Last month was the world’s third-hottest July on record, which might explain why hydrogen, as a renewable energy source, was top of mind for world leaders.
On July 8, the European Commission announced its “hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe,” in which it said that, “[Hydrogen] … does not emit CO2 and does not pollute the air when used. It is, therefore, an important part of the solution to meet the 2050 climate neutrality goal of the European Green Deal.” Less than a week later, Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion clean energy plan that included renewable hydrogen technology innovation. Earlier this year, President Trump’s administration announced $64 million in funding for the expansion of green hydrogen. Then, on July 22, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced $446 million of funding to help drive down greenhouse gas emissions in heavy industry, including funding for projects that develop hydrogen for fuel.
While the use of hydrogen as a fuel dates back more than 150 years, these recent announcements have brought hydrogen back into the spotlight as leaders around the world seek to secure a sustainable energy future. And if the future is to be powered by hydrogen, no industry will be left untouched.
All around the globe cars, buses and planes are choosing hydrogen as their preferred fuel source. My company, HyPoint, has developed an air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, and we’re specifically focused on air transportation — think, Jetsons-style flying cars. And even tech giants like Microsoft are exploring using hydrogen fuel cells to cool their data centers.
But not all hydrogen is made equal. Although hydrogen is actually a colorless gas, it is commonly referred to by a color to denote how clean it is: black, gray and brown being least clean, a cleaner blue and a true zero-emission green hydrogen.
Black, Gray And Brown Hydrogen: A Dirty Path Toward A Greener Future
Roughly 95% of hydrogen is fossil-based. A shrinking percentage of hydrogen is “black” or “gray” — byproducts of coal or lignite gasification, respectively. Gasification is a process used to create coal gas or syngas that saw widespread use in the 19th century for heating and lighting; however, the rise of natural gas in the past several decades has displaced this process.
Most hydrogen produced today in the U.S. is “brown.” It is made via steam-methane reforming, in which steam is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source like natural gas. So while both of these processes produce clean, zero-emission hydrogen fuel, they produce significant amounts of Earth-warming CO2 in the process, making them less-than-ideal choices for a truly clean hydrogen future.
Blue Hydrogen: A Better Choice, But Still Not Zero-Emission
Blue hydrogen is in every way the same as black, gray or brown hydrogen with one big caveat: The carbon emissions from the hydrogen generation process are greatly reduced by using carbon capture and storage. So while blue hydrogen reduces CO2 emissions (by as much as half), it does not go far enough to meet international guidelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Green Hydrogen: The Clean, Zero-Emission Goal
Generating green hydrogen, in contrast, nearly eliminates all carbon emissions because it uses clean, renewable sources. With this method, hydrogen is produced through the electrolysis of water: Electricity from zero-emission solar panels or wind turbines is sent through water, releasing oxygen and (green) hydrogen.
As the European Commission notes, “The full life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of the production of renewable hydrogen are close to zero.” Based on my industry knowledge and the research to support it, I believe green hydrogen is perhaps the cleanest and most powerful form of renewable energy, capable of being used in virtually any setting for any use.
The transition to green hydrogen cannot happen soon enough. Global emissions have skyrocketed since the first global climate talks began in 1979. We are consistently breaking records for the hottest months and years on record. We know that staying on this path will lead to unfathomable global crises and, ultimately, threaten our existence. Fortunately, the Paris Agreement offers a framework for slowing this catastrophe.
The Paris Agreement’s goals continue to serve as a north star for governments and companies around the world. To date, more than 180 companies have set or pledged to set science-based targets. As uptake increases, I believe the business case for setting such targets is becoming clearer. Companies that are proactively reducing their carbon footprint are able to outperform their competitors and, in the long-term, those that set science-based targets will be better positioned to adapt as governments impose more stringent climate regulations.
Consider that, earlier this year, Microsoft promised to go carbon-negative by 2030. The company announced that by 2050, it would attempt to “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted … since it was founded in 1975,” and it established a $1 billion climate innovation fund. Several weeks earlier, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with $7 trillion under management, committed to placing climate change at the center of its investment decisions and suggested a “significant reallocation of capital,” including divestment from fossil fuels. And in June, Amazon announced a $2 billion climate tech fund.
These are just a few examples of the ways in which companies are heeding the call.
The promise of decarbonization and a cleaner, greener energy future is within reach. There are many companies across a wide range of industries that have an opportunity to leverage green hydrogen, and those that do will benefit from both a growing hydrogen fuel economy and a cleaner, greener economy. What lies ahead for us and future generations depends largely on what we collectively choose to do next.