COP26 brought together countries from around the world to discuss the next steps in a global response to climate change. At the 2021 conference in Glasgow, a new-old energy source dominated discussions of cleaner energy and decarbonization: hydrogen.
To find out if hydrogen is one of the “future fuels” it’s touted to be, we asked four experts for their insights into energy, sustainability, the benefits and drawbacks of hydrogen and the role of standards in developing clean, modern fuel sources and a decarbonized, decentralized, smarter energy system.
Meet the experts
Sebastiaan van Dort
Associate Director of Energy
Kevin Kinsella Partner (leading hydrogen services)
Maria Varbeva - Daley
Energy Sector Lead
Consulting Director & Sector Lead for System Transition Enablers
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is an (alternative) energy carrier that can be produced using electrolysis from renewable power sources, such as solar, wind or natural gas. It’s a viable low carbon option for heating millions of homes, fuelling cars and planes and powering heavy industry and, as it only produces water vapour when used, hydrogen doesn’t emit carbon into the atmosphere like fossil fuels.
However, electrolytic hydrogen has its critics who point out that it requires a lot of power to produce, that not all of that power currently comes from renewable and/or low-carbon sources, and that it is difficult to store and transport. However, there is significant research and testing in how hydrogen is stored and moved to help scale up the production and use of hydrogen.
“The main benefit is its versatility. Passenger trains have now been developed to run on hydrogen, hydrogen propulsion for ships and planes is being trialled whilst hydrogen trucks, buses and taxis are all now in use. Heavy industry is also evaluating hydrogen; particular in the steel industry and power generation. On the domestic and commercial heating front, hydrogen boilers, gas cookers and fires are being developed to work on 100% pure hydrogen. So lots of things are being put in place. They are all relatively small scale at the moment but the size and range of application is increasing quickly. The versatility of hydrogen facilitates its use in almost all sectors, providing a low carbon solution wherever we use fossil fuels today.” - Kevin Kinsella
Hydrogen faces a number of challenges before it can overcome our reliance on fossil fuels, from up-scaling to changing policy and regulations.
“We are currently transitioning from a ‘linear’ energy system to another one, from a fossil fuel-based system to an energy system which is digitized, decentralized and obviously decarbonized. The government is looking at a number of policies, including decarbonizing heat, and that's where hydrogen and standards for hydrogen really start to play a role.” - Sebastiaan van Dort
“Hydrogen is not looked at in isolation, but as part of an overarching, integrated and system-based solution. We’re tackling hydrogen supply chain challenges, such as hydrogen production, distribution and storage, but also exploring the barriers to increasing the use of hydrogen in specific sectors of the economy. There are several sectors where hydrogen has been highlighted as particularly relevant and feasible for use: in domestic and commercial heating, in power generation and provision, as well as in transport - to decarbonize road freight and flight, rail and marine transport for example.” - Maria Vabeva-Daley
Truly a zero-emissions fuel?
“Hydrogen is already being used widely in industry, including refineries and petrochemical plant and is used extensively for fertiliser production. However, it is currently produced largely from natural gas or coal and so has high carbon emissions. To ensure hydrogen production is low or zero carbon, we need to either produce is using electrolysis, powered by renewables, or from gas but with CO2 capture” - Kevin Kinsella
Grey hydrogen: Grey hydrogen is created from natural gas or methane, but without capturing the greenhouse gases made in the process. This is currently the most common form of hydrogen production.
Blue hydrogen: Created using a process called steam reforming, blue hydrogen also uses natural gas and steam but uses carbon capture and storage (CCS) to trap and store the carbon dioxide released during production.
Green hydrogen: Green hydrogen is the ultimate end goal, where hydrogen is produced with no greenhouse gas emissions, using renewable energy such as solar or wind to electrolyse water.
Although hydrogen itself produces no emissions other than water vapour when used, the production of hydrogen fuel can be detrimental to the environment if it is grey or produced from grid electricity, for example. Unlocking and scaling up the production of blue and green hydrogen is therefore essential to the success of hydrogen as a fuel source used across key sectors of the economy.
"At the moment around 90 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced annually for industry, as fertiliser, etc. The majority of that is made from natural gas. To produce that amount from renewable energy sources would require the total amount of electricity generated by the entire EU at the moment. So it's a massive challenge - just to do that.” - Kevin Kinsella
Hydrogen and net zero
Net zero simply means that either greenhouse gases are eliminated in the first place or that the amount of greenhouse gas produced (for example, by a business) is balanced by the removal of emissions from the atmosphere, by reducing and then offsetting the carbon released into the environment. It’s a key part of the UK government’s climate and sustainability targets, as it is an effective way of reducing climate emissions and global warming.
Establishing hydrogen’s role in achieving net zero and how exactly to harness its power, and in which sectors, is a critical point of ongoing policy and clean energy discussions.
“Net zero is the ultimate destination, but the question at the moment is how are we going to get there? Let’s look at some of the big policy questions, like ‘how do we decarbonize heat?’ There are two schools of thought. One is we electrify heat - so then you don't need to replace gas and you create heat pumps. The other school is to replace the current gas supply with low carbon hydrogen. But which one is the ‘right’ answer? Well, it might be a mix of both.” - Sebastiaan van Dort
“With net zero, every single part of the energy system has to be decarbonized. In heavy duty, transport for freight or passenger services and aviation, for example, hydrogen offers faster fuelling times, better ranges and so on. For aviation, the option of using synthetic fuels based on hydrogen and captured CO2 is certainly better than the current alternative, which is really just biofuels. So I think net zero is really the trigger [for the UK’s hydrogen strategy].”- Tom Houghton
“There is unprecedented momentum for hydrogen at the moment globally … the war in Ukraine has brought to our attention the need for energy security, which adds to the already compelling case from a climate change perspective. The number of projects announced is accelerating month on month and now we are finally beginning to see real investment swinging behind some of the leading innovations. It is a totally different picture to where we were only 2 or 3 years ago.” - Kevin Kinsella
Investment is key to overcoming the challenges and obstacles in hydrogen’s future, one of which is transport; moving it around as liquid hydrogen is difficult as it requires very cold temperatures and highly insulated containers for storage.
“There are trials planned on a disused pipeline between Grangemouth and Grantham to look at using hydrogen in an existing natural gas system. Additional experimental work is also in progress at Spadeadam in Cumbria. Successful demonstrations here, in a similar way to those witnessed for a hydrogen pipeline in The Netherlands, can be an absolute game changer for hydrogen. Access to a pipeline network can immediately provide you with a massive offtake solution, providing a large storage capacity and a distribution network that enables you to take hydrogen to all parts of the country for industry, transport and domestic/commercial heating.” - Kevin Kinsella
With ongoing tests, trials and research, hydrogen becomes a viable and attractive alternative fuel source for the UK and the rest of the world. As the technology develops and progresses, the costs come down and – especially with green hydrogen – there is the potential for a totally renewable and clean fuel that can power our cars, businesses, industries and much more.
One of the challenges at the moment is the cost of producing the hydrogen, the cost of the renewable electricity and converting that to hydrogen using electrolysis. Electrolysers are still in their infancy and are not produced at manufacturing scale yet. All of that needs to ramp up. Hydrogen is kind of where solar and wind power were 10-15 years ago. They were both highly expensive at that time, but rapidly became cheaper and now have now become really cost-competitive with other forms of power generation”. - Kevin Kinsella
The role of standards in developing hydrogen
So how can we accelerate and scale up the use of hydrogen and its journey to becoming a “future fuel”? One answer is, through standards developed in support of policy and regulatory targets, industry initiatives and innovation approaches.
- Standards ensure quality and consistency
“When you produce hydrogen, you have to produce it to a certain standard. If you're producing hydrogen for transport applications, putting into a gas network or any other application, you need to be able to demonstrate a level of purity and safety. So standards are really important and a lot of work is going on at the moment to produce the relevant standards for hydrogen.” - Kevin Kinsella
- Standards improve how we do things
“Of course, standards have a role to play in implementing policy and industry ambitions, helping industry and other stakeholders reach legislative and regulatory targets and comply with regulatory requirements. But standards also embody best practice and provide a common knowledge base which is necessary, for example, for the UK to extend its supply chains, improve and export hydrogen products, services, technology and innovations.” - Maria Varbeva-Daley
- Standards push the boundaries of what is possible
“BSI manages technical committees dealing with the use of hydrogen for heating in domestic and commercial premises, as well as committees looking at the application of hydrogen in other sectors, such as freight, flight, maritime, space, etc. We have a massive community of technical committees and subject matter experts who are already doing the work, but the challenge is that that work has thus far been somewhat scattered and, at times, delinked from other related initiatives.”… - Maria Varbeva-Daley
- Standards unite people and ensure all voices are heard
“Standards bring everyone together, including governments, industry, regulators, but also quite importantly, community and public interest groups, which is going to be more and more important in the wider net zero debate in light of the cost of living crisis. It's very important that [the development of hydrogen] takes the voice of the consumer and their concerns into account…” - Sebastiaan van Dort
- Standards encourage sustainability
“There’s a lot of work also going on with the certification of sustainable hydrogen. Has it been produced from a renewable electricity? Can we prove that that electricity is additional to electricity capacity that would have been built anyway? If you're talking about synthetic fuels, where's the CO2 come from? How is that being produced?” - Tom Houghton
- Standards inform investment decision
“There are a number of questions and barriers to hydrogen – for example the cost of production and the investment risk. Right now, regulation gives clarity to the landscape but if you can capture ‘what good looks like’ that allows investment to flow into a space. So, in a way, standards help bring costs down and secure that investment, making it easier for underwriters and finance houses to start supporting something like hydrogen.” - Sebastiaan van Dort
- Standards help shape the future
“I don't think we've even realized the types of hydrogen projects that are going to be started over the next ten years yet… Some of them just haven't yet emerged because new technology will come along as disrupt the initial thinking. Undoubtedly there'll be new types of electrolysers, fuel cells and storage systems and they will all require standards to be in place to ensure safety and quality.” - Kevin Kinsella
Looking towards the future
However the future of hydrogen may look, standards are set to play a central role in ensuring the technology is safe, product quality is guaranteed and that everyone with a say in hydrogen, from consumers to government, can help shape the future of fuel.
“The key is to keep this momentum moving forward. Government policy is going to be key. The infrastructure support and business models (for CAPEX and revenue) that government put in place in different countries in Europe and around the world to promote hydrogen take up will be critical. If we have that, then the momentum will accelerate and we will achieve rapid growth.” - Kevin Kinsella
To find out more about hydrogen, standards and BSI’s work in the hydrogen and energy sectors, contact email@example.com.