Decarbonization – a buzzword that energizes the societal push towards a greener economy.
It means the reduction of carbon and lowering our dependence on fossil fuels. Our markets are experiencing leaps in electrification, which is the expansion of a grid that is reliant on renewable sources of electricity, such as wind, solar, nuclear, and hydroelectric; challenges exist with each. While different industries may champion for one source, what we know for certain is that resiliency requires diversity.
If we are to tap into natural resources, we must acknowledge that nature itself has limitations. It is not always windy. The sun goes down each day. In order to create a decarbonized energy grid, we must consider a combination of diverse sources, as emphasized on an episode of Going Green by guest, Janice Lin.
Imagine a fuel source that is natural, abundant, and emits the byproducts of water vapor and oxygen. Hydrogen, in theory, is a pivotal step in decarbonization. By using a fuel cell, you are able to convert liquid hydrogen back into electricity and combust it in an existing gas turbine; hydrogen fuel is used for many applications and it leverages existing infrastructure. There are, of course, limitations. This includes the high energy and heat it takes to perform electrolysis, or the splitting of a water molecule (H2O) to achieve the standalone hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Storing it at a low pressure is also a challenge, however, R&D is advancing in this sector every day.
As the technology develops, we can be optimistic that, just like photovoltaics or oil refining processes, making hydrogen will become more efficient. As for the energy that goes into electrolysis, there are numerous, large-scale, ‘green hydrogen’ projects being conducted worldwide. The reason it is given the name green hydrogen is because the source that is powering the electrolysis is derived from renewables. In the past, electrolysis has been performed with non-renewable, natural gas.
Shifting to create hydrogen fuel with renewables is a step in the right direction.
Green hydrogen projects are being accomplished through a combination of off-shore and on-shore wind and solar energy. The idea: produce green hydrogen with the excess energy that is not going into the grid, and then when power production stops (the sun goes down or the wind disappears) we are left with a surplus of safely-stored, green hydrogen that is able to power the grid. Hydrogen is incredibly useful in the application of storage, as it can be generated during peak hours of solar or wind production, and then used during off hours. These developments are an example of decentralized networks using a combination of technologies that enable us to get further away from our dependency on fossil fuels.
There is a long-standing debate on which power source is “the best.”
With decarbonization as the driving force of emerging technologies, we begin to take note of hydrogen’s importance as a potential fuel source and catalyst for decentralized grids via storage. However, there are many challenges with hydrogen. Like other gases, you cannot smell or see it, so you don’t know if there is a leak. It is twice as flammable as propane. Hydrogen needs to be stored at very low temperatures in order to stay in its most efficient state of liquid hydrogen. However, the challenges of storing and distributing hydrogen can be solved by tapping into existing infrastructures, such as repurposing pipes and upcycling old oil wells.
As for the safety of hydrogen, the Green Hydrogen Guidebook is an excellent place to formulate your own opinion.
When we think about the direction of our future, we know the path will not have a singular direction or solution. Until recently, our society has been dependent on coal power for over 200 years; this single-sourced dependency is not sustainable. We must dig deeper into alternative sources and outline the pros and cons of all renewable energy. The debate should not be which renewable energy source is best; rather we should investigate how we can combine diverse methods to produce and store green energy in order to wean our society’s dependence on a single power production method. If we are determined to decarbonize, we must shift to become decentralized: creating smaller, combined systems that are powered by emerging technologies.