future view

Hydrogen can boost the energy transition: 7 opportunities

13 June 2019 • 6 min reading time

Reaching climate targets is currently a matter of all hands on deck. The energy transition really needs a huge boost. Hydrogen can play a major part in this.

4 pioneering routes to a CO2 neutral industry

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The use of hydrogen allows wind and solar energy to be embedded much more deeply and used far more extensively. It provides, in a variety of ways, greater flexibility in the electricity system and the energy system as a whole. ECN part of TNO is therefore focusing on different innovations in the hydrogen chain:

1. LARGE-SCALE INCORPORATION OF SOLAR AND WIND ENERGY POSSIBLE

With an increasingly varying supply of energy from the wind and the sun, there is a growing demand in the Netherlands for the effective storage of renewable energy. “Batteries alone are not sufficient for coping with seasonal differences. They are too costly and do not have enough capacity,” explains Lennart van der Burg, hydrogen business developer at ECN part of TNO. “It is expected that linking a large electrolyser to an offshore windfarm will become profitable within five to ten years. They use electricity to divide water into hydrogen and oxygen. If you use renewable electricity for this purpose, no CO2 is released at all in this method of production. It means you really do get green hydrogen”

To be able to produce green hydrogen on a large scale, the process of developing the electrolysers still has a long way to go. They have to be larger and more robust if the potential of hydrogen is to be realised. The costs also have to be markedly reduced. And these are precisely the areas in which ECN part of TNO is working in partnership with various parties. A full range of experiments are taking place in the Faraday Lab in Petten, for example. “Here, we carry out durability tests to see what new components and materials we can use in the electrolysers. This also means that new companies in the Netherlands can get involved as suppliers.”

"With a hydrogen vehicle, you have your own on-board power plant. You can fill up quickly with hydrogen, and it gives vehicles a larger operational radius."

2. CARBON-NEUTRAL TRAVEL, INCLUDING FOR LONG DISTANCES AND HEAVY VEHICLES

‘Filling up’ with hydrogen currently occurs on a limited scale, for both cars and heavier vehicles fitted with a fuel cell. The main advantage is that with a hydrogen vehicle, you have your own on-board power plant. Inside the fuel cell, hydrogen (H2) is electrochemically combusted with oxygen (O2) from the outside air. This is how the fuel cell produces electricity that powers the electric engine. The process is precisely the opposite of what happens with electrolysis. Hydrogen vehicles give off zero emissions: only water comes out of the exhaust. Another benefit of hydrogen is that you can quickly ‘fill up’ and carry a relatively large amount of energy with you. This gives vehicles a larger operational radius. The challenge now is to ensure that enough hydrogen filling stations are built in the next few year – preferably offering green hydrogen.


3. FLYING WITH HYDROGEN E-FUELS

Electric or hydrogen-fuelled flights are still some ways off. However, it now appears that hydrogen is a suitable fuel for the development of carbon-free fuels, such as synthetic kerosene. In this case, the hydrogen you obtain through electrolysis is, along with CO2, the basis for syngas. In turn the syngas can be used to make synthetic kerosene. Together with various partners, ECN part of TNO is conducting research into a range of technologies to produce this type of E-fuel cost-effectively. “Airlines are closely following these developments,” says Van der Burg. “They have very few options for making their long-haul flights sustainable. Therefore the hope is that they will soon be able to resolve that problem with synthetic kerosene.”


4. USING HYDROGEN IN BUILT-UP AREAS

““Yes, theoretically you could use hydrogen for heating in built-up areas, instead of natural gas. However, there are some issues with this,” stresses Marcel Weeda. At ECN part of TNO, he is conducting research into the role that hydrogen could play in the energy transition. “Hydrogen is an odourless gas that is highly flammable and burns colourlessly. This means that handling it requires the necessary precautionary and safety measures, and that it might not be the best idea to start using it in homes. If we do choose to do this, we would have to make another decision: do we use pure hydrogen or a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas, which would gradually be replaced by green gas? These are questions to which we are attempting to find answers in pilots with other parties. We are therefore currently reluctant to use hydrogen for the production of low-temperature heat in homes. However, we are not ruling it out, also because it is by no means certain that we can make enough quick progress with such options as renovating, insulating, heat pumps, and heat networks. This is why we are researching this application.”


5. RAW MATERIAL FOR THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY

And then there is industry. In the Netherlands, this sector is responsible for around 30 percent of all CO2 emissions. Here, too, replacing natural gas with hydrogen as a fuel can help reduce emissions. ECN part of TNO is also working with partners on the electrification of industry, as part of the VoltaChem programme. Industry already uses large quantities of hydrogen as a raw material for the production of ammonia, for example, and certain plastics. This hydrogen is currently made from natural gas. Replacing it with green hydrogen would signify an enormous step towards sustainability. It has to be said that this remains a massive challenge. Weeda: “To replace the current grey hydrogen with green hydrogen, you need around 10 gigawatts of wind energy at sea. Current plans allow for a total generation capacity of 11.5 gigawatts of wind from the sea by 2030, which wouldn’t even be enough to make our current level of electricity demand sustainable. So a great deal more is needed.”

"It is important to consider each situation on its merits in terms of where re-using the existing infrastructure makes sense in the long run." 

6. WE ALREADY HAVE AN INFRASTRUCTURE THAT LENDS ITSELF TO THE TRANSMISSION OF HYDROGEN 

The Netherlands has extensive gas infrastructure that could be made suitable, without the need for extensive modifications, for transmitting hydrogen or gas compounds that include hydrogen. The gas infrastructure in the North Sea also has potential. The infrastructure is becoming less and less necessary for natural gas and could fulfil an important role in making large quantities of offshore wind energy available far away from the coast that could be converted there and transmitted in the form of hydrogen via pipelines to the shore. Van der Burg qualifies this: “It is important to consider each situation on its merits in terms of where re-using the existing infrastructure makes sense in the long run.”

"The energy transition requires a sound and carefully balanced mix of energy options. As well as the deployment of hydrogen, we will have to take all kinds of measures to ensure that the Netherlands is as good as carbon-neutral by the year 2050."


7. IMPORTING HYDROGEN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES

The Netherlands is a small country with a high demand for energy. A significant part of this is met by importing energy. And, according to Weeda, there is a great likelihood of that demand being met by hydrogen sooner rather than later. “There are enough thinly populated areas in the world that lend themselves to large-scale generation of renewable energy. So who knows ¬– green hydrogen may soon be originating from solar farms in the Sahara, windfarms in southern Argentina, or hydroelectric plants in Canada. For example, Japan is already developing a project for importing liquid hydrogen by ship from Australia. With all this focus on hydrogen at the moment, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is not the solution to everything,” he concludes. “The energy transition requires a sound and carefully balanced mix of energy options. As well as the deployment of hydrogen, we will therefore have to take all kinds of measures to ensure that the Netherlands is as good as carbon-neutral by the year 2050.”

Collaboration is essential when it comes to developing ways to use hydrogen effectively.

We call upon governments, companies, start-ups and other stakeholders to join us in developing the future applications of hydrogen.

E-mail Lennart van der Burg

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