It’s long been said that hydrogen is the fuel of the future — and it always will be. In some parts of the globe, the future appears to be here now, or at least it’s on the foreseeable horizon. Here in North America, however, not so much. If you judge the potential for hydrogen as a net-zero energy source based on domestic observations and experience, you could be forgiven for thinking its potential is limited. That’s not the case elsewhere.
Demand projections for hydrogen are exploding in Asia, Australia, and Europe, and the requisite production capacity is on its way to being created. A report released by the Hydrogen Council, in collaboration with McKinsey & Company, “Hydrogen Insights 2021: A Perspective on Hydrogen Investment, Deployment and Cost Competitiveness,” indicates as of early 2021, 228 large-scale hydrogen production projects had been initiated, with 85% of them in those three regions.
In another report from early 2021, the Hydrogen Council said it was tracking 680 projects valued at an estimated $240 billion, noting the value of mature projects around the world just six months earlier was $160 billion.
Even with all that projected or soon-to-be-deployed investment, the International Energy Agency says we’ll still need an additional 530 million tons of hydrogen to reach a net-zero scenario by 2050.
As of 2019, global consumption of hydrogen (all types) was 115 million tons, the vast majority of which went to heavy industry, including steel making, petrochemical refining and heating. Transportation of all types accounted for less than 10,000 tons. By 2030, transportation’s share is expected to reach 1.6 million tons, rising to 66.5 million tons by 2050, and almost 160 million tons by 2070, according to IEA.
Producing that much green hydrogen will be daunting. IEA suggests around 300 metric tons of hydrogen could be produced from electrolyzers in 2070 under what it calls the Sustainable Development Scenario. This would require 13,750 terawatt-hours of electricity — equivalent to half of global electricity generation today, IEA says. By 2070, electrolyzer capacity would have to rise from 170 megawatts today to more than 3,000 gigawatts.
In other words, reaching the net-zero targets in 2050 will require a six-fold increase in hydrogen production over current output.
Why is North America Behind the Curve on Hydrogen?
We here on this side of the pond have some catching up to do when it comes to green hydrogen, which is produced almost exclusively through electrolysis. The majority of American hydrogen for industrial purposes, 11 million tons of it annually, is produced by steam methane reforming of natural gas (SMR) — which of course is a fossil fuel and thus produces CO2. It’s cheap and abundant here, but environmental activists are dead set against its use even though it’s still considered cleaner than even today’s cleanest diesel engines.
Some SMR sources of hydrogen can take advantage of carbon sequestering, which adds cost but yields hydrogen with a production chain that’s said to be 89% cleaner than just SMR.
There are other sources of renewable (green) hydrogen, but they are pretty small in scale at present. For example, Hyzon was collaborating with RenewH2, a U.S.-based sustainable hydrogen producer, to supply liquid hydrogen generated by biogenic methane gas.
That venture is up in the air as of this writing while Hyzon sorts out its accounting irregularities.
Nikola recently acquired a stake in the Wabash Valley Resources clean hydrogen project in Indiana. The project plans to use solid waste byproducts such as petroleum coke combined with biomass to produce clean and sustainable hydrogen.
Nikola’s long-term vision is to use renewable power (such as solar power or hydro) for onsite production of “green” hydrogen via electrolysis, but it’s now looking to production hubs and transporting liquified hydrogen to market to improve the economics.
“We have always planned to use electrolyzers, and the early days of strategy for Nikola was to have on-site production using electrolysis at fueling stations to remove the cost of distribution,” says Pablo Koziner, Nikola’s president, Energy and Commercial. “We haven’t discarded the idea of producing on-site at stations, but we’ll only do that when the economics lend themselves for that to be the best solution.
“As the industry matures, we expect that pipelines will start to come into play for hydrogen and that will lower the distribution costs,” he adds.
Hub-based production using renewable sources is one way of getting hydrogen to market, but there still has to be accompanying demand. And as demand grows, production will have to keep pace. That will be a tightrope to walk at some future date. In the meantime, the push is on to build out more electrolyzer capacity, both large and small plants that can serve local and regional markets.
Green Capacity Grows in the Trucking World
Around the globe and here at home, some very large-scale productions facilities are in the works.
The International Renewable Energy Agency recently published a list of the 20 largest giga-scale electrolyzer projects in the world. In top spot was the HyDeal Ambition project in Spain. When fully operational in 2030, total installed solar power capacity is expected to reach 9.5 GW, with a total installed electrolyzer capacity of 7.4 GW.
The smallest project on the Top 20 list is the Helios Green Fuels project in Saudi Arabia. When the $5 billion facility is up and running, it will integrate 4 gigawatts of renewable power from wind and solar for a daily output of 650 tons of hydrogen.
Here at home, Hy Stor Energy announced last October it plans to build a green hydrogen production and storage complex in Mississippi that could be making 110,000 metric tons of green hydrogen per year by 2025. And in south Texas, construction is already underway on a plant that could produce as much as 2.5 million tons of renewable hydrogen annually from 60 GW of wind and solar. In both cases, hydrogen produced would be stored in underground salt caverns.
Those projects already have committed customer bases, but it’s reasonable to believe that a hydrogen-powered transportation network could develop organically around the sites.
Cummins’ New Power has a foot in the door in this market too. It recently started up a 20-megawatt electrolyzer in Bécancour, Quebec, about an hour’s drive east of Montreal, with an output of 8.2 tons of low-carbon hydrogen per day — or nearly 3,000 tons annually. It’s powered by the region’s cheap and efficient hydropower electric grid, yielding hydrogen at a cost comparable to the price of SMR-produced hydrogen, Cummins says.
“We can cool and liquify the hydrogen and economically transport it 500 to 1,000 miles by truck at a very competitive price,” said Michel Archambault, former commercial director for hydrogen production in the Americas for Cummins. He held that position in June when he spoke with a group of journalists at a Cummins gathering. His LinkedIn page shows he has since left the company.
Archambault said because Cummins’ electrolyzer technology is a modular solution, it’s scalable based on demand, and could well fit a behind-the-fence fleet fueling strategy. For instance, two of Cummins’ Hylyzer-500s on-site could produce up to 2,000 kilograms per day, enough for 65-80 Class 6 trucks with 25 to 30 kg at 350 bar pressure (5,000 psi).
Alternatives to an on-site electrolyzer include dropped high-pressure tube trailers, or storage tanks for liquified hydrogen equipped with compressors. “The consideration of on-site hydrogen production, gaseous hydrogen delivery, or liquid hydrogen delivery depends on the space available on the fleet fueling site, size of the fleet, and price of electricity at the site,” said Natalie Moya, communications manager for Cummins New Power.
Green Fleets at Any Cost?
Perhaps you’ve noticed the liberal use of the word billion in this story. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is going to be anything but cheap. Fortunately, investors seem keen on staking a claim in this new gold rush.
It almost seems trifling to worry about the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen, considering the cost of FCEV trucks — said by the American Transportation Research Institute to be in the $200,000 to $600,000 range.
We don’t yet know how that cost would compare with hydrogen ICE trucks. Cummins has hinted that the cost of its ICE hydrogen will likely be similar to the spread between diesel and natural gas trucks. Cummins’ general manager for hydrogen engines Jim Nebergall says there’s room for the cost of FCEVs and BEVs to come down with scale and technology improvements, but they will still be very expensive compared to an ICE. He says the company’s X14H engine has a lot going for it right out of the gate, such as much easier chassis integration.
“OEMs will have a much easier time putting this engine under their hoods,” he says. “It’ll be very similar to the to the natural gas and diesel versions of the engine, which we are pretty familiar with.”
He says the fuel cells use hydrogen more efficiently but notes with the ease of integration and the lower cost, it can get fleets started on hydrogen much more quickly. Payback is a different story.
In the most advantageous scenario for a fuel cell, high mileage and high fuel cost, the payback will be about four years.
“But if you don’t run a lot of miles or fuel is cheap, then it’ll take longer to up the difference,” Nebergall says. “Our modeling shows it’s anywhere from four years to 12 years to make up the difference, just because of the efficiency.
“While there’s a lot of room for fuel cells and batteries to come down, we think the hydrogen ICE will have a great start because of that platform’s maturity and its lower cost.”
It’s slated to hit the streets in 2027. That buys us a few more years to get this figured out.