electricity by splitting atoms this way through electrolysis. Opponents of nuclear, however, are quick to point out the waste generated.

Turquoise, the carbon byproduct from natural gas, is solid. So, in theory, minimal carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. Brown/Black, while still cleaner than burning conventional coal, is the dirtiest way to extract Hydrogen and has the highest emissions.

Hydrogen Future

So, the question is, is Hydrogen a net-zero fuel?

In the White form yes. It is certainly cleaner than conventional fossil fuels for power burn, and more flexible than solar and wind. But the overall answer is that it depends where you are on the rainbow.

In addition, Hydrogen does have other drawbacks in that it is highly flammable. That said, this is no different than other sources of energy and storage devices.

For the future, Hydrogen may be best used in transportation vehicles. EV sales have plummeted in the last year, and the main reason is the poor battery range of EVs. Hydrogen does not have that issue, and if more hydrogen vehicles were in demand, it could potentially lead to a boom in Pink/Purple hydrogen through SMR (Small Modular Reactor) plants. Of course that is several years potentially down the road.

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Meet the Writer

Dileep Prabhakar
Freedom Energy Logistics
Regional Sales Director

Dileep Prabhakar, a Regional Sales Director at Freedom Energy since 2022, brings over 30 years of engineering and energy experience to his role. He has advocated for municipalities, school districts, and commercial and industrial customers, managing their energy procurement and sustainability initiatives while optimizing their energy spending and achieving decarbonization goals. Click here to read Dileep’s full bio.

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