Prof. Emmanouil Kakaras discusses hydrogen’s potential to decarbonise the future

The world has reached a critical point in the race against global warming and carbon emitting sectors are failing to adopt renewables at the necessary rate. So much so that fossil fuels are still expected to account for around half of global electricity generation by 2040.

Industries such as power, transport and heat acknowledge the need for a new approach, since these sectors have been very difficult to clean up through renewables. As a result, the decarbonising potential of hydrogen as a fuel source is being rediscovered.

Hydrogen is clean, flexible and stable and belongs alongside the renewables and natural gas as an energy source of the future. This is because the only emission from using hydrogen is drinkable water.

Hydrogen is already having a measurable impact in the decarbonisation of these industries, although at different levels of maturity. Transport is leading the way at present, but the power and heat industries are set to be radically transformed by the adoption of hydrogen.

1. Transport
Today the transport industry is leading the way in hydrogen adoption and in doing so, is rapidly decarbonising. This is an important sector to become hydrogen reliant because it accounts for 45 per cent of CO2 emissions and 30 per cent of global energy demand.

Admittedly, lithium-ion battery powered vehicles are currently leading the way in dercarbonising this industry, but hydrogen fuelled transport is also a reality. According to the International Energy Agency there are an estimated 8000 hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) on the world’s roads, with 4500 of these in the US (mainly California) and 2400 in Japan, followed by France and Germany.

This existing demand is being supported by FCEV targets, with Japan’s being the most ambitious, aiming for 200,000 FCEVs by 2025 and 800,000 by 2030.

However, the opportunities away from the roads should not be overlooked. In Germany, the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains are already running on a 100km route in the north of the country in 2018. These two trains have replaced diesel engines, with another 14 to begin calling at stations across the state of Lower Saxony by 2021. Germany is also building a 1MW electrolyser to generate 400kg of hydrogen per day for buses in the western city of Wuppertal.

The UK meanwhile is considering hydrogen trains as a cost-effective alternative to overhead electrification, as it seeks to phase out diesel engines.

2. Power
Today power is behind transport in terms of uptake of hydrogen and on the whole, is behind in the adoption of renewables, as fossil fuels are still expected to account for half of all global energy production by 2040.

Hydrogen is flexible enough to be used in existing gas and coal-fired power plants, this ease of adoption is already proving to be crucial for the adoption of hydrogen. The success stories so far have been a result of traditional power plants being converted to burn hydrogen.

One of which is Vattenfall’s Magnum power plant in the Netherlands, where Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) is working to turn the owner’s ‘Carbon-free Gas Power’ project into a reality. The objective is to convert one of the three combined cycle gas turbines to combust only hydrogen by 2025.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) has already successfully tested the burning of a stable fuel mix of 30 per cent hydrogen with natural gas in a large-scale gas turbine, reducing its CO2 emissions by ten per cent.

This project is part of a wider drive that in January 2019 saw Europe’s gas turbine industry launch a range of commitments towards the transition of gas power generation to renewable gas, such as hydrogen, in line with the EU’s 2050 goal of a climate neutral economy.

3. Heat
Similarly to power, heat is an industry which accounts for a vast amount of energy use (79 per cent in the EU). Most of that energy comes from fossil fuels, with just 16 per cent coming from renewable sources.

The heat sector has begun to wake up to and realise that hydrogen fuel is one answer to the decarbonisation of heat production. Most homes in the UK are heated by natural gas boilers and the government had been advised that switching to a combination of hydrogen and electric heating is the only way it can meet its own climate change targets.

One solution being put forward by British engineers is a hydrogen heating network in the north of England that could decarbonise 14 per cent of UK heat by 2034. The proposed project would be the world’s largest CO2 reduction facility.

Based in northeast England, it would use natural gas to create hydrogen, capturing the CO2 in depleted North Sea oilfields. The resulting hydrogen would be piped via the existing gas transmission network to homes and businesses throughout the north of England, allowing their boilers to burn without emitting CO2.

The project would build on existing smaller-scale UK initiatives, such as the HyDeploy scheme, which is blending 20 per cent hydrogen with natural gas to heat homes on Keele University campus.

There is also an opportunity for businesses and communities to communally source their heat and power using technologies such as MHPS’ solid oxide fuel cells. These can use hydrogen to generate both power and heat and are already being used at university campuses in Japan.

For existing demand across the transport, power and heat sectors to pave the way towards a hydrogen society, investment needs to be driven forward in hydrogen technologies, supply chain capacities and infrastructures. All of these are long-term investments, which will need a period of 20 years or more, requiring strong market signals from governments that they are willing to support the development of a hydrogen economy through policy and funding.

Japan is leading the way in the world, setting clear targets with specific goals. It is prompting the likes of Australia to invest heavily in its renewables to hydrogen production capacity, as it targets Japan as a key export market. This year’s G20 meeting in Japan offers other governments the chance to make similarly strong commitments to help kickstart hydrogen economies.

In Europe, politics is taking steps in the right direction, with some specific schemes and funds, and the EU is discussing new funding opportunities for hydrogen within the next EU budget.

The right policies and regulations will be crucial for the adoption of hydrogen across the private sector discussed. The precedent being set by the Japanese government for co-operation between the public and private sector needs to be replicated the world over if the world’s most carbon producing sectors are to be decarbonised through hydrogen.

For a list of sources used in this article, contact the editor.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group
Prof. Emmanouil Kakaras is SVP Power and Energy Solutions Business. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group (MHI), headquartered in Tokyo, is one of the world’s leading industrial firms, working across multiple sectors including energy, sustainability, aerospace, mobility and logistics. MHI applies big thinking solutions that move these sectors forward, delivering a lasting difference to customers and communities worldwide. As a company, it is passionate about finding new, simpler and sustainable ways to power cities, improve infrastructure, innovate manufacturing and connect people and businesses around the globe with ever-increasing speed and efficiency.

For further information please visit: https://www.mhi.com/