Entering the Age of H2?

February 3, 2020

Better technology for creating renewable hydrogen is yet another nail in fossil gas’s coffin.


Just a few years ago, a chorus of hee-haws would be expected to erupt whenever the topic turned to the hydrogen economy of the sparkling green future. Well, money talks. The US Department of Energy has been plowing research dollars into hydrogen and fuel cell technology, and the latest development is all about leveraging wind and solar energy to bring the cost of renewable hydrogen down, down, down.

The primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, and the market is huge. The US produces 10 million tons of hydrogen annually under the current scheme of things. New applications — including transportation and energy storage among others — could bump up demand even more in the coming years.

With that in mind, check out the Energy Department’s new $64 million round of funding for projects related to the H2@Scale initiative of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

The funding is devoted to a soup-to-nuts effort to reduce the cost of hydrogen all through the supply chain. It also involves shifting the hydrogen field out of its near-total dependence on natural gas.

“While much of the hydrogen used in the United States today comes from low‐cost natural gas, adding other production sources can make industries more resilient to potential price volatility,” explains FCTO.

That statement may sound somewhat mild, but it amounts to a stab in the heart of the US fossil gas industry.

Gas stakeholders are already reeling under threat from the building electrification movement along with signs that their grip on the power generation sector is loosening. The ground is beginning to shake under the market for fossil-sourced plastics and other chemicals as well.

With that in mind, the new round of funding puts a priority on slashing the cost of electrolyzers, the devices that deploy an electrical current to “split” hydrogen from water.

The use of water as a source doesn’t necessarily lead to renewable hydrogen. Electrolyzers are source neutral, so the electricity could come from fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

Now that the cost of renewable energy has fallen off a cliff, FCTO gives the edge to wind and solar over other fuels — but only if the cost of electrolyzers can also come down.

The way FCTO sees it, electrolyzer manufacturers could learn a thing or two from fuel cell manufacturers about cutting costs.

The strategy for the new round of funding involves building economies of scale into the electrolyzer supply chain, and adopting some of the the high volume, high throughput techniques used for making fuel calls.

Integrating fuel cell technology, standardizing systems and components, and reducing the complexity of membrane-based electrolyzers can also contribute to the cost-cutting effort.

So, how low can hydrogen go? FCTO is not shy about waving its track record on that score. They take credit for supporting R&D programs that have already reduced the cost of electrolyzers by 80% since 2002.

There is still a long row to hoe. The electrolyzers of today are low-volume (less than 5-megawatt) devices that can cost more than $1000 per kilowatt.

In contrast, FCTO is envisioning a scenario in which the cost of large-scale electrolyzers drops down to the range of $400/kW or less, making it possible to achieve a target cost for hydrogen of less than $2.00 per kilogram.

That target cost of $2.00 per kilogram dovetails neatly with the renewable energy revolution, and FCTO makes a point of explaining that wind and solar are the engines driving low-cost, renewable hydrogen:

“A recent analysis using DOE’s H2A model16 shows that H2 production costs of <$2/kg can potentially be achieved at electricity prices of 3¢/kWh (which is becoming increasingly common with wind and solar installations), when the electrolyzer system capital cost is less than $400/kW.”

Now, combine the impact of low-cost wind and solar with manufacturing efficiencies and system improvements, and the renewable hydrogen picture comes into sharper focus (emphasis added):

“Manufacturing cost analysis supports the concept that these capital costs can be achieved by increasing manufacturing volumes. For example, one study, which assumes technological advances beyond current commercial electrolyzers, shows that increasing the annual production volume from 10 MW to 1,000 MW could potentially decrease PEM electrolyzer system costs down to ~$250/kW.

In support of that effort, a $15 million chunk of the new round of funding will go to electrolyzer projects that involve improving fabrication techniques and reducing system complexity, with an eye toward cutting follow-on costs for service and maintenance.


The world’s first commercial-scale green-hydrogen plant to be powered solely by surplus offshore wind energy has been announced by a trio of Belgian companies.

Offshore engineer DEME, Flanders-focused financier PMV and the Port of Ostend plan to build a 50MW demonstration project at the port — set to be the world’s largest electrolyser plant — before completing an even bigger, commercial-scale unit in 2025.

It has long been suggested that excess renewable energy that cannot be absorbed by the grid should be diverted into the production of green hydrogen, rather than being curtailed, via a process known as electrolysis — using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. But this is the first project to be announced that specifically aims to power electrolysers using only excess renewable power.

Other green H2 projects announced to date are seeking to receive their power from dedicated renewables projects, as green hydrogen becomes cheaper to produce the more hours per day the electrolysers are operating.

The three companies point out that Belgium will have 2.26GW of offshore wind installed by the end of this year, with a further 1.75GW to be developed.

“However, the wind turbines’ production peaks rarely coincide with consumer demand peaks, meaning that there is an opportunity to compensate for the discontinuity between production and consumption,” they explained in a statement.

The green hydrogen at the Hyport Oostende project would “serve as an energy source for electricity, transport, heat and fuel purposes and as a raw material for industrial purposes”, the companies said.

“With our energy transition in mind, we need to be able to temporarily store our green energy surplus using hydrogen as an energy carrier or to use hydrogen as an alternative raw material for converting the industry away from fossil fuels.”


Translink, Northern Ireland’s public transport operator, has bought its first hydrogen-fuelled buses.

The company said it is a first step towards investing in zero carbon technology, to combat climate change and improve air quality.

The £4m investment in three buses is being supported by the government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles.

The buses have been built by Ballymena-based Wrightbus and the hydrogen is produced by windfarm operator Energia.

Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said the pilot project represented “a significant first step to tackling the climate emergency”.

“It demonstrates how working together and as individuals we can play our part in delivering the ambitions of the Northern Ireland executive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality,” she said. 

13 Responses to “Entering the Age of H2?”

  1. PeterVermont Says:

    Years ago I read a book by Nobel winner Dr. George Olah about the superiority of methanol over hydrogen. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_economy

    If methanol were produced from renewable sources the carbon would not be fossil so not as problematic. Two of the advantages Olah cited: density: a gallon of methanol contained more hydrogen than a gallon of liquid hydrogen; methanol more compatible with existing liquid fuel infrastructure.

    Why did this idea not prevail?

  2. Betty Harris Says:

    So don’t they need to frack to get natural gas to make hydrogen?

    • grindupbaker Says:

      The idea is to use renewable energy (wind, solar, fission, hydroelectric, tidal, whatever) to generate electricity and make the hydrogen from water (H2O) by electrolysis. The hydrogen would be a form of storage, like a battery. It’s called an “energy currency” rather than an “energy source”. Somebody here claims it’s better to make methanol than hydrogen. I’ve no idea and I’m not going to dig into studying the efficiencies of each. Whichever is best should win out.

  3. Burning Methanol produces CO2 that’s why.

    “Methanol is occasionally used to fuel internal combustion engines. It burns forming carbon dioxide and water: 2 CH3OH + 3 O2 → 2 CO2 + 4 H2O.”


    • Gingerbaker Says:

      The idea is that the carbon from methanol would come directly from air, or from a plant that scrubbed the carbon from the air. Therefore all part of the normal carbon cycle.

      As opposed, as PeterVermont points out, to fossil carbon, which is carbon previously sequestered away, but now adding to the carbon burden put on the carbon cycle.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    No, you can make hydrogen by electrolysis of water, and today’s electrolysers are very efficient. The idea is to use excess renewable energy to make the hydrogen, and then combine it with green CO2 to make methanol. The methanol lasts forever, can be transported and used basically everywhere a fossil fuel can be used.

    However, in my fantasy world – why stop at methanol? Better to make ethanol. Which is vodka. :>D Works like methanol, but you can drink it.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      So the flip side of growing grain to make fuel instead of food. You make ethanol supposedly as fuel, but then you drink the profits.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Not just grain, but also food waste, and biomass sources like switchgrass, alge, etc.

        And, hey – I despise vodka, so you can’t pin that one on me! 🙂

  5. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    Hydrogen from methane is an energy intensive process and not at all environmentally friendly. Now if we can leverage clean electricity to produce hydrogen from water different story.

    Then the question is the hydrogen route better than batteries or even methanol. Hydrogen is not the source of the power but a transmission and storage method.

    I remain unconvinced about hydrogen. Yes there is potential but other solutions may be more effective

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