The story of
All facts, visions and scenarios at a glance
This long read tells you all you need to know about hydrogen, a simple molecule with huge potential. We explain what hydrogen is, how it is made, transported and stored, and perhaps most importantly, how it can help us make the transition to a carbon-neutral energy supply.
This long read was initially intended for Dutch-speaking readers, but a translated summary - the story of hydrogen - is available below for English speakers.
The story of hydrogen
Jules Verne had the idea as far back as 1874. In his book ‘The Mysterious Island’, he described a society fuelled by hydrogen. The changes we need to make to our current energy supply will bring us closer to Verne’s vision than ever before.
We need to be smarter in our use of energy, and here in the Netherlands, we generally have a good idea why. Climate goals, decreasing national production of natural gas, increasing European dependency on imports and simply keeping our energy bills in hand are all reasons why we need to change the set-up of our energy supply. We need to cut carbon emissions, use more sustainable energy and link up various energy systems and networks. This is the only way to make sure our energy remains reliable and affordable in the future. But how do we get hold of enough renewable energy at times when there isn’t enough solar and wind power? And how do we merge existing forms of energy to create a sustainable energy system? There’s plenty to think about.
Hydrogen as a building block
Hydrogen could well turn out to be the crucial link in the sustainable energy system of the future. It’s found in abundance everywhere, both on earth and in outer space. But that’s not the only advantage. It can also be used widely in industry, for instance, as a zero-carbon raw material or fuel. Hydrogen is capable of reaching the high temperatures needed for foundries or the manufacture of glass and ceramics. It can also be used directly as a biofuel for aviation and shipping, or in the production of electricity. Since hydrogen can be stored relatively easily and cost-effectively, it can be used to meet the demand for electricity at times when there is not enough solar or wind power.
Why is hydrogen so little used?
Hydrogen is a sustainable raw material, fuel and energy carrier, so why is it so little used?
Hydrogen molecules (H₂) are extremely rare on Earth in their isolated form, but can be produced from hydrogen compounds such as water (H₂O) or methane (CH₄). There are numerous production methods that enable us to extract hydrogen from such compounds, but they are both costly and require a lot of energy. And when we extract hydrogen from fossil fuels, CO₂ is emitted, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
There is, however, a carbon-neutral way of producing hydrogen and it’s called electrolysis. By passing an electric current through water, we can break it down into oxygen and hydrogen. If we only use sustainably generated electricity to do so, the process doesn’t generate any carbon emissions. In order to investigate this production method, a number of electrolysis projects have already been put into practice. One of those is HyStock, which was opened by King Willem-Alexander on 26 June 2019. With a 1-megawatt capacity, HyStock is the biggest electrolysis plant in the Netherlands. There is also a preliminary study looking at the construction of a 1-gigawatt electrolysis plant, and options for electrolysis in the North Sea, close to sustainable electricity production sites, are being explored.
Electrolysis units are currently still expensive and the scale of the plants is still too small, but these are challenges that we can handle over the next few years. However, there are other aspects that need to be considered, such as safety, the overall cost and the combination with sustainable electricity.
Safety of course needs to be considered especially carefully. While H2 may sound like a nice substance that bonds well, it is also highly flammable, more explosive than natural gas and produces barely visible flames when it burns. Depending on factors such as the scale, the environment and the type of conversion selected (storing hydrogen in either compressed or liquid form, or converting it to another substance such as ammonia), other safety issues also need to be considered. The extensive Dutch experience and knowledge gained in dealing with large-scale use of various gases and their appropriate safety measures will come in useful.
The cost of hydrogen is currently still high and despite its myriad potential uses, we don’t yet know exactly how demand for it will develop. Extensive boosts are needed to get the first large-scale electrolysis facilities off the ground. Demand for hydrogen also needs to be encouraged. Higher demand will result in the required price development and give users the confidence they need to make the switch to hydrogen and invest in national infrastructure and storage.
A lot more sustainable electricity is needed to enable carbon-neutral hydrogen production
Last but not least, a lot more sustainable electricity will be needed to enable carbon-neutral hydrogen production. This calls for flourishing developments of on and offshore wind farms and solar parks, with space set aside for hydrogen conversion and transport right from square one.
Choosing hydrogen will give us new opportunities. Research carried out in the Netherlands and abroad indicates that hydrogen is a key element in an affordable, sustainable and reliable energy supply.
Hydrogen can contribute to the energy transition in all sorts of ways. For instance, H₂ can be used as a sustainable raw material for the chemical and petrochemical industries, but also (as mentioned previously) as an alternative fuel for high-temperature heavy industry. Hydrogen can also be used as part of heating systems or to make cargo transport, commercial shipping and aviation more sustainable.
New energy supply
It is equally interesting, if not more so, to see how hydrogen can eliminate bottlenecks in the formation of a new sustainable energy supply. At times when no wind or solar energy is available, we need to be able to quickly tap into other energy sources, including during cold periods when energy is in high demand. Fossil fuels such as natural gas are not desirable in these situations, so hydrogen is a good alternative, especially because storing it is relatively inexpensive. This feature will also be useful during periods when there is a surplus of solar and wind energy. If the supply of electricity exceeds the demand, storage in the form of hydrogen could be the answer.
Last but not least, hydrogen is an interesting option in terms of transport and distribution. Transporting large volumes of hydrogen is much cheaper than transporting the same quantities of electricity. And even more importantly, our electricity network will no longer be able to cope with such large volumes in the foreseeable future.
Setting an example
The Netherlands has the skills and expertise needed to set an example for other countries in the field of hydrogen. After Germany, our country is the second largest producer of hydrogen in Europe. Our chemical industry has been using hydrogen for many years already and is learning extremely quickly thanks to the numerous initiatives, projects and research studies carried out. There is immense potential demand for hydrogen in industrial clusters and on top of that, there is a natural gas infrastructure already in place all over the country, part of which can be converted relatively easily for the transport of hydrogen. It is therefore the basis for a sustainable energy system that combines hydrogen supply, demand and storage.
Food for thought
The extent to which hydrogen ultimately becomes embedded in our system will depend on factors such as political support, practical issues, confidence in what is possible and the guts to innovate and invest. However, the availability of detailed information enabling well-considered next steps will also be crucial. This calls for an honest, comprehensive, in-depth story about hydrogen, and that’s a story we’d love to share with you.