It’s the simplest, most abundant element in the universe and it’s been a key component of industrial processes for years. It should be old news, but hydrogen has become the subject of unprecedented interest in recent years, as a replacement for fossil fuels in a net zero world. When this colourless, odourless, non-toxic but highly combustible gas is burned to generate energy, the only emissions are water in the form of steam.
As countries work to decarbonize their economies by 2050, many are exploring the potential of hydrogen not only to heat homes, power cars and balance energy grids, but as the key to cleaning up hard-to-abate sectors that are not easily electrified, such as industrial manufacturing, heavy-duty transport and aviation. More than 30 national governments have produced strategies that aim to create a new hydrogen economy – the EU, for example, wants to generate 1 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen a year by 2024, rising to 10 million by the end of the decade. Hydrogen’s proponents call it “the Swiss army knife of energy solutions”, and argue that it represents the missing piece in the renewable energy puzzle, addressing both intermittency and storage issues. The Hydrogen Council, an industry body founded in 2017, says it could fulfil one fifth of the world’s energy requirements by 2050, by which time Goldman Sachs estimates that the potential global market could be worth US$11.7 trillion.
But if any of this is to come to fruition, hydrogen will first have to overcome not only significant technical challenges – it requires nothing less than a completely new infrastructure – but perception problems too. Its reputation is still haunted by the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that killed 35 people when the hydrogen-fuelled airship exploded, the cause still undetermined. There are also questions about how sustainable hydrogen production really is. Today, the vast majority of industrial hydrogen is generated from natural gas, methane or coal, but hopes for the future are pinned on developing two new methods. “Green” hydrogen is made by splitting water using electrolysis powered by renewable energy; “blue” hydrogen is derived from natural gas with the resulting CO2 captured and stored. Both methods result in a combustible energy source without releasing further carbon to the atmosphere, but only the first is truly zero-carbon. Critics point to the fact that it will be impossible to produce green hydrogen at scale quickly enough and that, until then, it remains a fossil fuel. They fear that it will distract attention from renewables such as solar and wind, and allow the world’s largest emitters to carry on business as usual. Others argue that blue hydrogen offers a pragmatic solution to reduce emissions in the short term, and that we cannot afford not to leverage existing infrastructure and supply chains in the rush to net zero.
Different paths to net zero
The ultimate destination may be the same, but countries’ intended paths to a hydrogen economy take different routes, dependent on their current energy and economic mix. Canada, the world’s sixth-largest energy producer, is betting heavily on hydrogen to decarbonize an energy sector that contributes more than 10% of its GDP, predominantly from oil and gas. The Canadian government’s Hydrogen Strategy, released in December 2020, builds on its existing strength in natural gas to envisage an industry that could be worth C$50 billion by 2050, creating 350,000 jobs and significantly advancing its progress to net zero by meeting up to 30% of the country’s energy needs.
This is an essential first step to a fully decarbonized world, believes Daniel Matthews, director of projects, energy, resources & industry at WSP Canada. “It took 100 years to develop the oil and gas infrastructure that drives our economies today, and constructing a hydrogen economy will not happen overnight,” he says. “The energy sector will need Provincial and Federal support to bring to fruition the vision of the energy transition. To bridge the gap between existing energy infrastructure and a low carbon energy future, Canada is exploring different pathways to produce and utilize hydrogen, starting with the potential for small ratios of hydrogen-blended natural gas in existing gas pipelines.”
This approach would allow the redeployment of Canada’s entire hydrocarbon workforce, he adds, which could otherwise be left behind by the energy transition: “It’s imperative that we move quickly to evaluate the potential of hydrogen at this stage, otherwise we're going to miss a big opportunity.”