By Roger Swain, former Head of Projects for Tullow Oil, currently Managing Director of Ataraxia Consultants
Earlier this year Shell announced it intends to make a very large investment in hydrogen production in The Netherlands as part of their plans to support the transition to cleaner forms of energy. This will start reasonably modestly and in partnership with Gasunie who would be responsible for product distribution.
Feasibility studies are now underway to confirm the economic viability of this project leading to an eventual upscaling and utilising 3 to 4 GW of offshore renewable wind energy to electolysise water to create commercial quantities of “green” hydrogen.
This ambitious undertaking will eventually supply a significant tonnage of hydrogen to Dutch industrial users as well as further afield in across Europe using existing pipeline grids by 2040.
Since that announcement, the “dash for hydrogen” elsewhere in Europe appears to have become more newsworthy and hardly a day goes by without more information relating to emerging hydrogen technologies and investment in other sustainable production projects.
A previous lack of European and American investment in solar technologies and battery improvement enabled China to develop a global leadership position in such products. Economies of scale in the production of solar panels makes China the undisputed leader presenting barriers to market entry for other solar energy providers.
However, it appears that Europe is determined to position itself as the world’s first hydrogen economy. A significant area of focus in Europe is primarily the use of hydrogen as a fuel for transportation. Whilst the growth in battery powered electric vehicles is now taking off, existing EV technology is very limited for long range vehicles with a useful load carrying capacity, ie. public transport and trucks. Similarly, diesel or petrol driven construction plant and machinery is hard to replace by equivalent battery powered equipment.
Enter the hydrogen fuel cell…
Although these have been available for many years they are now beginning to gain traction. Successful trials have recently been undertaken with mechanical diggers, lorries and trains using fuel cell technology. The challenge now is to scale up the size and power rating, or in the case of the train, reduce the size of the hydrogen storage / fuel cell combination to something which does not encroach too much on passenger capacity.
None of these issues are insurmountable so could we be emerging into another VHS versus Betamax scenario? Which technology will dominate – battery power or fuel cells?
The real answer is that there is room for both technologies. There will be an overlap in some applications where a battery or a fuel cell can fulfil the need but more importantly each technology can effectively service different needs depending upon the utility required.
However, it is interesting to note that Elon Musk has downplayed the viability of fuel cells as an alternative to his battery powered Tesla vehicles. Could it be he sees a significant emergent threat to his business …?
For Europe, the hydrogen economy would kick off with transportation – a market estimated to be worth $115 billion per year by 2040 (cumulatively $840 billion by then) and with other markets growing in parallel for heating, energy storage and industrial feedstock.
2040 would also see 17 million fuel cell powered vehicles on the road - only 1,000 in use today - in addition to “conventional” EV’s. Such growth in the development and use of hydrogen fuel cells will see economies of scale reduce their cost by 82% as uptake increases.
Yes, hydrogen is does not have the same calorific value as hydrocarbon fuels, hence to get the same result you have to burn more of it. It’s expensive to produce, is difficult to transport and store but technologies and production methods improve over time and scale effects assist with the economics and commercial viability.
Naysayers will always have something to point at to say that hydrogen is “not the answer” but when produced from renewable sources and with no environmental impact associated with using it as a fuel, then it may not be a panacea, but it goes a long way towards a greener future and hence has a place in the current energy transition and the mix of green alternatives as part of a more sustainable future.