Is there a green light ahead for hydrogen in freight transportation?

Commercial transportation and hard-to-electrify sectors need a green fuel option, but hydrogen might not be it

Despite challenges with its extraction and transport, hydrogen is expected to be key to reducing carbon emissions in hard-to-electrify sectors, including maritime cargo movement and aviation | Scharfsinn86/Getty images

The chemical equation for inserting hydrogen into global transportation’s carbon footprint reduction formula is complex.

Its contribution to shrinking that footprint varies widely depending on the factors used in the equation.

For example, DNV points out in its Hydrogen Forecast to 2050 report that hydrogen is expensive and “inefficient compared with direct electrification [and] in many ways … should be thought of as the low-carbon energy source of last resort.”

That is hardly a ringing endorsement of what is the most abundant element in the universe. Still, the overriding consensus is that hydrogen will be one of the keys to reducing carbon emissions from maritime cargo movement, aviation, high heat industrial processes and other hard-to-electrify sectors.

In his opening remarks at DNV’s June 14 hydrogen outlook, company CEO Remi Eriksen estimated that the investment required to increase hydrogen’s role in the global energy mix to five per cent by 2050 would be roughly US$7 trillion.

“To put it in perspective, that’s five times Norway’s Oil Fund,” Eriksen said.

He added that the investment will be needed to more than double the 90 million tonnes of hydrogen currently produced in refineries around the world.

However, more than a multitrillion-dollar investment is needed to move hydrogen from fringe contributor to mainstream player in the world’s energy mix.

For one thing, while it is the most abundant element in the known universe, hydrogen first has to be separated from other compounds to be usable as an energy carrier and storage option for solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

Extracting it from water, gases or fossil fuels requires significant investment and energy. So, depending on what form of energy is used in that hydrogen liberation process, the net greenhouse gas reduction gain might be negligible or worse than not extracting the hydrogen at all. Also, while oil and gas are relatively easy to transport, hydrogen is not.

As Eriksen noted, “Hydrogen shares many properties with natural gas, but it does have some unique properties like its higher explosion reactivity.... Hydrogen, the lightest of substances, needs a heavy lift from all of us if we are to have any hope of reaching the Paris targets.”

That hydrogen economy heavy lifting requires that a hydrogen transition be sustainable without driving companies into bankruptcy and relegating the public to energy poverty.

But despite its cost and complications, hydrogen remains atop the list of carbon reduction options for hard-to-electrify sectors.

DNV’s hydrogen outlook panel offered some navigational insights and a basic shopping list for progressing along a hydrogen highway that has many warning signs but few directional coordinates.

First up: the supply chain.

But not just the one that moves goods worldwide and continues to suffer from COVID-19 complications.

“Also, the human supply chain,” said Ulrich Rueth, head of hybrids and hydrogen for Siemens Gamesa (BME:SGRE), a renewable energy engineering company based in Spain. “We need a lot of experts. I always try to convince young people to get off the streets. What you did with fighting for futures was a good start. But now get into the engineering schools and start to study engineering, because there is so much work to do.”

Rueth pointed to the global oil and gas sector as a prime place to find that human resource talent.

“That’s the skill set we need for the future.”

He added that passion and courage are also needed at every level.

Both remain in short supply, especially when it comes to a challenge as complicated and controversial as energy transition.

Hydrogen transportation and storage infrastructure is also in short supply.

“[It is] simply very inefficient and expensive to transport in bulk by ship or other means,” said Jorge Aarnes, DNV’s global lead for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. “So, if you’re looking at long distance transport, in larger scale, you’re basically looking at opportunities to transport by pipeline.”

The challenge there is that hydrogen pipeline infrastructure in North America is a fraction of the pipeline infrastructure that carries natural gas. The United States has around 2,600 kilometres of hydrogen pipelines compared with 4.8 million kilometres of natural gas pipelines; Canada has a few hundred kilometres of hydrogen pipelines and 840,000 kilometres of natural gas pipelines.

The DNV panel also agreed on the need to establish global standards and regulations to ensure the safe storage and transportation of hydrogen and added that a worldwide carbon trading structure would be fundamental to financing the massive investment required to turn hydrogen economy proposals into energy transition realities.

So, there is no shortcut on any leg of the hydrogen highway.

But Rueth, a self-confessed optimist, said the destination is within reach, regardless of the distance that needs to be covered and the obstacles that need to be removed.

Market momentum is the key, he said.

“And then we will get there. I’m 100 per cent convinced.”