When consumers are considering the environmental impact of their actions, they’re likely not thinking about heavy industries. But they should be. 

Trucking, shipping, aviation and others like steel making, cement production and plastic manufacturers are notoriously hard to decarbonise and yet are some of the largest sources of global emissions. It is alarming that there has been little success agreeing a viable alternative energy resource that could transform these legacy, carbon-intensive industries into the poster children of 2030. 

Scaling back our reliance on these industries is simply a no-go. As the global middle class swells, access will drive a more equal distribution of income and prosperity. Our reliance on these industries will only increase, as will their impact on the environment, unless our efforts to decarbonise them are concentrated and successful. 

It is clear that achieving net zero will only be possible with major changes across the economy and considerable investments in developing and disseminating new technologies. So, adjusting early and orderly will help avoid a messy recession and rising unemployment as the corporate and industry sectors adjust.

The question that’s top of mind (or should be): which fuel source can quickly and economically shrink the carbon footprint of these industries?

Electrification is often the first port of call given the success had in electrifying personal vehicles. For the first time ever in Europe, electric car sales overtook sales of diesel counterparts in December 2021, which has been propelled by strong infrastructure investment in charging stations, battery innovation and well-conceived subsidy programmes. 

Electrification has played and will continue to play an extremely important role in decarbonising the economy, but its reach is not endless

Electrification has played and will continue to play an extremely important role in decarbonising the economy, but its reach is not endless. There are several fundamental issues involved in electrifying heavy industries. Chief among them is that battery technology is currently limited in its ability to efficiently store the amount of electricity required to meet the range mandates of heavy industry. Simply put – batteries, particularly big ones, are heavy. Further weighing down vessels and aircraft by installing a 5-ton battery is clearly undesirable considering range and efficiency implications. Battery technology will undoubtedly improve but the huge energy demand of heavy industries makes producing suitable batteries an extremely tall order. 

So, what to do about the decarbonisation of heavy industries?

It just so happens that our knight in shining armour may be about the most common ‘thing’ in the universe. Hydrogen is the most abundant element, with estimates suggesting it constitutes 75% of all universal mass. It also does a mighty fine job as a fuel for heavy industries given its extremely high energy density. The best part? When burned in pure oxygen, hydrogen produces only water. It’s already used as an input in many industrial applications including the production of ammonia. Current production methods are, however, about as polluting as they come. Methane (CH4) is reformed with steam to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen – a less than desirable mix. 

So, we have a candidate…

But that candidate’s current production is exacerbating the very issue it is trying to solve. How to overcome this challenge? Fortunately, we don’t have to – the production problem has already been solved for. Green hydrogen is the term used to refer to hydrogen which has been created using 100% renewable energy. The science behind it is complicated, so we will synthesise. An electric current which is produced, for example, by solar panels or hydroelectricity is passed through water (H2O) in a process known as electrolysis. Electrolysis separates water into its constituents – water and hydrogen. Voila – a sustainable fuel source produced with entirely renewable energy. It really is that simple. If we consider the process in finer detail, it is also clear that the supporting infrastructure exists already and more importantly is economically and commercially viable. The purchase of the electrolyser forms the bulk of the production cost of green hydrogen, with the other main cost constituent being the unit price of renewable electricity. 

Naturally, current scale constraints mean that the cost of producing one kilogram of green hydrogen using electrolysis is around two times more expensive than using steam reformation. This price difference is commonly referred to as the green premium. For those who contest that green hydrogen may well lead our efforts in tackling the emissions of the most polluting industries, our focus ought to be exclusively on reducing this green premium. That means we either need to focus on 

  1. Lowering the unit cost of renewable energy
  2. Lowering the production cost of electrolysers

Or in an ideal world, both simultaneously.

There are two protagonists in this part of the story: the private and public sectors

Widespread adoption of green hydrogen cannot be achieved by one character individually. Instead, both the private and public sectors must engage in a chess-like game of sequential moves with one clear distinction: they are playing for the same side. 

The private sector is a spawning ground for innovation. What we need to see to help scale the use of green hydrogen are innovative proofs of concept which can be adjusted to meet the requirements of maritime vessels and aircraft, for instance. Companies such as Zeroavia are rising to the challenge and producing some outstanding results. Zeroavia has designed, developed and tested (in a modified aircraft) the world’s first practical hydrogen-electric, zero-emission aviation powertrain. They have partnered with some of the leading names in the space including Shell Ventures and British Airways to help refine their proposition as they look to scale and reach a commercially viable production strategy. As early as 2024 we could begin to see 300 nautical mile journeys completed by 10-20 seat aircraft powered entirely by green hydrogen. 

Innovative solutions will be crucial in proving hydrogen’s effectiveness as a fuel

We are also seeing unique and innovative start-ups looking to overcome the often-cited problem with commercial hydrogen use, transport and storage. These companies will be crucial in padding out a currently sparse hydrogen infrastructure such that adoption can take off. HySiLabs has conceived the first commercially practical method of liquifying hydrogen for storage and transport. Transporting hydrogen as a gas requires far greater container volume (unless highly pressurised) and is notably more perilous than this HySiLab’s proposed alternative. 

Innovative solutions such as those outlined above will be crucial in proving hydrogen’s effectiveness as a fuel and building out the infrastructure around transport and storage. 

What’s next?

The concept is proven, and the opportunity is clear. This is a call to action. Investors, innovators, incumbents and governments must now rally to scale green hydrogen production and use. In so doing, the associated green premium will erode. As this premium dissipates, we will be left with an economically viable solution to decarbonisation – one which will form a crucial part of commercial strategies as global companies, investors and governments grapple with their environmental obligations. If we intend to meet 2030’s lofty targets, green hydrogen adoption ought to be accelerated across all economies. 

If you’re looking to get ahead of the game, contact our expert Sofia Lencastre.