How Hydrogen Fits into European Energy Future

How Hydrogen Fits into European Energy Future

Europe’s demand for hydrogen as a fuel source has grown significantly since the 1970s, according to the International Energy Agency, but it has yet to be adopted in sectors where it’s arguably most needed, including energy production and transportation. To learn more about hydrogen, GLG spoke with Brendan Bilton, a member of the Parliamentary Group on Energy Studies and former managing director at ACAL Energy. Following are a few select excerpts from our broader discussion.

How does hydrogen energy’s density compare with other fuels? What’s the breakdown between gray, blue, and green hydrogen?

Hydrogen has the highest known energy density of any combustible fuel. One kilogram of hydrogen has the same energy as about 4 liters of petrol, which weighs about 3.5 kilograms. Essentially, hydrogen is 3.5 times more energy dense than petrol, already one of the most energy-dense forms of hydrocarbon. Unfortunately, hydrogen’s volumetric energy density is high. Four liters of petrol can be carried around. One kilogram of hydrogen at atmospheric pressure and room temperature occupies about 12 cubic meters, the size of a small room.

There are three types of hydrogen energy. Gray hydrogen is made from fossil fuels with no carbon sequestration. Blue hydrogen is made mostly from methane with carbon capture attached to it, so it has low to zero carbon emissions associated with it. Then there’s green hydrogen, predominantly made via electrolysis using green energy, either solar, wind, or hydro. Gray is the cheapest, then blue, with green the most expensive.

There are about 75 million tons of pure hydrogen produced in the world today, and 95% of that is made with fossil fuels. The majority is made from natural gas using steam methane reformers, and about 20% is still made from coal using the syngas process where coal reacts with steam and makes lots of other products, including hydrogen. The majority of the remaining 5% is from industrial or chemical sources, where hydrogen is the waste product. The biggest single makeup of that is the chlor-alkali industry, with about 3% of the world’s hydrogen production coming from the manufacturer of chlorine gas and caustic soda. Finally, the smallest amount, less than 1% of the world’s hydrogen production, is green energy using electrolyzers.

How do hydrogen fuel cells stack up against typical EVs?

Hydrogen is a good combustion fuel as well as a good way of making electricity using fuel cells. Hydrogen can be used in a petrol engine because it’s spark ignition, but it doesn’t quite give you the same bang for the buck because combustion engines are typically not that efficient. There are zero tailpipe emissions, and it can reduce nitrogen oxides by about 30% to 40%. Diesel engines can’t go 100% hydrogen as there needs to be some diesel present to enable compression ignition. It can be used as an additive to diesel up to 40% by weight, and using it can reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by about 40% to 50%, because hydrogen burns a lot more efficiently.

There are things that hydrogen fuel cells are good at that batteries are bad at, and vice versa. The advantage of a fuel cell is quick refueling times — cars that are almost empty can be refilled with hydrogen in up to three minutes and then have 300 to 400 miles’ range. The problem, of course, is a lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure. The disadvantage of batteries is time. Fast charging does provide an opportunity to get recharging times down to 10 minutes, but the problem that all batteries face is that the faster, harder, and more frequently they’re charged and discharged, the faster they decay. The battery systems used in vehicles are identical to those in laptops and mobile phones. Anybody who has used systems like that knows their battery storage capacity diminishes quite a bit after more than two years of constant use.

When it comes to operating, there are other flip sides. The biggest problem with using fuel cells in a passenger vehicle is where to store the hydrogen, since hydrogen needs quite big storage cylinders to get the amount of fuel on board to give it range. For example, there are only two rear passenger seats in the Toyota Mirai to make room for the cylinders. That’s why companies such as Hyundai developed an SUV, because it’s got more volume and bigger spaces to put hydrogen tanks. The benefit that battery vehicles have is that, although they need a lot of batteries, the batteries can be shaped differently. They can be placed in various places and don’t intrude into passenger space. However, there are still the issues of range and recharge.

Overall, where fuel cells succeed are for passenger and commercial vehicles that are in continuous use or for long journeys, such as taxis and delivery trucks. But since the majority of people use their vehicles for short journeys, and this includes passenger buses, battery electric vehicles will likely dominate, while fuel cell vehicles will be niche.

What stopped mobility fuel mixing from happening? How can we solve the infrastructure issues around hydrogen refueling?

The reason why hydrogen has never been used as a fuel historically or as a blended fuel is that fossil fuels have always been cheap. There have been vested interests from lots of different parts of the supply chain to make sure that it is just fossil fuel, whether it’s car and truck manufacturers, oil companies, or governments. Vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have a product they know and trust, and there’s an infrastructure out there to support it. Therefore, hydrogen has had a difficult start.

That said, hydrogen infrastructure needs demand for it to be deployed. This is where I see the use of hydrogen dual fuel combustion engine vehicles. Combustion engine vehicles can be converted to run both on hydrogen and their normal fuel so that if there’s no hydrogen, they just run as normal vehicles. But if hydrogen’s available, they can use that and get lower emissions and reduce total costs of ownership. That’s what we’ll see in the next couple of years.

How will the natural gas and utilities industries enter the hydrogen market?

Some of the more forward-thinking members of the oil and gas community have suddenly realized that the hydrogen transition is happening and it’s starting to gain pace. They’ve realized that they’re actually in a defensive position because the people in the vanguard of this are industrial gas companies such as Linde Praxair, Air Liquide, and Air Products. They know how to store and distribute hydrogen and how to maintain and operate hydrogen-refueling stations, and they helped design and implement the standards for said hydrogen refueling stations. The oil majors have woken up to the fact that although they make more hydrogen than anybody else in the world, they have used it all internally and in general don’t know how to operate in the hydrogen economy.

Shell is the only oil major that for the past 20 years had a strong interest in the hydrogen economy. It’s now moving to compete with energy utilities in Europe. BP realized it needs to catch up. Total SE is a bit in stealth mode but is active in the hydrogen markets. Other big companies are out in the forest. They’ve started to realize there’s an end game for their products and they need to shift.

Utilities are extremely active in the hydrogen market. In the UK, there’s H21 in Leeds that’s looking at hydrogen. HyNet in the northwest is doing the same. There’s another in Humberside looking at putting clean hydrogen into the gas grids. It’s all because the UK gas grid can take up to 20% hydrogen without affecting the performance of any of the devices using the gas and without causing any detrimental impacts on the grid distribution as well. In the next five years, I imagine the UK could be seen as one of the leaders in this hydrogen gas grid.


About Brendan Bilton

Brendan Bilton is a leading expert on the hydrogen economy and is currently a member of the Parliamentary Group on Energy Studies. Brendan was formerly Managing Director at ACAL Energy, a manufacturer of fuel cell technology. Previous roles include Chief Executive Officer of Ceramic Fuel Cells Europe and Deputy Chairman of Fuel Cells UK. Immediately prior to joining ACAL Energy, he was a consultant to the energy industry, advising companies including E.ON on future low-carbon strategies, particularly in micro-generation and energy storage.


This article is adapted from the September 3, 2020, teleconference “Hydrogen Economy: Overview.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Brendan Bilton, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.