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Hydrogen needs to replace fossil fuels in industrial applications to meet climate goals: report

Highlights

Hydrogen produced from fossil fuels key to endeavor

SMR with CCS can be less carbon intensive than grid-powered electrolysis

Houston — Replacing the fossil fuels used in industrial processes with hydrogen will be essential to achieve the net-zero emissions required by 2050 to keep climate warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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"The industrial processes used in the production of things like steel, cement, glass, and chemicals all require high temperature heat," said the report, Hydrogen's Decarbonization Impact for Industry, issued Tuesday. "For these hard-to-abate sectors, there is essentially no way to reach net-zero emissions at the scale required without using hydrogen."

Replacing natural gas with hydrogen in industrial processes could open up a $1 trillion market, according to the report.

Hydrogen continues to attract attention as a zero-carbon fuel that can power not only industry but electricity generation and transportation. S&P Global Platts recently launched a suite of daily hydrogen assessments that value different methods of hydrogen production in the US and Europe.

The key is how hydrogen is produced, given that roughly 96% of hydrogen produced today is from fossil fuels, with the remaining 4% produced through electrolysis, according to the report.

Carbon capture and storage technology can be deployed to mitigate the CO2 emitted from producing hydrogen from fossil fuels, with current CCS technology roughly 90% efficient. Hydrogen produced via SMR paired with CCS is termed "blue" hydrogen.

Producing hydrogen from fossil fuels, including natural gas, coal and oil, using the traditional steam methane reforming, or SMR, process to break apart hydrocarbon molecules, is generally the lowest cost production route, said the report.

Electrolysis, or using electricity to separate hydrogen from water, requires roughly 50-55 KWh of electricity to produce 1 kg of hydrogen. Any kind of electricity can be used, but system-wide or grid electricity will have a different carbon intensity, depending on the fuels used to generate electricity.

A dominant coal-powered grid such as India produces roughly 0.67 kg of CO2/KWh, while Sweden, which primarily generates electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric sources, produces 0.02 kg of CO2/KWh, said the report. The global average is 0.48 kg CO2/KWh.

An SMR plant emits between 8-12 kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen produced, while using SMR with synthetic gas from coal gasification produces roughly 18-20 kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen, the report said.

"Noticeably, fossil fuel-based production is a rather CO2-effective way of producing hydrogen with the current generation mix in many grids," said the report. "Specifically, SMR is more effective than grid-powered electrolysis in both the United States and Europe, while coal gasification is more effective in China and India."

SMR NEEDED TO MEET CLIMATE GOALS

The report also noted the challenge of producing hydrogen from only electrolysis. Current global electricity production is roughly 24,000 TWh, with another 23,000 TWh of demand expected by 2050 as population and wealth increase.

An even further amount of power would be needed to produce hydrogen by electrolysis.

"Successfully growing the green hydrogen economy would add another 20,000 TWh to the challenge, effectively requiring us to build additional renewable capacity almost at the scale of the total current global electricity system–just to produce hydrogen."

The report argues that shifting industry from fossil fuels to hydrogen to meet the 2 degree scenario can't afford to wait until there is enough supply of green hydrogen at scale.

"The role SMR production will play in the future supply of low carbon hydrogen is a regional story," said Zane McDonald, with Platts Analytics. "Regions like the former Soviet Union, with abundant geologic storage and access to low-cost natural gas, are likely to see blue hydrogen as the most economically competitive low-carbon hydrogen supply."

Platts assessed the cost of hydrogen production, including capital expenditure, via SMR without CCS along the US Gulf Coast on Tuesday at $0.88/kg.