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Expert Blog – February 17, 2023

Hydrogen seems to be the magic word in the energy transition. But what exactly can we do with it? What are the chances and what are the caveats? Michiel Hickey, hydrogen expert at StartGreen, describes in this blog the state of affairs in research and application of hydrogen.

Battery in gaseous form

'Hydrogen is not the silver bullet of the energy transition. It is 'a' puzzle piece in the complete energy transition jigsaw puzzle that we must lay. Many people see hydrogen as the ideal replacement for fossil fuels, but it is not that simple. Hydrogen in itself is not a fuel; it is an energy carrier, a kind of battery in gaseous form.

Large energy loss conversions

Let me start at the beginning: how do you make hydrogen? The most sustainable way to produce hydrogen is with green electricity and water. Electrolysis splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Unfortunately, a lot of energy is lost during the production process: the amount of energy stored in the hydrogen molecules is 25 percent less than the energy put into it for production. If you then convert the hydrogen into water, energy is released. But you also lose energy in that process. 1 joule of energy ultimately yields – after these two conversions – 0.37 joules. Nevertheless, the application of hydrogen is interesting enough to investigate, for example to balance supply and demand in the electricity grid.

Big benefits

In itself it is logical that many people see hydrogen as the magic word in the climate crisis. Hydrogen can be widely used: for heating, to store electricity, but also as a sustainable alternative in chemical processes, without CO2 emissions. It also has a much higher energy density (joules per kg) than batteries: no less than a factor 236 higher. Moreover, there are theoretically unlimited raw materials to produce hydrogen: you only need water and electricity.

Compress necessary

What makes application difficult is that although hydrogen has the highest energy density per kilogram of all elements in the universe, it also has one of the lowest energy densities per cubic meter. Hydrogen is a gas with very few molecules in a given volume. You can solve this problem by A) compressing it: this means you cram more molecules into the same volume, B) cooling it considerably, so that the molecules take up less space and you get more molecules in the same volume or C) both.

Apply critically

Hydrogen is currently still being generated to a limited extent. This is mainly because it is still very expensive to produce hydrogen; green hydrogen in particular is costly to produce. At the moment, more than 90 percent of all hydrogen is currently produced from fossil resources. Moreover, up to now there is no infrastructure for storage and transport.

We have to keep asking ourselves with every application whether it is the most energy efficient solution and whether there is no logical, sustainable alternative. After all, it makes little sense to use an enormous capacity of sustainable energy for the generation of hydrogen, while we can also use it directly. We should therefore only use hydrogen for applications that are otherwise hard to abate, such as in the steel industry. The Natuur & Milieu foundation helps make those choices with a 'hydrogen ladder': a ranking of meaningful applications of green hydrogen.

Hydrogen as a buffer

Balancing the electricity network, i.e. using hydrogen as a buffer for the electricity supply, is in second place in the ladder. We want to generate more and more electricity sustainably, but those sustainable generation methods depend on sun and wind. This leads to growing intermittency of the energy production, making it increasingly difficult to match it with the demand. Grid congestion also plays an important role in this. We look for smart ways to reduce differences between supply and demand. Hydrogen can offer a solution in this regard.

Not for passenger cars, but for freight traffic

Passenger cars can now run even better on a battery than on hydrogen. To be able to run on hydrogen, you have to cool it very heavily and/or put it under high pressure. To extract electricity from hydrogen, you have to equip cars with a fuel cell. While electric driving works super well. Due to increasingly better batteries, the range is increasing and is now between three and four hundred kilometers. The development of the charging infrastructure is also well advanced in the Netherlands.

Trucks that have to travel long distances cannot yet run on a battery. Other heavy transport, such as excavators and ships, are also difficult to electrify. That is why hydrogen is a good solution for freight traffic and heavy transport.

In the table below you can see how many kilos of fuel approximately are needed to drive from Amsterdam to Eindhoven in an average passenger car and how many liters that would cost in an uncompressed state. As you can see, you need very little hydrogen (in kilos), but hydrogen in an uncompressed state takes up a much larger volume than the other fuels.

Table: estimated consumption by passenger cars per fuel from Amsterdam to Eindhoven.

Not yet for airplanes

In the future hydrogen will also be a good solution for air traffic. For the time being, flying on batteries is not an option and hydrogen is a reasonable alternative. Aircraft manufacturers are currently working hard to make aircraft suitable for hydrogen. That will take a while: around 2050 we expect to be able to fly larger hydrogen-powered planes. it is currently more effective to use sustainable drop-in fuels as alternative to kerosene, such as synthetic kerosene based on frying fat and other waste oils.

Accelerate transition

The hydrogen ladder is a good instrument, but especially for later, when there is sufficient supply. In my opinion, at this point in the hydrogen transition we should focus on 1) making the technology mature and thereby cheaper 2) getting the hydrogen infrastructure going and most importantly: 3) stimulating both supply and demand, since without demand there is no supply and vice versa. StartGreen can play a role in accelerating this transition by providing appropriate funding to various initiatives.

StartGreen invests in hydrogen

At StartGreen, a team of three people is therefore investigating promising hydrogen projects. In addition, we look at synergies within local hubs, in which a renewable energy source such as wind turbines or a solar park is linked to an electrolyser and a contracted party for offtake.

Energiefonds Overijssel, for example, is exploring the financing options of a smart energy hub, which consists of an electrolyser – powered by renewable electricity – and a hydrogen filling station. Another hub consists of wind turbines, an electrolyser and guaranteed consumption by an inland vessel. We are doing the business development for another project that is still in a very early phase.

Increase offer

Fortunately, a lot of time and effort is spent on a larger supply. To achieve this, a lot of research is being done, especially into storage and conversion. The Netherlands wants to play a leading role in this and has a Hydrogen Roadmap. Participants are currently mainly large projects of hundreds of megawatts. The government and the EU make serious subsidies available, also for smaller projects. The latter is interesting to us. StartGreen, together with regional development companies, can help with financing the decentralized, small generation opportunities of up to approximately 10 megawatts.

No chicken without egg

My personal fascination with hydrogen goes back to secondary school, where I already did my profile paper on hydrogen. Yet in 2023 we are still really at the beginning of a technological development. It will be some time before we can apply it widely. At the moment, both supply and demand are still very limited, but without demand there is no generation. That is why every initiative is a welcome addition at this stage. It's the chicken-egg story: you have to create supply and demand to get the infrastructure going.

As StartGreen we can play a role in this by making hydrogen more bankable . Banks and other institutional investors still find it too risky to invest in hydrogen innovations. StartGreen's funds can take more risk and can invest in an earlier stage, so that the technology has the opportunity to mature and thus become more accessible to institutional investors.' 

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