Snam CEO Marco Alverà provides a detailed overview of the possible uses, hazards and applications of hydrogen as a clean energy fuel.
Solar and wind power alone cannot eliminate the world’s carbon emissions. In partnership with hydrogen, they might. Hydrogen is the simplest, most prevalent element in the universe. It can store the electricity that renewable sources generate, and pipelines could transport it great distances. In this passionate, science-based call to action, CEO of the European gas pipeline company Snam Marco Alverà discusses the technical and economic challenges of making hydrogen a feasible energy option.
Coal, oil and natural gas produce 80% of humanity’s energy needs. Wind and solar power comprise a global average of 2%.
There is growing consensus that hydrogen could account for up to a quarter of our energy needs in 2050.Marco Alverà
Humanity must replace fossil fuels with clean energy, Alverà warns.
The CO2 Problem
Electricity proves inadequate for heavy transport, steel manufacturing and aviation. As Alverà points out, it is difficult to store or to transport over distances.
Fossil fuels’ molecules store energy for millions of years – burning the fuel releases that energy. Electricity consists of electrons moving in a wire. The electric current exists in the wire only as long as you push electrons through it. Once you generate electricity, you must use it or store it.
In the future…our hunger for renewable power means we will need to look further and further afield for our supply.Marco Alverà
An advantage of hydrogen, Alverà says, is that it can store energy without CO2 emissions.
Hydrogen is the simplest element on Earth, consisting of one proton and one electron. It usually appears as the molecule H2, representing a linking of two hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen bonds readily with other elements, creating different substances – for example, H2O (water).
Electrolysis cleanly converts electricity into hydrogen, Alverà teaches. You can convert hydrogen to electricity by feeding it into a fuel cell, which can supply power on the go as a battery does. A fuel cell doesn’t need recharging – feed it hydrogen and it produces electricity.
Hydrogen and electricity can come together to create a powerful hybrid energy web, making our energy supply greener, smoother and cheaper.Marco Alverà
Hydrogen is the lightest element, and because of its low density, it occupies a lot of space. Storing it poses challenges. So, you must store hydrogen at its destination. In the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, underground salt caverns are available for hydrogen storage. Other options, Alverà says, include depleted gas fields, metal vaults or sealed storage pipelines.
Making steel, concrete and plastic or fertilizer is carbon-intensive. Clean hydrogen could replace fossil fuels in these processes.
Producers, Alverà specifies, could collect excess power during periods of lower demand, such as summer, store it as hydrogen underground and send it directly to homes to run hydrogen boilers in winter.
Currently, oil produces about 95% of the energy for transportation. Cars can store electricity in batteries; trucks and buses could leverage the extended range of the hydrogen/fuel cell combination. Trains might run on electrified tracks and use hydrogen as a backup fuel.
The International Maritime Organization, the governing body for the shipping industry, mandates that maritime transport cut annual global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050. Future technology may include enormous cargo-carrying airships, with hydrogen providing lift and the jet-stream currents providing momentum.
Flying emits a little less than 3% of global CO2. The aircraft industry probably can’t get much cleaner using current technology. Hydrogen offers potential solutions. Aircraft could burn hydrogen as fuel in engines or use it in tandem with fuel cells to generate electricity. Airbus Germany announced a plan to build the zero-emission, hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft ZEROe and expects its maiden flight by 2025.
Using hydrogen poses risks, Alverà cautions. If a hydrogen pipeline suffers a leak, the gas would ascend into the air and dissipate, its concentration quickly falling below the level that would catch fire. A more serious fire risk would arise if hydrogen leaked into a closed room; proper ventilation is essential.
Hydrogen is now a stone’s throw from being competitive with oil.Marco Alverà
The designers of hydrogen airplanes plan to place hydrogen tanks higher than the cabin, so the gas won’t endanger passengers or crew. Hydrogen tanks for on-road vehicles incorporate several layers of materials such as resin, carbon fiber and fiberglass. If all that material somehow suffered a puncture, the hydrogen would quickly disperse into the air.
For the world to decarbonize, Alverà advises, hydrogen must fulfill about 25% of total energy needs.
Costs of delivery and construction of necessary infrastructure mean hydrogen’s price at the pump could be $12/kg. Demand for hydrogen will grow only when its price is competitive with fossil fuels, at say, $2/kg.
Hydrogen is stuck in the familiar ‘chicken and egg’ predicament, where supply waits for demand, and demand waits for supply.Marco Alverà
To help kick-start the hydrogen market, seven companies, including the European gas pipeline company Snam, formed the “Green Hydrogen Catapult” coalition. They hope to connect hydrogen consumers, producers and infrastructure companies.
Government and international efforts, such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, can set policies, goals and mandates to help increase supply and demand. Useful policies would include a global carbon tax as well as a carbon price (cap and trade), which would impose a “mandatory reduction” plan for emissions. Governments could support business sectors, such as heavy road transport and global shipping, that already possess much of the infrastructure needed to utilize hydrogen.
Individuals can buy goods that rely on green hydrogen in their manufacture. For many products, the use of hydrogen power would raise the retail price by less than 1%.
The Good Gas
Alverà proves an unpretentious expert, and lays out his knowledge and ideas for the future in a logical, diagrammed sequence. His thoroughness ensures readers can grasp each new concept before he goes on to the next, or on to a combination of concepts. Those who know little about hydrogen’s application will learn much and possibly gain inspiration to utilize hydrogen in their transportation. Alverà writes simply and cleanly for students, laypeople adults and, especially, potential investors.
Books on hydrogen include Solar Hydrogen Production by Francesco Calise and Massimo Dentice D’Accadia; Hydrogen and Fuel Cells by Rebecca Busby; and Tomorrow’s Energy by Peter Hoffmann.