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Is Green Hydrogen the Fuel of the Future?

Declining costs of renewables are increasing the economic viability of green hydrogen.

The hydrogen fuel cell-powered Alsom iLint at InnoTrans 2016. (Image Credit: FelixM)

The first generation of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles like the discontinued Honda Clarity have turned out to be a big flop, but the broader hydrogen fuel industry is gaining momentum. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecasts that hydrogen produced using renewables or through fossil fuels with carbon capture could make up 12 percent of final energy consumption worldwide by 2050.

Currently, hydrogen is predominantly used in two processes: fertilizer production and oil refining. And it’s produced almost exclusively using fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. But with the declining costs of renewables like solar and wind power, the economic viability of green hydrogen is growing.

What is Green Hydrogen?

Green hydrogen — that is, hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewables — is currently at least three times more expensive than fossil fuel-derived hydrogen, known as blue or grey hydrogen. (Blue hydrogen is produced through steam reforming or gasification using natural gas or coal with carbon capture. Grey hydrogen is produced through the same process without carbon capture.)

While the economic case for green hydrogen isn’t quite there yet, from an environmental standpoint, it looks like a home run in certain uses. Hydrogen is not only energy-dense, but as a fuel source, its only emission is water vapor.

Green hydrogen also has a compelling value from an energy security standpoint. Hydrogen is manufactured, not extracted. So countries that are not endowed with fossil fuel reserves but are situated along wind corridors or with abundant solar irradiation can simply manufacture hydrogen. It’s worth noting that green hydrogen production is water-intensive. In water-stressed locations, it’s better to use sea or wastewater purified through desalination and reverse osmosis rather than groundwater.

How Can Green Hydrogen Fuel Be Used?

While there may be a future for hydrogen plug-in hybrids, more realistic uses for hydrogen are in iron and steel production as well as long-haul transportation, especially for heavy-duty, long-range operations.

Alstom, East Japan Railway, and Siemens are all developing hydrogen trains. And the new, Boston-based Connect Airlines, says it will launch emissions-free hydrogen-powered flights in North America in 2025 by converting turboprop ATR 72-600s into hydrogen-powered planes.

green hydrogen rail alstom train
A hydrogen train manufactured by French rail company Alstom. (Image Credit: Frank Paukstat)

Hydrogen is versatile. It can be utilized for electric-power generation and storage and building heating, as well for producing green ammonia fertilizer. And it can be distributed using existing infrastructure, providing an opportunity to repurpose natural gas pipelines.

In addition to cost and financing issues, ramping up production of green hydrogen could incur some supply chain challenges as it would require a surge in the production of electrolyzers, power inverters, solar panels, and wind turbines.

The Future Top Producers of Hydrogen

These countries are best placed to become major producers of hydrogen, according to a survey of global energy industry policymakers by IRENA:

10. Algeria

Algeria Hydrogen fuel europe
Algeria aims to use its existing natural gas pipelines to supply Europe with hydrogen in the future. (Image Credit: GPA Photo Archive)

9. Russian Federation

Russia hydrogen fuel power
Russia is projected to be among the world’s top 10 producers of hydrogen energy, which can be used to power this and other fuel-cell vehicles. (Image courtesy of Siemens PLM Software under an NC-BY-ND 2.0 license)

8. Norway

Norway hydrogen Hyundai ix35 fuel cell car
A hydrogen-powered fuel-cell Hyundai ix35 vehicle in Oslo, Norway. (Image Credit: Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran Ortiz)

7. United Arab Emirates

UAE green Blue hydrogen Masdar
Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates is another petrostate that is betting big on renewable energy, including blue and green hydrogen. (Image Credit: GRID-Arendal)

6. China

China solar green hydrogen strategy ranking
China is currently the world’s largest producer of hydrogen. On March 23, 2022, China announced its first long-term plan for hydrogen. (Image Credit: WiNG via Wikimedia Commons)

5. United States

US green hydrogen crescent dunes solar
The Crescent Dunes Solar Power Project in Nevada. Renewable power will help drive America’s rise as a green hydrogen producer. (Image Credit: Marygrikas)

4. Morocco

green hydrogen morocco top producing
Morocco is projected to be one of the world’s top producers of hydrogen. (Image courtesy of Isofoton.es under a CC BY 3.0 license)

3. Saudi Arabia

saudi arabia green blue hydrogen energy
Saudi Arabia has a bright future in the renewable energy space due to its ample solar power potential. The country is projected to become one of the world’s largest producers of hydrogen.

2. Chile

chile cheapest green hydrogen top
Chile’s Cerro Dominador Solar Power Plant. Chile could emerge as the cheapest producer of green hydrogen by 2030. (Image Credit: International Monetary Fund)

1. Australia

australia green hydrogen solar power
Australia is projected to become the world’s largest producer of hydrogen, leveraging its surging solar power generation capacity.
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