Scale, investment, and policy changes are the key drivers behind the renewed interest and adoption of hydrogen as a viable decarbonization pathway. The past two years, and specifically the past six months, have been game-changing for green hydrogen policies (i.e., generated from renewable / low-carbon sources), with interest rising globally.
In Europe, the summer of 2020 brought about the European and German Hydrogen Strategies, focused on funding the industrial scale decarbonization of hard to abate sectors such as steel, ammonia, chemicals and mobility. Industrial offtake volumes for hydrogen are known, what is new is the way that the hydrogen is being produced. For background, Bloomberg provides a good overview of the various types of available hydrogen and the IEA tracks global installed capacity. Europe is taking a leading stance and in doing so has formed a public-private group, the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, which Emerson became part of in 2020. By joining this alliance, we will be at the forefront of hydrogen deployment and innovation.
Governments have clearly stated their support to reach cost-parity with fossil production (e.g., via steam methane reforming), and players along the new green hydrogen value chain are following suit by doubling down on their investments. The number of global industry consortia and partnerships that have announced their ‘green hydrogen’ strategies has been exponential the past couple of years.
Hydrogen is a promising decarbonization opportunity for three main reasons:
- On the supply side, hydrogen can be produced from most primary energy sources, be they fossil or renewable / low carbon. This diversity of supply sources is one of the key reasons why hydrogen is such a promising pathway. Fossil-fuel based hydrogen, via steam methane reforming or coal gasification is currently the most common. Using low-carbon energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro power) coupled with electrolysis is the focus of current policies and worth exploring further.
- On the demand side, hydrogen has large offtake volumes in many end-use sectors and is gaining momentum in new applications. In its molecular form, it is an industrial raw material and serves as an energy carrier. It can also be combined with other molecules to produce hydrogen-based fuels and feedstocks. When it is not used as input for chemical processes, hydrogen can be a source of thermal energy or of electricity in several ways, e.g., in gas turbines, gas grid blending, boilers, and in fuel cells.
- Hydrogen is an energy carrier as opposed to an energy source. The key difference between hydrogen and electricity is that hydrogen is a chemical energy carrier, a molecule that can be stored and transported unlike electricity that must be consumed or converted. This distinction underpins many of the reasons why hydrogen complements and does not compete with electricity in certain use cases (and vice versa).
This change in production method is an intriguing decarbonization opportunity for the producers and end-users, but also brings with it three key challenges:
- Reducing complexities at scale: When you integrate several 1-10MW electrolyzer modules to form a 20/50MW turnkey solution or even design 100 to 200MW plants, does that mean that you must also employ a factor of 5x/20x for the automation equipment and control complexity, or are there economies of scale to be exploited? Developers want to offer cost-effective solutions and end users want the best operational performance. How should they best balance capital and operational spend?
- Reducing green hydrogen production costs: Today, PEM and alkaline electrolyzers are still too expensive – both from a CAPEX and OPEX perspective – compared to fossil fuel-based hydrogen production. Governments are funding the first large scale projects to drive unit costs down so that other use cases become cost competitive and economically viable. How can this production cost be brought down rapidly enough and at scale using the right design and automation?
- Meeting end-user demands: What other regulations, protocols, and norms must these scaled P2X systems comply with at the end-user site where they will be installed, commissioned, and operated? Are there explosion-proof environments, or levels of process control redundancy and safety that must be designed for to guarantee successful commissioning and operation at the sites? How do we ensure gas purity and precise metering when grids plan to carry hydrogen as part of sector coupling?
To address challenges related to meeting customer demands, reducing green hydrogen production costs and bringing hydrogen production to scale, Emerson has one of the broadest and deepest automation and process control portfolios. In addition to smart field devices and process control solutions, Emerson offers innovative Digital Transformation tools that help to enable the delicate cost-benefit balance that OEM’s and End-Users must weigh against one another. Emerson can supply automation expertise in four main domains: 1) Field instrumentation, 2) Process control, 3) Data management solutions, and 4) Project Execution.
Visit the Digital Transformation & Industrial Internet of Things section on Emerson.com for more on the role of technology and solutions play in driving sustainable operations. You can also connect and interact with other sustainability experts in the IIoT & Digital Transformation group in the Emerson Exchange 365 community.