By David Hodari
Hydrogen is starting to make its way into businesses and homes
across Europe as governments race to find a cleaner replacement for
natural gas and coal to heat homes and fuel industry.
Europe has made hydrogen a critical part of its plan to
transition away from fossil fuels and slash net carbon emissions to
zero by 2050. Supporters say hydrogen, which emits only water when
burned, could fuel industrial processes such as those used to make
steel and cement, power vehicles, heat homes and serve as a form of
clean power for utilities when there is little or no sun or wind --
all with zero carbon emissions.
But if hydrogen is going to compete as a clean-energy source,
more needs to be produced and it needs to be green -- that is, made
with renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. European companies
also have to figure out how to safely store and move it. Hydrogen
is explosive upon contact with air in large enough concentration,
and it is the least dense element in the universe, so it can't be
stored as compactly as natural gas.
Among the European companies moving to create a robust
storage-and-distribution system for hydrogen similar to the one
that exists for fossil fuels is French utility Engie SA, which
wants to store hydrogen in skyscraper-size underground salt
caverns. Italian pipeline company Snam SpA is spending billions of
dollars on network upgrades and acquisitions to expand its hydrogen
business. And in the U.K., electricity-and-gas supplier National
Grid PLC is testing hydrogen boilers and stoves, while Centrica PLC
has proposed storing hydrogen in a former natural-gas reservoir
located off the coast of England.
Of the 228 planned hydrogen projects announced globally, 55% are
located in European nations, according to the Hydrogen Council, a
trade group, though some of the companies involved say they are
awaiting clarity on government spending before moving ahead. The
council says hydrogen could supply 18% of the world's energy by
2050. It currently supplies less than 1%, according to the
International Energy Agency.
Using hydrogen instead of natural gas and coal could help
businesses in high-polluting industries such as steel and cement
reduce their carbon footprints, proponents say. Hydrogen also could
reduce emissions attributed to home heating.
Utilities say they potentially could use hydrogen as a reliable
source of clean power during times of peak demand, or when they
can't rely upon sun or wind. Instead of storing excess renewable
power in batteries, which are made from finite rare-earth metals
and can degrade over time, utilities would use renewable power when
it is plentiful to run electrolyzers -- machines that strip
hydrogen atoms from water molecules. The hydrogen would then be
stored and burned to create power when needed.
"Hydrogen will cost a little more than natural gas, but it will
still cost a lot less than a battery, and hold storage better,"
says Marco Alverá, chief executive officer of Snam, which plans to
spend around $4.5 billion between 2020 and 2024 to ready its
infrastructure for hydrogen.
Of course, if hydrogen is going to live up to the hype, it needs
to be derived from renewable sources and thus emissions-free, which
isn't the case for most of the hydrogen produced globally today.
More than 99% is a mix of "gray" hydrogen, which is made by
splitting the hydrocarbon molecules in coal or natural gas, or
"blue" hydrogen, which also relies on fossil fuels but uses
carbon-capture methods to sequester emissions.
The European Union is aiming to have 40 gigawatts of
green-hydrogen production capacity -- enough to provide
approximately 40% of France's electricity consumption, according to
the IEA -- installed within its borders by 2030. A group of
companies that includes Snam and Spanish utility Iberdrola has
vowed to deploy 25 gigawatts of production capacity by 2026, in the
hopes of making green hydrogen more cost-competitive with gray
To move all of that new hydrogen into homes and businesses,
energy firms may lean heavily on existing natural-gas
Of the 4,200 miles of pipeline that European companies say they
plan to dedicate to hydrogen by 2030, three-quarters could be taken
from existing gas networks, consulting firm Rystad Energy
Building extra storage for hydrogen will be critical, however,
as hydrogen is one-third as dense as natural gas.
In France, Engie wants to store hydrogen gas in vast underground
salt caverns similar to the ones that house the U.S. government's
strategic petroleum reserve. The company has proposed spending $16
million to test hydrogen storage at a salt cavern near Lyon in
eastern France, with plans to expand the site and use others in
France and England.
While storing highly flammable hydrogen at ground level is risky
and expensive, creating underground storage isn't cheap either,
analysts say. Preparing a cavern for storing the hydrogen
equivalent of two million barrels of oil could cost a company $25
million, says Andres Fernandez Oliva, a vice president at WSP, an
There are other risks, as well. Critics say hollowing out
naturally occurring salt caves by leaching the salt with water can
cause brine to contaminate nearby water and ground. And storing
combustible gas under cities -- where several caves are located --
could unnerve consumers, they say.
Still, "salt domes are highly impermeable. They don't react to
hydrogen and they tend to seal themselves, making for a perfect
solution to store large volumes of gas," Mr. Fernandez Oliva
In the U.K., Centrica is taking a different tack. The company,
which trades as Scottish Gas in Scotland and as British Gas in
England and Wales, has proposed spending $900 million to convert
Rough -- a retired natural-gas storage facility located under the
seafloor, 18 miles off the coast of Yorkshire -- into hydrogen
storage. The porous rock in the naturally occurring sandstone
reservoir can store four times the hydrogen of all the country's
salt caverns put together, the company says.
Greg McKenna, managing director of business solutions at
Centrica, calls Rough a "Goldilocks" reservoir. "It's a naturally
occurring sealed box, and its natural temperature cooks bacteria"
that might otherwise turn hydrogen into poisonous, corrosive
hydrogen sulfide, he says.
Like other companies, Centrica wants government assurances --
either in the form of funding or a ramp-up strategy showing how the
company can recover its investment -- before pouring money into a
hole in the sea.
Engie and Snam, meanwhile, are testing how much hydrogen gas
they can mix with natural gas without altering existing pipelines
Engie has added 20% hydrogen to the natural gas it supplies to
homes in France's northern city of Dunkirk, while Snam has
successfully tested 10% hydrogen at Italian pasta and mineral-water
In the U.K., National Grid is spending $18 million in private
and public money to test homes in Cumbria, England, with ranges and
furnaces that can run on different percentages of hydrogen, up to
100%. Domestic furnaces currently account for 40% of the U.K.'s
emissions, according to the company.
While some analysts argue that electric heat pumps would be a
more energy- and cost-efficient way to heat homes, others say
electrification isn't a cure-all for society's dependence on fossil
Installing heat pumps can damage the walls and gardens of older
homes, says Adam Collins, an analyst at brokerage Liberum. More
than half of Britain's homes predate 1965, according to building
science nonprofit BRE Trust.
Mr. Hodari is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in London.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 14, 2021 13:14 ET (17:14 GMT)
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