It’s Time For Utilities to Learn to Love Hydrogen

Solar energy, wind energy, electrolysis, and fuel cells point to big opportunities in turbulent markets

5 min read
At a hydrogen refueling station in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, a motorist filled the tank of a Toyota Mirai, one of the very few fuel-cell powered cars on the market.
At a hydrogen refueling station in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, a motorist filled the tank of a Toyota Mirai, one of the very few fuel-cell powered cars on the market. As of April, 2021, Germany had 92 hydrogen refueling stations, second only to Japan, which had 137.
Rupert Oberhäuser/Alamy

There’s a lot to like about hydrogen, particularly for electric utilities. Start with hydrogen’s enormous promise in reducing carbon emissions while maintaining or growing the standard of living in developed or emerging economies. Add in the fact that much of the technology needed to realize the long-envisioned “hydrogen economy” already exists, and you begin to understand why interest in hydrogen is surging now.

And yet, after decades of buoyant projections, the path to a pervasive hydrogen economy—and the role utilities will play in it—still seems pretty indistinct. Engineers figured out long ago how to produce, transport, and use hydrogen. China now produces more than 20 million metric tons of it annually and the U.S. about 9 million tonnes. However, nearly all of this hydrogen is used to refine petroleum, produce chemicals and fertilizer, treat metals, and for other industrial purposes. The U.S. has about 2,500 km of hydrogen pipelines in operation, and there’s a robust infrastructure to truck hydrogen to locations where pipelines do not make economic sense.

On the grid, hydrogen will probably be used initially to store electricity. But it will be a rather unconventional kind of storage. During times of low demand but high electricity production, for example from renewables like solar or wind, hydrogen could be produced in commercial-scale electrolyzer plants. Then, when demand is high, the hydrogen can provide electricity by reacting with ambient oxygen in a fuel cell or even by powering a turbine.

But it is in the transportation sector that hydrogen will probably have its biggest impact, at least initially. And though some applications are futuristic—hydrogen-powered passenger airliners, for example—others are already in use and seemingly poised for rapid growth.

Exhibit A: fuel-cell trucks. A pure, battery-electric truck cannot generally haul the same loads over the same routes as a diesel-powered version of the same truck. But if some of the batteries are removed and replaced with a fuel cell and hydrogen tanks, the electric truck is much more competitive. That’s because the use of hydrogen makes the power source smaller and lighter than batteries alone. Even better, the fuel-cell power train can be designed to charge the batteries en route and refueling with hydrogen takes about the same time as with refueling with diesel, which is still significantly faster than recharging batteries.

A fuel-cell powered truck was refilled with hydrogen at a station in Tangshan, Hebei Province, China, on 14 April 2021.A fuel-cell powered truck was refilled with hydrogen at a station in Tangshan, Hebei Province, China, on 14 April 2021.Yang Shiyao/Xinhua/Alamy

Consequently, fuel-cell trucks are on the road today and nearly every truck manufacturer is developing hydrogen versions of their vehicles. China has a US $5-billion-plus program to develop a domestic hydrogen-enhanced electric truck industry.

Why does this matter to electric utilities? The hydrogen powering these vehicles would likely be produced at wind or solar power facilities or nuclear plants. But it would be distributed using a hydrogen-distribution infrastructure. The transmission and distribution parts of the electricity industry would be left out. So, hydrogen-augmented EVs share the revenue differently among suppliers than battery-only EVs.

Further complicating matters are some closely related political issues. For example, the U.S. government is considering incentivizing the spread of battery-only EV charging stations. But a big challenge here is to provide incentives without distorting appropriate technology evolution to best meet the needs of the market.

Countries routinely assess and plan their infrastructure investments based on their view of what the future can and should be. So Germany and Japan, which each have about a third of the population of the U.S., have more hydrogen fueling stations and also more battery-charging stations per capita than the U.S. In absolute numbers, the U.S. has about twice the number of battery-charging stations as Japan and only about two thirds the number in Germany, but for a much larger population. Given this (admittedly small) sampling of countries, it would appear that a consensus does not yet exist among industrialized nations on the best numbers and ratio of the different types of EV charging stations to position a country for future growth.

The problem is, technology and market demand are not static. So infrastructure decisions are really tricky. Consider that until late in the 20thCentury, telephones were wired instruments and televisions were wireless. 

The truck situation is similar to another facing the utilities. There is a global effort to decarbonize electricity, which favors more use of solar and wind power. Unfortunately, the best solar and wind resources are seldom near population centers. The solution has been to build more high-voltage transmission lines. But they’re expensive, politically contentious, and unsightly. So, an alternative: make hydrogen at wind and solar farms and transport it to population centers, replacing high-voltage transmission lines with pipelines, ships and trucks distributing hydrogen.

The Suiso Frontier is the world\u2019s first ship designed to transport liquid hydrogen.The Suiso Frontier is the world’s first ship designed to transport liquid hydrogen. Built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, it can carry 1,250 cubic meters of the liquefied gas.Kyodo News/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, transport of hydrogen is an emerging business. Kawasaki Heavy Industries is already transporting liquid hydrogen, by ship, from Australia to Japan. And like Japan, the EU recognizes that it will need to import wind and solar energy to meet its ambitious decarbonization goals. Countries as diverse as Chile and Saudi Arabia are now hosting efforts to become global hydrogen exporters. And port managers around the world are collaborating on developing best practices to prepare for a global hydrogen market.

In addition to augmenting the transmission and distribution infrastructure, hydrogen may provide electric utilities with long-term storage of the electric energy produced from wind and solar. In particular, underground storage of vast quantities of hydrogen, for example in existing geological formations, could make wind and solar energy a year-round, 24/7 dispatchable power source.

Today it is high cost, rather than technical maturity, that is keeping applications in the demonstration phase. Here it’s important to understand that, environmentally speaking, not all hydrogen is created equal. Hydrogen production follows a color code that gives an idea of how much carbon was emitted. Brown hydrogen is created by coal gasification; gray by steam reforming natural gas. Hydrogen earns a blue designation if it came from a fossil-fuel feedstock but the carbon was captured during production. Green hydrogen comes from electrolysis powered by renewables (but, notably, not nuclear). Today, though, not even one percent of hydrogen is green. There is a global effort now, funded by governments as well as industry, to make green hydrogen cost competitive. 

For example, the government of China reports a program of almost $15 billion, Germany approaching $10 billion, Japan about $0.5 billion, and the U.S. nearly $0.2 billion. The U.S. is the sleeping giant among the large investors as it has the economic strength, the natural resources, and infrastructure to be a major player. So far, though, the U.S. government appears to be content to invest just enough to be a fast follower. Of course, the U.S. can, if hydrogen reaches its potential, import the lower-cost technology from China, Germany and Japan, countries with track records of exporting advanced technology products to the US.

The industry commitment is strong and critical for success. A key example is the Hydrogen Council. It was formed by 13 companies at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2017. Today more than 100 companies, including many world-leading gas, oil, and automotive companies, are committing corporate resources to expand the commercial use of hydrogen. 

This focused, global effort likely means a diverse group of leaders and technologists has concluded there is a sporting chance of making hydrogen the distinguishing characteristic of the 21st century grid.

Robert Hebner is Director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. A Fellow of the IEEE, Hebner has served on the IEEE Board of Directors and is also a former member of the IEEE Spectrum editorial board.

The Conversation (1)
JOHN SAXELBY30 Jan, 2022

One of the things missing in all of these hydrogen articles is the conversion efficiency. I suspect that it is rather low. If you add in liquification to the mix it gets worse. What is the number and how does it compare to high voltage transmission?