Hydrogen could play a major role in emissions reduction by 2030 thanks to the scaling up of low-carbon “green hydrogen” production, the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) explained last week in a blog post.
The carbon footprint of fuel-cell vehicles can vary dramatically based on how the hydrogen they use is produced. Green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, with electricity generated from renewable sources, to minimize carbon emissions. There should be plenty of electrolysis capacity online by the end of the decade, RMI predicts.
Green hydrogen is ready to scale up this decade because it’s based on “commercially mature technologies” and thus isn’t waiting on any breakthroughs, the group argues, adding that commercial demand for decarbonization is creating a market for green hydrogen.
Major shippers like Amazon, Unilever, and Ikea are aiming for full decarbonization of their shipments by 2040 through the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (CoZEV) alliance. Fuel cells may be a better fit than batteries for large cargo ships, and Toyota has already demonstrated fuel-cell vehicles in port drayage operations.
Electrolyzer manufacturers are also ramping up production, RMI noted, citing Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) data showing that machines equivalent to 210 gigawatts of generating capacity could be produced globally by 2027, if all manufacturing capacity is fully utilized.
In many cases, existing natural gas pipelines can be used to transport hydrogen, and it can be stored in geologic salt caverns, according to RMI. Globally, projects to build “hydrogen hubs” around this infrastructure are already underway, with some funding dedicated to them in the 2021 federal infrastructure law.
Illustrating the importance of choosing green hydrogen for any future projects, RMI previously warned that these hubs could be as dirty as coal if hydrogen was produced using high-carbon methods, such as extracting hydrogen from natural gas. An early version of the infrastructure bill even discussed coal as a potential source.
So while green hydrogen capacity may be abundant by the end of the decade, regulators need to ensure it’s used. Lax rules could also lead to the proliferation of “blue hydrogen,” which is billed as clean but could still be very carbon intensive. For example, a 2021 study found that a commonly discussed method of reducing emissions by capturing carbon dioxide released during the production process actually produced emissions 20% higher than burning coal.
However it’s produced, hydrogen now seems more likely to be used in commercial trucks than passenger cars. Automakers have been shifting their fuel-cell focus away from passenger vehicles, with Toyota planning to make fuel-cell modules for trucks in the U.S. starting in 2023. General Motors in 2021 announced a program with Navistar to produce 2,000 hydrogen long-haul semi trucks.
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