Electrification is playing an increasingly important role as part of the effort to combat climate change and limit global warming. But what can be done when industrial processes require other forms of energy? Green hydrogen is an important ally in the decarbonization of certain sectors, for example, chemical industries and other energy-hungry industries such as steel and cement, aviation and maritime transport.
According to various studies, hydrogen can become an essential element in speeding up the energy transition and generate important socio-economic and environmental benefits. For example, in the scenario developed by “Hydrogen Roadmap Europe: A sustainable pathway for the European Energy Transition”, by 2050 it could cover up to 24% of final energy demand and create 5.4 million jobs, in addition to contributing to the total reduction of 560 million metric tons of CO2.
Only green hydrogen is sustainable
Not all hydrogen is the same, though. Today global consumption of this fuel amounts to around 75 million metric tons a year, according to the latest report by the IEA (the International Energy Agency). However, this form of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, and in particular from natural gas, generating large quantities of climate-altering emissions. Hydrogen produced in this way is known as “gray hydrogen.” Some say the adoption of carbon capture systems at the end of this process would reduce its environmental impact, thus producing what is called “blue hydrogen.” But in this instance too, there is a problem of sustainability: both economic, because the costs of capturing and storing CO2 are still prohibitive, and environmental, because the production cycle is not able to capture all of the CO2 produced and, in any case, all along its production chain, the process emits methane, another climate-altering gas, into the atmosphere.
Therefore, the only 100% sustainable and commercially viable hydrogen is known as “green hydrogen,” which is obtained through the electrolysis of water in special electrochemical cells powered by electricity produced from renewable sources.
In line with our decarbonization goals, our Group is developing a series of projects for the production of green hydrogen by installing electrolyzers powered by renewable energy and located near consumption sites. In this way, we will supply green hydrogen to our customers, while minimizing the need for transport infrastructure and, at the same time, contributing to the stability of the electric power system. These activities will initially be launched in countries like Chile, Italy, Spain and the USA. The Enel Group plans to increase its green hydrogen capacity to over 2 GW by 2030.
Institutions and the green choice
The development of technologies associated with electrolysis and a massive industrialization effort for this industrial chain should lower the cost of electrolyzers and improve their efficiency. This, coupled with the ever-increasing affordability of electricity produced from renewable sources, could make the production of green hydrogen economically competitive with that of blue or gray hydrogen. To be specific, the real strength of green hydrogen will be to complement the process of decarbonization and electrification that we are driving forward.
It makes little sense to promote the use of hydrogen in sectors such as residential housing, for example, which can be made carbon-neutral at a lower cost through electrification.
Therefore, serious consideration should be given before promoting solutions like distributing hydrogen mixed with gas to homes for use in heating. Not only would such solutions imply technical and safety problems, but they would also impede progress towards energy efficiency, instead causing the opposite effect: actually prolonging the dependence on methane gas for a long time to come.
In view of the transition, therefore, it is fundamental that institutions – supranational organizations like the European Union or national governments – adopt transparency policies to clearly indicate to consumers the differences between the various types of hydrogen in such a way as to facilitate the choice of green hydrogen. It is also necessary to encourage the local production of green hydrogen in the various countries, safeguarding supply chains and reducing dependence on imports of fossil fuels.