The implementation of alternative energies to fossil fuels has in the “hydrogen economy” one of its main allies. Hydrogen (H₂) is abundant on our planet and it can be extracted from water (H₂O) using renewable energies without producing polluting emissions (CO₂).
Despite being the most common chemical element in the universe, hydrogen is not found in natural reserves from which it can be extracted. Until now, most of this gaseous element was produced by a method known as steam reforming from natural gas, methane or other hydrocarbons, which generated environmental pollution. But today, thanks to the drastic reduction in electricity prices from renewable sources -especially solar and wind-, it is technically and economically feasible to generate hydrogen by electrolysis without emitting CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Hydrogen can be produced when there is sun and wind (in photovoltaic and wind installations) and then converted back into electricity at night or when there is no wind. The net result is more clean energy to tip over to the power grid. Other features are that it is scalable, and that production can be done in a decentraliced manner, in relatively small facilities, where needed.
There is an expected increase of the production of renewable and clean energies for the next few years, especially solar and wind. Along with the forecasted lowering of prices a new utility arises for that “surplus energy” that cannot be used on the main grid: to produce hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be generated from regular water (either fresh or salt water) and then stored and transported when necessary – “portable power storage”-. If the hydrogen is channeled through a natural gas grid – or an already existing infrastructure is reconverted to hydrogen – can reach factories and homes and be used as an energy source for industrial production or domestic use.
Applications and future
Hydrogen of high purity can be stored in so-called “fuel cells”, which differ in size, weight and performance from fuels such as diesel. Currently there are already cars, buses, trucks, trains and other vehicles using batteries of this type, with one advantage: the generation of energy and its use are separate. As with electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell cars have their own “hydrogen gas stations” or hydrogen generators, where they can refuel.
Industrial uses for hydrogen can be many and very interesting, and don’t even require a hydrogen of such purity. These uses will replace today’s highly polluting diesel, gas and coal engine machinery with one that consumes clean energy and produces no polluting emissions, even though it is in the category of “heavy machinery”. In homes, businesses and other types of buildings it can be used for heating and water heating systems, among other functions.
There are prospects for a combination of increased electricity generation, lower prices and an adequate mix with other renewable energy sources -such as solar or wind energy- by 2035. This will allow many areas -especially in the northern hemisphere- lead the way towards the “100% renewable” concept.
- Hydrogen Europe: Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Ecosystem
- Global Trends and Outlook for Hydrogen (IEA Hydrogen) [PDF]
- These countries are pioneering hydrogen power (World Economic Forum)
- Hydrogen: Tracking Clean Energy Progress (International Energy Agency)