Is Green Hydrogen America’s Next Big Renewable Energy Gamble?
Is Green Hydrogen America’s Next Big Renewable Energy Gamble?

By Autumn Spredemann

As the strained U.S. electric grid labors under the soaring demand for renewable energy, green hydrogen is ramping up and has stepped into the investor spotlight.

Producing green hydrogen is pretty straightforward at a glance.

Adherents claim facilities use renewably generated electricity to split water molecules. Afterward, the hydrogen is stored and distributed with net zero emissions.

At face value, the growing industry touts itself as a fossil fuel free path toward cleaner energy. However, enthusiasts must overcome significant hurdles to make this dream a reality.

In the business, “green” hydrogen distinguishes itself from other forms of hydrogen energy like “blue” or “grey” because it doesn’t require natural gas or other fossil fuels to break water molecules and produce energy.

“Green hydrogen is produced through a process called electrolysis … The advantage over grey hydrogen is that it doesn’t release any carbon emissions during the production phase,” senior business development manager for Destinus, Martina Lofqvist, told The Epoch Times.

Innovating hypersonic aviation, Lofqvist explained Destinus has big plans for green hydrogen fuel. “We plan to use liquid hydrogen, which is a cryogenic fuel, meaning that it needs to be stored at extremely low temperatures.”

A 2,500 cubic-meter tank containing liquid hydrogen at Kobe Port Island plant in Kobe, Japan on Oct. 26, 2020. (Etienne Balmer/AFP via Getty Images)

She noted that, due to temperature requirements, keeping the hydrogen at subzero temperatures is an expensive challenge. Though Lofqvist also says airports and hydrogen producers are collaborating to ensure infrastructure will become more cost effective in time.

But for the moment, the price tag is a major setback for production everywhere.

“Green hydrogen is more expensive than alternative production techniques, such as grey hydrogen that comes from fossil fuels,” Lofqvist explained, adding, “This is primarily due to the costs of renewable energy.”

Compared to its fossil fuel derived rivals, green hydrogen is roughly three times more expensive. That equals higher electric bills in the mailbox for those on the receiving end. However, with a by-product of only “pure water,” supporters point to drastically reduced carbon emissions as the payout.

Though some energy insiders assert it will take years for green hydrogen to reach a high enough production output to make it a truly price competitive option, in spite of the drastic spike in fossil fuel prices this year.

In July, the price of green hydrogen skyrocketed, topping out at nearly $17 per kilogram. That’s almost three times higher than other recent price comparisons. By contrast, it averaged around $6 per kilogram in April.

Due to reliance on inputs like natural gas or renewable electricity, the cost of hydrogen, in general, has risen alongside other resources according to the head of energy transition and pricing for S&P Global Commodity Insights, Alan Hayes.

Infrastructure Challenges

Like most aspiring game changers, there are many “somedays” and forecasted dates sewn into the rhetoric surrounding green hydrogen. Phrases like “by 2030, prices could drop” and “by 2050, the costs should be even lower” echo throughout the industry.

Regardless, some renewable advocates aren’t convinced. Naysayers within the green community claim using renewable energy to produce hydrogen is 20 to 40 percent less efficient than using a source like wind or solar directly.

Another potential pitfall for the green hydrogen gambit is electrolysis. Research shows the U.S. electric grid requires up to $7 trillion dollars in upgrades to support the existing demand for renewable energies.

That’s a critical lynchpin for the industry. Green hydrogen requires a lot of electricity to meet America’s energy demands.

One analysis showed an efficient electrolysis system requires 39 kWh of electricity to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. Yet the majority of devices currently in operation are much less efficient. A more realistic figure is 48 kWh to make one kilogram of hydrogen.

So additional strain on the existing grid could result in more blackouts and energy usage alerts during peak hours and seasonal temperature swings. Critics of the green hydrogen movement have also cited concerns about volatility, transmission, and storage capacity.

In the United States, around 96 percent of existing gas transmission pipelines are steel. Hydrogen passage could damage the metal through what’s known as “embrittlement,” causing the pipes to crack.

The takeaway: Nearly all of the current transmission pipelines in the United States are structurally unsafe for transporting high volumes of hydrogen. The industry would need either a costly overhaul or entirely new transportation lines.

Along that same thread, there’s also an increased storage puzzle to solve.

“There are a few ways to store hydrogen, but the most common is using high pressure tanks. These tanks can be expensive and difficult to maintain, which makes them impractical for many applications,” green energy advocate Adam Roper told The Epoch Times.

Roper is passionate about renewable energy and sustainability. Having also worked in the “green” sector, Roper pointed out that storage is a hurdle for green hydrogen development.

“Another option is to store hydrogen in underground caverns, but this can be difficult to scale up,” he explained.

“While often thought of as the most promising method due to its scalability, it has its own challenges … it’s unclear how long the storage would be safe and secure.”

Roper also noted that, in the event of a leak, public safety would be at risk.

Hydrogen storage tank concept. (magann/Adobe Stock)

The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy admits that applicable codes and standards for hydrogen storage systems and interface technologies “have not been established.”

Further, the office notes that hydrogen presents two main safety concerns: combustion and exposure burns. With a lower ignition point than either natural gas or gasoline, the department stated “adequate ventilation and leak detection are important elements in the design of safe hydrogen systems.”

Though some industry experts remain undaunted and insist that “green” is still the future of hydrogen.

“Hydrogen is easy to store, which allows it to be used, subsequently, for other purposes and at times other than immediately after production,” Cody Bateman, CEO of GenH2, told The Epoch Times.

Bateman says hydrogen offers a key advantage over other energy storage technologies—like lithium-ion batteries—because adding capacity is relatively cheap.

“With hydrogen, you just need to build a bigger tank,” he said, further noting that hydrogen is “Safe, reliable, and plentiful, which makes it the strongest option as the new clean energy source.”

The Next Big Boom?

Infrastructure debates aside, the train appears to have left the station. Expanded green hydrogen production is already sparking interest and turning the heads of some very big investors.

At present, the United States is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of hydrogen energy, accounting for 13 percent of total demand. Subsequently, industry promoters are aiming to make the country a superpower for future green hydrogen production.

Wasting no time, financiers unveiled plans for the world’s largest green hydrogen plant in March this year.

Green Hydrogen International—the world’s leading developer in the field—announced via press release it would build a 60 GW facility near the Piedras Pintas salt dome in Texas. The station will be capable of producing 2.5 billion kilograms of green hydrogen annually.

Corporate chemical giant Linde also announced plans on Sept. 8 to install a 35-megawatt proton exchange membrane electrolyzer. The new facility will produce green hydrogen in Niagara Falls, New York.

Fossil fuel based hydrogen energy is already an established and growing industry. Last year, global hydrogen production’s value totaled $130 billion and is projected to grow more than 9 percent by 2030.

The United States currently produces 10 million metric tons of the world’s estimated 87 million ton demand for hydrogen energy.

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