This forgotten element could be the key to our green energy future. Here’s why

UN Solar Energy 2018_

(UN Environment, 2018)

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jane Burston, Managing Director, Clean Air Fund

We need to scale up existing low-carbon technologies at a much faster rate – otherwise population growth will continue to outpace investment in renewables, and fossil fuels will continue to dominate. We cannot, however, keep asking for more from technologies that have proved successful to-date.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) highlights that only three of twenty-six low carbon innovation areas – solar PV and onshore wind, energy storage and electric vehicles (EV) – are mature, commercially competitive and on track to deliver their share of the climate objectives set out at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

It is unlikely we can squeeze more out of these three technology areas than is currently projected. Solar PV and onshore wind are intermittent, so need to be used in conjunction with energy storage or other forms of power generation. The high-energy-density batteries that are used for both storage and EVs are causing concern around whether the supply of raw materials needed to manufacture them will be able to keep pace with their rapid uptake. According to BNEF, graphite demand is predicted to skyrocket from just 13,000 tons a year in 2015 to 852,000 tons in 2030, and the production of lithium, cobalt and manganese will increase more than 100-fold. This is already creating pressure on supply chains and prices – and on the people working in these mines, often in incredibly poor conditions.

Growing demand for EV batteries has caused a surge in demand for their raw materials

Growing demand for EV batteries has caused a surge in demand for their raw materials
Image: London Metal Exchange

So what other options are available to us? The World Economic Forum’s latest white paper proposes some bold ideas to significantly accelerate sustainable energy innovation and support the uptake of future energy sources. One energy vector mentioned there that is often forgotten is hydrogen.

Hydrogen’s potential

Hydrogen has the potential to decarbonise electricity generation, transport and heat. That’s because when produced by electrolysis – using electricity to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen – hydrogen does not produce any pollutants.

Perhaps the best-known use for hydrogen currently is in transportation. With electric vehicles, drivers are often concerned about their range and the time it takes to recharge. Fuel cell electric vehicles, which run on hydrogen, avoid these concerns, as they have a longer range, a much faster refuelling time and require few behavioural changes.

Hydrogen can also be used to heat our homes. It can be blended with natural gas or burned on its own. The existing gas infrastructure could be used to transport it, which would avoid the grid costs associated with greater electrification of heat.

Once produced, hydrogen could also act as both a short and long‐term energy store. Proponents suggest that surplus renewable power – produced, for example, when the wind blows at night – can be harnessed and the hydrogen produced using this electricity can be stored in salt caverns or high-pressure tanks. Earlier this month a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers called for more demonstration sites and a forum in which to discuss hydrogen’s long-term storage potential.

Hydrogen could revolutionise the way we produce, store and use energy

Hydrogen could revolutionise the way we produce, store and use energy
Image: National Physical Laboratory

Research challenges

Hydrogen clearly has several potential uses, but more research, particularly in production and safety, is needed before we can use it at scale.

Currently, almost all of global hydrogen (96%) is produced by reforming methane (CH4), a process which ultimately produces carbon dioxide. To be sustainable, this production method would need to be deployed with carbon capture and storage, which is itself in need of further development.

Electrolysis produces no carbon emissions. Yet the amount of hydrogen that can be produced using this method depends on the cost and availability of electricity from renewable sources. A report by the Royal Society suggests that electrolysis may be better suited for vehicle refuelling and off-grid deployment rather than for large-scale, centralised hydrogen production.

Concerns about the safety of using hydrogen also need to be addressed. A report by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory noted two priority safety issues when transporting hydrogen in the grid and combusting it for heat. When hydrogen is combusted, you can’t see the flame, so there needs to be a way of detecting whether it is lit. Hydrogen would be transported and stored at high pressures, so we need to find an odorant that works with hydrogen so that people can detect leaks.

On the horizon

The appetite to explore hydrogen as an energy vector is growing at pace, but reports need to be followed up with action.

The research challenges that hydrogen poses are not unique to one country or company, so collaboration in developing and trialling technologies will be critical. Both businesses and governments seem to recognise this. Last year the Hydrogen Council, a group of multinational companies with a ‘with a united vision and ambition for hydrogen to foster the energy transition’, was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos. And earlier this year governments have also agreed to collaborate on the topic, launching a new theme under the Mission Innovation partnership focussed on bringing hydrogen technologies closer to market.

Hydrogen is not the panacea – but then neither is solar PV, offshore wind or battery storage. We need several and varied technologies if we are to decarbonise successfully. Hydrogen looks very likely to be one of them.

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Rare diseases are more common than you might think

Eurozone: Uncertain future with unemployment ravaging the South

European Semester Winter Package: assessing Member States’ progress on economic and social priorities

At UN, Middle East countries discuss steps towards regional nuclear-free zone

3 ways business leaders can build digital trust

‘The time for action is now’ senior UN peacekeeping official says, urging support for regional force combating Sahel terrorism

There are more than 1 billion guns in the world and this is who owns them

From rescue animals to electric buses, California is introducing bold new rules

EU countries invested €5 trillion abroad

Young people are not a nameless, faceless mass. So why do we treat them as such?

‘Emulate his example’ urges UN chief as world celebrates Nelson Mandela: a ‘global advocate for dignity and equality’

Agreement reached on new EU Solidarity Corps

Let’s Learn

UNICEF chief hopes 2020 will be ‘a year of peace’ for Syria’s children

Chart of the day: Why marine protected sites matter more than ever

Stable growth momentum in the OECD area

‘Everyone needs to do more’ to help suffering Venezuelans, says UN Emergency Relief Coordinator

World Summit Awards 2016: Sustainable impact through digital innovation

Spanish and Polish voters are crying out for an imminent European change while US urge now Germany to change route

Continuing incarceration of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, ‘reprehensible’: UN experts

EU prepares a banking union amidst financial ruins

EU budget: Stepping up the EU’s role as a security and defence provider

Here are three ways organizations can prepare for tomorrow’s world

A Sting Exclusive: “Global Climate: Our Common Responsibility”, S&P MEP Miriam Dalli underlines from Brussels

Eurozone: Retail sales betray economic frailty

Anti-vaccination movement affecting youth in Europe

3 leaders on creating a pipeline for female talent in business

New UN forestry project bids to help countries meet climate change commitments

Promoting Health in the Brazilian Amazon: one nation but many cultures

Switzerland has the most highly skilled workers in the world. This is why

The IMF sees Brexit’s ‘substantial impact’ while the world’s economy holds its breath

Smart devices must come with trust already installed

This is the environmental catastrophe you’ve probably never heard of

EU-China Light Bridge in Brussels signals the bright coming of the Year of The Dog

Asylum seekers in Sri Lanka fear for their safety, in wake of Easter Sunday terror attacks

Informal meeting of heads of state or government, Sibiu, 09/05/2019

Elections in Europe: No risks for the EU, leaders readying to face Trump-Brexit

MEPs push for high ambitions at the COP25 in Madrid

‘Cataclysmic events’ in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, began ‘global push’ against nuclear weapons says Guterres, honouring victims

How Finland is fighting fake news – in the classroom

How can consumers be effectively protected from insurance sellers?

UN forum to explore use of outer space to improve lives, protect planet

Security Council renews Central African Republic arms embargo

EU plans pan-European network of cybersecurity services

4 reasons cities should embrace Universal Basic Income

The Working Methods of the von der Leyen Commission: Striving for more at home and in the world

Central American migrants must be protected, urge UN experts

World faces ‘climate apartheid’ risk, 120 more million in poverty: UN expert

From UN Assembly podium, Central African Republic leader appeals for lifting arms embargo

Greece and Ukraine main items on EU28 menu; the course is set

Greece returns to markets at a high cost to taxpayers, after four years out in the cold

Nearly $4 billion needed to protect 41 million children from conflict and disaster

DR Congo: Ebola response resumes despite ‘risky environment’

Memoirs from a unique trip to China: “my new old dragon” (Part II)

MEPs propose more transparent legislative drafting and use of allowances

Fuel crisis rapidly draining last ‘coping capacities’ of Palestinians in Gaza

Scientists now think air pollution is fuelling violent crime

Schengen is losing ground fast revealing Europe’s clear inability to deal with migration crisis

On the euro but out of it?

UK economy in dire straits: leading banks now officially plan to Brexit too

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s