The world needs no hydrogen revolution, but a steady transition. Transportation is the first one in the row.
By Dmitry Lashin
Electricity consumption is growing all over the world, on average by 2% per year, since the 2000s – the multiplying number of gadgets, the growing popularity of electric cars, the conscious transition to electric heating in many countries. Adding to this there are some unexpected costs: according to a study by the Cambridge University, 123.99 TWh (terawatt-hours) of energy were used to produce Bitcoin in 2020, while the whole UAE consumed just 119.45 TWh during the same period. There is no reason to believe that situation will change for the better. Huge increasing demand for the electricity will only continue to grow. At the same time, it is important from which sources the energy was obtained – the leading world economies have already published their programs intended to complete decarbonization as early as in 2050 and are actively moving along the way.
In 2020, the volume of renewable energy capacities in the EU increased by 10% and at the end of the year reached up to 38% of the total energy generation. At the same time, the share of generation from renewable energy sources in Germany exceeded 50%. The share of energy from coal combustion also decreased, which was facilitated simultaneously by the rise in the cost of CO2 certificates and the decrease in gas prices.
In recent years capacities of batteries for storing electricity have significantly increased. The efficiency of power generation on renewable energy sources has increased, and the cost of commissioning new capacities has decreased. All this contributes to an active transition to green energy in developed countries. In 2020 about 90% of all new capacities introduced in the world fell on renewable energy sources. According to the forecasts of the European Electricity Association by 2030 – 80% of the EU’s electricity can be obtained without using fossil fuels, while renewable energy will account for up to 60%. But this scenario may look just a bit too optimistic.
Firstly, in the EU, it is common to classify hydroelectric power plants as RES, this is taken into account in the general indicators for this type of energy. If one would exclude the share of hydroelectric power plants, the real share of environmentally friendly energy from RES is therefore slightly lower than declared. The safety of hydroelectric power plants for the environment, after all is a controversial issue. Secondly, there are questions to assess the efficiency and feasibility of using certain electricity generation methods.
Renewables are still having much lower efficiency level than traditional energy sources. According to calculations based on the energy expended, solar panels will pay off in more than six years and wind power plants – one and a half years. At the same time, natural gas power plant will pay off in just 11 months and the nuclear power plant in just 2 months.
As Eurostat data shows, in terms of the electricity cost for 100kWh among the EU countries, one of the highest rates is in Germany – 26.8 euros / 100 kWh, and one of the lowest in France is 17.5. In Germany, as it was broadly announced, more than 50% comes from renewables, while in France more than 70% comes from nuclear energy.
RES are very dependent on weather conditions – lack of sunlight, the strength and gust of the wind, everything could make a difference. Wind power generation is usually available 25% to 35% of the time; sun – 10% to 25% of the time. So, the RES is extremely unstable, and its intermittent operation contributes to the growth of costs.
Since the production of energy from renewables is intermittent it is necessary to build disproportionately more transmission lines for them. Since the system must be able to transfer maximum power in the available periods of time and not average, as is in case of power plants using traditional fuels. Thus a 2014 study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that transmission costs for wind power are roughly three times higher than the cost of transmission from coal or nuclear.
Hydrogen so close so far
According to BloombergNEF optimistic forecasts, which is a subject to a number of conditions, the share of hydrogen in the global energy sector could reach 24% by 2050.
The EU intends to abandon ICE transport by 2040, and they plan to transfer part of the energy system to hydrogen. Similar programs were presented in South Korea, Japan, Australia. Even Russia has presented a roadmap for the development of hydrogen energy until 2035. Combined with renewable energy, hydrogen can really dramatically change the world’s energy framework.
However, as of today, obtaining hydrogen by electrolysis (the only carbon neutral way) is an expensive and economically inexpedient process. Undoubtedly, this issue will be resolved in some not very distant future, but until then, the most efficient way of producing hydrogen is the reforming hydrogen from natural gas. In the near future, transition to hydrogen energy will be ensured precisely by means of natural gas.
The Gas that speeds us away
For at least a decade ahead, natural gas is going to remain the most feasible eco-friendly fuel. This makes it logical to bridge our current carbon-based economy with a low-carbon economy. Using natural gas or its liquid form (LNG) could deliver significant benefits to the overall global environment. The CO2 emissions-reducing characteristics of natural gas will help us develop an infrastructure for future carbon neutral economy as well as to meet our current GHG emissions reduction targets. It is also important that we have every technology and opportunity to shape new global energy transition.
To get rid of the grid
While the popularity of electric vehicles is on the rise (especially in China, UK and US), the charging infrastructure is simply not there yet, which means that EV owners are limited with their travel options. For many, long road trips through rural areas aren’t feasible due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure. This makes many journeys difficult, especially through areas that aren’t connected to an electrical grid.
At the same time, a simple scaling of the existing grid connected infrastructure makes it highly cost consuming. The Texas electric grid went into a blackout during the extreme cold this winter. In the United Kingdom, a new tax approach is under consideration in order to prevent the overload of the grid from extra appliances connected (EV’s for example). It is clear that if we want to build sufficient infrastructure to boost the transition to EV’s, this infrastructure should be independent from a grid. It is also more sufficient in terms of carbon emissions, because what is surprising here is that even a global energy system emits 7% more CO2 than a local generator.
It is essential to shift from the grid to a local source of generation. Over time, classic filling stations will move to dual-fuel, selling both classic gasoline and electric power. The fuel for these stations will be LNG or an LNG / H2 mixture, whichever is cheaper and meets the emission standards. Even today’s technology of local electricity generation allows it to reduce emissions by 68% with the same consumption level of a diesel / gasoline vehicle.
The good news is – we, people of the Earth, have all the technologies required and the solution to start building more efficient and cleaner infrastructure for EV’s. There are a few incentives of this kind around the globe, at different stages of development. But what all of us do, is bridging this gap towards the carbon neutral economy now, without further delay, while waiting for a better chance. And it would be just right for everyone to join.