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Hydrogen a viable fuel for power plants and homes instead of for cars?

Hydrogen as a source of energy is a tough sell. Sixteen years after former president George W. Bush forecast that the age of the hydrogen car was upon us, the world is still waiting. But facing a market clamoring for carbon-free forms of energy, some within the energy sector are wondering whether hydrogen might hold promise after all.

The Norwegian oil giant Equinor is exploring the possibility of converting some of the company’s huge reserves of natural gas into hydrogen as a means to reduce its carbon emissions (natural gas is composed of hydrogen and carbon). But instead of just using it to power fuel cells in cars — as Bush hoped — Equinor, which has a large presence in Houston, is looking at using hydrogen to fuel power plants and heat homes or as a feedstock for carbon-free liquid fuels.

“We don’t need hydrogen cars because electric cars are so superior,” said Steinar Eikaas, an Equinor vice president. “Where we need it is heavy sectors. With small adjustments gas-powered plants can burn hydrogen.”

Hydrogen presents a potential game changer for oil companies seeking to survive in an emerging zero-carbon world as governments across the globe tighten restrictions on greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels in efforts to slow climate change. At the same time, the costs of wind and solar energy continue their rapid decline, adding to the existential threat to oil and natural gas in the decades ahead.

Hydrogen-fueled power plants and homes could offer some competition to renewables while creating a new market for natural gas, which already is routinely converted into hydrogen for products such as fertilizer and rocket fuel. And while converting natural gas to hydrogen produces relatively small amounts of greenhouse gases, those emissions could readily be captured and stored underground.

“It could be the way they preserve their future,” said Alex Klaessig, an analyst at the research and consulting firm IHS Markit. “Europe has ambitious decarbonization polices, and hydrogen would fit in nicely to produce the energy currently produced by natural gas and coal. Japan are Korea are really big on the hydrogen economy.”

Another European oil major, Royal Dutch Shell, has partnered with Toyota to supply hydrogen-fueled tractor trailers at the Port of Los Angeles. And companies including the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi and utility Southern California Gas are working on using the excess power from wind and solar farms to produce hydrogen by separating it from water through a process known as electrolysis.

Equinor has proposed switching close to 4 million homes in northern England to hydrogen to heat their homes and fuel their stoves, supplied with hydrogen made from natural gas from the company’s fields in the North Sea. Equinor, formerly known as Statoil, also is looking at converting a Dutch gas-fired power plant to hydrogen as well as using hydrogen to make liquid fuels for heavy-duty transportation applications, such as jets.

Investment decisions on the proposals are at least a few years off, Eikaas said. For now, Equinor’s executives and researchers must figure out not only if the economics work, but how they can safely move highly-flammable hydrogen — lest they suffer the same fate as the Hindenburg in 1937, in which a hydrogen-filled airship caught fire and more than 30 people were killed.

For now, many analysts and scholars remain skeptical that hydrogen can be integrated into the world’s energy system anytime soon. Speaking at a Washington think tank last week, Eikaas drew some skeptical questions about whether the technical and financial challenges in building out hydrogen pipelines and other infrastructure would mean a repeat of the quick sputtering out of Bush’s promised hydrogen age.

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From the April 2018 issue of Hydrocarbon Processing


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