Governments across the globe are racing to prove their carbon-reducing credentials. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping of China announced the world’s second-biggest economy was aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060. Japan’s then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to do the same in an announcement one month later, but set his sights on 2050. An executive order from President Joe Biden in January 2021 declared the USA would re-join the fight to decarbonise by signing the Paris Treaty. And the EU’s ambitious “Fit for 55” package, announced in July 2021, redoubled its 2019 commitment to mid-century carbon neutrality; it mandates a 55% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a target to produce 40% of energy from renewable sources in the same year.
Whether the energy transition is sparking the same enthusiasm in the commercial world as it is among political elites is another matter. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered unprecedented instability in global fuel markets. Business leaders want reassurance, not more upheaval. In Europe, exposure of national energy markets to international turbulence has been dramatically unveiled. 40% of total EU gas consumption originated from Russian imports in 2021. The figure was 65% of the total in Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy. In Finland, it was 100%.
Although renewables make up a growing share of the energy mix in these countries, they are no panacea. Javier Cavada, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Power’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa division, points out that electricity supplies from wind and solar sources fluctuate with the weather. National energy strategies will retain a fossil fuel backbone until renewables can start providing reactive power. “The more wind and solar we bring into the grid, the more unbalanced the grid becomes,” he says. Politicians, business owners, and households are united in their desire for clean, independent energy sources as a safeguard against global instability. But it is not clear that green fuel holds the key.
Hydrogen, which accounts for less than 0.2% of electricity generation globally according to the International Energy Association, has seemed like a far-off solution up to now. That may be changing. In June 2022, Mitsubishi Power announced a natural gas turbine in Smyrna, Georgia, in the US, had been successfully powered with a gas and hydrogen blend. The mix of 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas provided a reduction in carbon emissions by 7% compared with natural gas combustion alone according to the company. Mitsubishi technicians are working to create a 50/50 blend within the next two years. And the technology exists for this to rise to 100% by 2030 – meeting and beating the EU’s “Fit for 55” expectations.
Cavada identifies two key reasons for enthusiasm around hydrogen’s potential. First, hydrogen can be integrated into advanced industrial nations’ existing energy infrastructure: “we can use the combustion gas turbines of today that are already deployed and we can transform them,” he says. Mitsubishi Power has projects pending in Egyptian and Dutch power plants which will put this thesis to the test by increasing the ratio of hydrogen to natural gas still further. Second, Cavada says hydrogen could be produced cleanly “through excess power from wind and solar.” Renewables may drive down emissions, but they are too volatile to do so consistently. On bright and gusty days, this means too much power. Converting this excess into storable hydrogen, however, means a ready supply of green and responsive electricity for when the weather turns cloudy and calm.
Green and blue hydrogen
Not everyone is convinced. Hydrogen’s growing energy share could fuel rather than foil carbon emissions. Extracting hydrogen from water molecules via electrolysis does not itself produce carbon dioxide – but the fossil fuels used to power electrolysis have done historically. Two rising alternatives offer an answer: ‘green’ hydrogen, where wind and solar energy supplant fossil fuels in the hydrogen creation process, and ‘blue’ hydrogen, where natural gas is split into hydrogen and carbon dioxide molecules and any resulting emissions are captured and stored. The latter will play a central role in the blended gas project at the Netherlands’ Magnum plant, thanks to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group’s cutting-edge carbon capture technology.
Some decision-makers – business and legislative – remain reluctant to invest in the long-term potential of hydrogen due to short-term costs. But the events of recent months show ambitious thinking is needed. Global energy markets have been battered by deep-rooted reliance on gas. Growing alternatives like hydrogen are therefore complementary to energy independence, not a distraction, offering emission-reducing technology while responding flexibly to local need. As Cavada says, “the only way to decarbonise is to become energy independent.”
These and similar projects are continuing apace. Whether at Stockholm’s Kraftvärmeverk 1 plant, which is being modernized to handle bio oil, or the Netherland’s Magnum plant, where MHI will ramp up the ratio of hydrogen to natural gas in their blends until the 100% mark has been reached, the recent landmark success in Georgia is just the beginning. Cavada concludes with a vital point: “hydrogen is the enabler of power becoming renewable,” he says. The road to carbon neutrality by 2050 will be a bumpy one, but hydrogen can smooth the course. The choice for business and political decision-makers is clear: use hydrogen to crack down on emissions and boost energy independence now, or risk playing catch-up when the next crisis hits.