How Hydrogen Can Fuel the Energy Transition
June 22, 2021
How Hydrogen Can Fuel the Energy Transition
The growing interest in green, renewable energy across the globe continues to make headlines along with the governments’ willingness to incentivize it. As a result, technologies that result in lower carbon intensity are highly popular; and engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) firms like KP Engineering are pivoting to apply knowledge gained in our refining and chemical industry work to make the world greener. One major focus of this effort is a push to use hydrogen as a feedstock and a fuel in place of carbon containing compounds (i.e. fossil fuels). And in turn, there is a push to produce hydrogen with reduced carbon emissions (resulting in a lower carbon intensity).
Let’s review some key components of hydrogen:
• Hydrogen is the lightest of atoms and it is highly abundant on Earth and the universe.
• Hydrogen gas (H2) is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
• Elemental hydrogen, along with oxygen, is a main component of water (H2O).
• Hydrogen gas leaves behind no harmful emission when combusted — just water.
• Hydrogen combustion is fast and reliable and gives off a significant amount of energy.
Gray, Blue, and Green: The Different Types of Hydrogen Production
There are nominally three categories of hydrogen as determined by their mode of production: gray, blue, and green. When hydrogen is produced conventionally from fossil fuels such as natural gas, petroleum fractions or coal, without carbon capture, it is called gray or brown hydrogen. Gray hydrogen currently accounts for approximately 95% of hydrogen production. Blue hydrogen is produced similarly to gray hydrogen, except that carbon dioxide produced in its production is captured and then sequestered. Sequestration of carbon can be through either underground injection, deep water injection, or enhanced oil recovery. Most current means of carbon capture achieve 80-90% reduction in carbon dioxide releases to the air. Green hydrogen production describes processes in which hydrogen is not generated from fossil fuels at all and hence has the lowest carbon intensity (no carbon emissions).
What is Carbon Intensity?
While the concept of gray, blue, and green hydrogen is still relevant, the conversation is shifting away from these relatively simple definitions into a more specific discussion surrounding where individual project and technologies fall on the carbon intensity scale. Carbon intensity is defined as the equivalent amount of CO2 that is emitted per unit of production. There are multiple factors, beyond the core technology that can contribute to the carbon intensity score. These factors include: how materials, feedstocks, and products are transported to the facility; the source of electricity and steam for a facility; the avoided equivalent of carbon emissions associated with an alternative use of the feedstocks (i.e. In the conversion of waste materials, such as municipal solid waste to hydrogen, fuels, or other green products, the avoided methane emissions that would result from landfilling the wastes can be taken as a credit in the carbon intensity analysis).
The Focus on Green Hydrogen
Green Hydrogen encompasses any production of hydrogen at the low end of the carbon intensity spectrum. The most frequently mentioned process for green hydrogen production is electrolysis, which uses renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Electrolysis requires a large amount of electric power which, until recently, was considered too expensive. That is no longer the case — electrolyzers are becoming more efficient, are seeing reductions in capital cost, and are incentivized by various energy credits. Another form of green hydrogen is the conversion of waste materials that would normally be landfilled into hydrogen. These advances in technology combined with government incentives make green hydrogen an increasingly important addition to the energy industry.
No Free Lunch
While it’s evident that green hydrogen has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, there are hurdles to overcome before its use becomes widespread. Mainly, the transition into green hydrogen is not cheap. Electrolyzers are expensive and not widely produced. The operating cost associated with green hydrogen production is three to six times higher than gray or blue hydrogen, without incentives. To make green hydrogen more attractive, policies need to be set by the government to increase its value. For example, current Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS) in California and Washington state incentivize the use of green hydrogen for the hydroprocessing needed to produce renewable fuels. Limits on carbon emissions could also encourage industries to turn to green hydrogen.
The Potential Hydrogen Economy
A “hydrogen economy” has been discussed for years, and certain aspects of this seem to be gaining momentum. The use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel or as a fuel in electric power generation seems to be destined for near-term demonstration projects. Solutions for clearing roadblocks to hydrogen transportation over long distances are being strategized. Hydrogen may play an important role in energy storage for renewable energy facilities, and may prove to be a better transportation fuel than electric power for low-carbon emitting car or truck engines. These industry ventures tell us that the future of hydrogen appears to be bright.
Choosing Renewable Energy
Navigating the energy industry can be challenging, especially in the chemical process market. KP Engineering makes it easier. For over fifteen years, KP Engineering has been a leading engineering, procurement and construction (“EPC”) partner to the nation’s largest refiners. In the energy transition, we are committed to guiding our customers through the environmental, economical and political factors surrounding renewable energy projects.
Evaluating the use of hydrogen for your project? Leverage KPE's knowledge from completing 15+ hydrogen projects.