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Prospects for a European Hydrogen Economy (CESSA Policy Brief)

August 1st, 2008 by Julian Barquin, Comillas University

Development of hydrogen technologies is mainly pursued because of the potential to store energy from intermittent energy sources and to provide an alternative fuel for transportation.

Regarding energy storage, the starting point is the realization of the new conditions that will likely prevail in the future energy systems, and specifically in electric power systems. From both the environmental and security of supply viewpoints, energy production from indigenous renewable sources is highly recommended. However, most renewable energy is actually renewable electricity, and most of it is “intermittent”, that is, not available on command but subject to uncontrollable conditions (time-of-day, cloud cover, wind, et caetera). Large-scale economic electricity storage cannot be addressed with present technologies, which poses difficulties for deployment of intermittent renewable electricity in Europe as generation must balance demand at any moment. Use of electrical energy storage facilities is a must if Europe intends to obtain renewable electricity in amounts similar to those of fossil fuels based electricity today, without investing huge amounts of capital in back-up facilities to cover the gaps when renewable generation is not available. Other energy storage technologies that could fill this role also deserve attention.

Hydrogen could also be a substitute of hydrocarbon-based liquid fuels for transportation uses. Arguably, transportation poses the most difficult challenge in the process of de-carbonizing the world economy and freeing Europe from the need of importing most of its primary energy. Other alternatives are biofuels, which could be limited from the availability of land that may be needed for other purposes, and electricity, which appears to have a major potential as plug-in hybrid cars may constitute a new paradigm for future road transportation, especially if improved batteries are developed soon.

A weakness of the hydrogen path in the design of a more sustainable future energy model is the need for further significant technological development along all of the hydrogen chain; namely the processes of production, transportation, distribution and final use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels, by water electrolysis or possibly from nuclear power. Presently, the dominant technology is natural gas steam reforming. The procedure, as any other that is based on fossil fuels, results in the emission of carbon dioxide. Therefore, sustainable large scale hydrogen production from fossil fuels will require CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration). Besides, if hydrogen were produced from natural gas, European security of supply problems could be seriously amplified.

Water electrolysis is a well-known, commercially available technology for very pure hydrogen production. It would have the additional advantage of allowing decentralized operation, therefore easing the infrastructure building effort as compared to production from fossil fuels, biomass or nuclear energy. However, significant reductions in the costs of electrolysis equipment and improvements in efficiency would be required in order for electrolysis to become commercially viable.

Nuclear energy could provide an electricity source for hydrogen production, if general concerns about security, environmental impact and cost are met in the wider arena of electricity generation by nuclear plants. There are also proposals for direct hydrogen production by high-temperature water thermolysis, although commercial systems are still to be built.

If hydrogen is to become an energy vector with the same footing as electricity today, vast amounts of investment in building infrastructure are to be needed, especially if it is produced in centralized facilities either from fossil fuels or by water thermolisys in nuclear plants. It is worth pointing out that the amount of energy that would have to be carried is expected to be greater than the amount that is presently transported in natural gas pipelines, not being the required technology simpler in any way.

Use of hydrogen in transportation is viewed by many as the real justification of a hydrogen economy. At present, applications are limited to demonstration projects and niche applications, in which cost is a secondary concern. Widespread adoption hinges in technological breakthroughs that allow cheaper fuel cells and, more importantly, improved ways to store hydrogen in vehicles in order for them to boast ranges commensurate with those of present gasoline cars. Use of hydrogen in automobiles highlights the need and difficulties of developing an infrastructure that makes them to the users as attractive as gasoline cars.

Even if some hydrogen technologies have been well-known for a long time, it is widely felt that a significant effort in R&D is still needed, and that plans for deployment in the near future are premature. Therefore, an increased R&D effort is advised, especially when it is taken into account that most hydrogen technologies could play a significant role in the future energy system even if this one were not to be based on hydrogen. For instance, hydrogen from coal technologies are important in connection with cleaner coal, hydrogen fuel-cell cars are nothing else that electric cars in which the batteries have been substituted by a fuel-cell and a hydrogen tank, and nuclear fusion is a worthwhile object even if only used to generate electricity. There is a host of other hydrogen technologies, as direct thermo-solar hydrogen generation or photo-biological hydrogen production that are not only fascinating and potentially relevant, and whose development could provide important breakthroughs in other energy technologies as by-products. However, they are still in an infant stage, and more research is required.

There is also widespread support to the notion that the required research efforts should not detract from other and possibly more urgent energy research areas, but rather complement them. There is a consensus that European research effort in energy is clearly insufficient, and it has been advised to increase it by an order of magnitude.

Julian Barquin and Ignacio Perez-Arriaga, Universidad Pontificia Comillas

P.S. This Policy brief is informed by the work of the CESSA project, especially by the CESSA Conference held at Madrid from April 14 to 15, 2008.

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6 Responses to “Prospects for a European Hydrogen Economy (CESSA Policy Brief)”

  1. Nuno Says:

    Nice description of the situation. Although I have some questions: Is it possible to further develop the technology without supporting first large scale demonstrations? Was Japan completely wrong when the country decided to sponsor large demonstration projects in the transports?

  2. Pierre BACHER Says:

    On the whole, I agree with your conclusion that it is premature to enter into a hydrogen economy and that we are still in a R&D stage. However, for the following reasons, i am not sure that a high priority should be given to R&D on the hydrogen economy:
    1; I doubt that H2 can be produced industrially by electrolysis with intermittent electricity, for both
    technical and economic reasons
    - an electrolyser needs a steady production to be efficient
    - if the cost of an electrolyser is amortised over 15 % of the time (photovoltaic) or even 25 % (wind), it will increase heavily the cost of H2.
    2. Even if H2 is produced industrially in large, centralised units, the best use for this H2 would probably to “hydrogenise carbon”, whether the carbon comes from coal (with CCS) or from biomass. As you mention, the transportation and storage of H2 in large quantities would encounter serious problems.
    3. The use of H2 with fuel cells would be penalised by a very poor overall efficiency: 3 to 4 GJ
    of electricity are needed to generate 1 GJ of “useful” electricity : there may be some “niches”, but mass use seems improbable.
    4. In fact, renewable heat is today more important than renewable electricity and has a great potential (biomass, solar and geothermal), all at reasonable costs especially when used with heat pumps. Photovoltaic also require a lot of R&d to reduce the costs. Plug-in hybrid cars have a large, near-term potential. CCS also need a lot of R&D, and positive results are essential.

    There are clearly many areas which need R&D: H2 technologies are one of them, but not with a very high priority.

  3. Nick Says:

    “There is also widespread support to the notion that the required research efforts should not detract from other and possibly more urgent energy research areas, but rather complement them.” – I personally see this as the main problem, it always has been and will continue to be a problem.

    Individual Projects should complement each other. But all too often budgets are split and assigned from different directions and only one overall objective is completed. There really should be prioritisation and strong collaboration in these areas to channel enough resources into some serious world wide problems.

  4. Matthieu Objois Says:

    With development of new fuel cells, more efficient, lighter and cheaper (platinum is needed as a chemical catalyst), the hydrogen could really be the alternative fuel of the future for transportation, as it is explained in the article.
    However, even if several production processes are well known, the storage of hydrogen is still far more difficult than storage of classic hydrocarbon-based liquid fuels.
    First of all, the natural form of hydrogen is the dihydrogen molecule. And this is an extremely light gas: even if its internal energy (more than 120MJ/kg) is the triple of natural gas one, its energy per unit of volume stays very weak. For a competitive tank storage, high pressures have to be used (700 bar), with consequent risks: the dihydrogen combustion is especially violent.
    Another possibility, this gas can be liquefied. However, temperature has to fall under 20°K (-253°C), and special thermal isolated tanks have to be used. Such technology exists, with excellent results, but it needs a high energy consumption, and quickly losses of stored hydrogen by evaporation occur.
    A possible solution would be the use of metallic hydrides. Hydrogen can be captured by these materials, and released by heating. It is easy and safe but energy expensive. Moreover, their application is still limited, as they are capable of storing only about 2 weight percent of hydrogen, which is not enough for automotive applications.
    However, hydrogen can be stored through other chemical substances (for example methanol, or substances using Bore). They are liquid at normal temperature, but they stay heavily toxic (methanol can make someone blind).
    To conclude, there is no miracle way for hydrogen storage. In these conditions R&D is needed to expect a future for this technology.

  5. Mike Says:

    “Hydrogen could also be a substitute of hydrocarbon-based liquid fuels for transportation uses. Arguably, transportation poses the most difficult challenge in the process of de-carbonizing the world economy and freeing Europe from the need of importing most of its primary energy. ”

    The recent advances in hydrogen fueled cars could be the beginning of the turning point. With Hondas latest edition (which is currently only going to be sold in California – where else?!) runs entirely on H and the emmisions are pure H2O. Once this model gains momentum it could go a long way towards de-carbonizing major p[opulated areas. I guess the problem will be whether Honda see fit to roll out the car on a more global scale as against protect their “oil based” products.

  6. James Says:

    It’s a pity there is not more written about the different hydrogen storage technologies.
    If countries like Germany, who wish to lower their CO2 emissions, quit nuclear energy production, and improve their renewable energy mix, they face the trouble of intermittent electricity: when the demand is high, the resource is not enough, and Germany must turn on more coal power plants, and when the renewable electricity production is high, the demand is low, and energy is wasted.
    In the recent Energy 2050 report, by the French government, in Energy Outlook 2011, and in other prospective reports, electricity storage is mentioned, but cannot be taken seriously at the moment since the storage technologies are at present expensive and inefficient.

    Nevertheless, here are a few ideas of energy storage that hover around the energy efficiency debate, that are only at a young development stage, or do not really exist yet.

    I have spoken with several representatives of companies dealing with natural gas, General Electric, GdF Suez, GrDF, MAN (plants and vehicles), they have all told me that you can fill the natural gas grid, a natural gas power plant, or a natural gas vehicle, with more than 2/3 of hydrogen (depending on its purity), and use it in a classical combustion.

    So basically, anything that functions with natural gas can also function with hydrogen, up to more than half.

    People only think of hydrogen as a fuel for fuel cells, but using it in infrastructures which already exist for gas could be much cheaper.

    The current average electrical efficiency for a hydrogen fuel cell is around 40%. Still, if the price of electricity and gas continues to rise, and if variations and peaks become more and more difficult to handle, this could become a profitable exchange from one to another towards better peak shaving.

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