Green hydrogen has surfaced as a potential alternative to fossil fuels with nations as Australia, the largest exporter of natural gas, taking steps towards developing this yet controversial source of energy. 

The switch to a hydrogen economy could be challenging. To get an in-depth understanding of the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, we sat down for an interview with an expert in renewable energy, Dr. Thomas Hillig.

Hillig spoke to us after having participated in the World Energy Council “Hydrogen Innovation Forum” that took place in the city of London this week.

Batteries may contribute to short-term balancing, but they will not be a solution for dealing with seasonality, this is where clean hydrogen comes into play.”

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Born in Germany, with a Ph.D. in Business Administration, having worked in the energy sector at Alstom, and Innotech Solar, Hillig decided to found, in 2014, THEnergy, a boutique consultancy specialized in commercializing innovations for the energy sector.

Dr. Thomas Hillig is the founder of THEnergy and an expert in renewable energy, Photo by: Dr Thomas Hillig.
Dr. Thomas Hillig is the founder of THEnergy and an expert in renewable energy, Photo by: @THEnergyNet (Twitter)

Could you explain how is clean hydrogen produced, and why it may be fundamental to completely decarbonize the power sector?

TH: “Hydrogen is an energy carrier. Clean hydrogen is typically produced in an electrolysis process that breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen, by using renewable energy. 

Balancing supply and demand is key in the power sector. Historically this has been done by synchronizing the power supply. 

We are still in a very early stage. In this first phase of the energy transition, the focus is on building up some renewable energy capacity. For a green energy future, we have to do much more.

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Through digitalization, demand can be influenced more easily in the future, e.g., shutting down uncritical industrial processes or incentivizing off-peak consumption for private households.

However, given the fluctuating nature of solar and wind power, this will not be enough. 

Batteries may contribute to short-term balancing, but they will not be a solution for dealing with seasonality, this is where clean hydrogen comes into play.”

How far do you see our society from a green energy future?

TH: “We are still in a very early stage. In this first phase of the energy transition, the focus is on building up some renewable energy capacity. For a green energy future, we have to do much more. 

The key challenge will be to integrate the various energy source in the system and to overcome additional challenges, like seasonality and decarbonizing beyond the electricity sector. 

In general, my hope is on technology. I´m not very optimistic that we, as a global society, will change our behavior significantly in everyday life.”

CO2 emissions – The alert

UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent a clear message through his Twitter account: “Increased emission are making it harder and more expensive to address the climate emergency.

It´s time to end the age of fossil fuels, invest in clean energy, and take decisive Climate Action.”

NASA Climate presented alarming data on carbon dioxide this week, showing that last October, the global average concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) was nearly 412 parts per million (ppm), up approximately 24 ppm from October 2009.

“Energy used to be a commodity, the price was the most important factor.

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

The industry vs. green economies

In the path towards green economies, electric seems to be the key to a better, cleaner, sustainable future.

With Energy Industry accounting for a fifth of the world’s annual CO2 emissions, what’s the biggest change the industry has seen in the last five years?

TH: “The general attitude toward energy has been slowly changing in the industrial sector over the last years. Energy used to be a commodity, the price was the most important factor. Throughout the supply, chain pressure has been building upon corporations to turn green. Many techs and IT companies already source 100% renewable energy today – regarding total energy consumption.  

In the next step, energy consumption needs to be matched with, clean energy supply. 

I have to highlight that this is for the pioneers. Many companies still have to do their basic clean energy homework. 

As renewables such as wind and solar have become price competitive, this process is driven more and more by purely economic criteria.”

“There is a certain fear in society regarding the costs of switching to a hydrogen economy.

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Germany on hydrogen-based energy technology

Dr. Hillig, your home country, Germany, is considered a front-runner in hydrogen technology development. How are the public and private sectors working on the energy transition of the country?

TH: “The development in Germany was largely driven, by big manufacturers. Many of them have jumped in the meantime on the battery bandwagon for e-mobility.

It seems that other countries are overtaking Germany, e.g. Japan and also China. 

There are many initiatives for accelerating hydrogen research and development in Germany. However, there is a certain fear in society regarding the costs of switching to a hydrogen economy. Partly driven by exorbitant numbers that have been making the headlines for years regarding the costs of introducing wind and solar. Very often these costs are highly exaggerated.

“Green hydrogen can be used in a flexible way for many applications, from industrial processes, e-mobility to power generation. It is rather similar to fossil fuels that we use today

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

The German government has announced to come up with a hydrogen strategy by the end of the year.”

The announcement was made by Chancellor Angela Merkel last September during a speech in the city of Leipzig, at the National Aviation Conference. “The potential of hydrogen for aviation has not yet been realized,” remarked the Chancellor.

Clean hydrogen is green hydrogen

What are the pros and cons of producing Green Hydrogen?

TH: “Green hydrogen can be used in a flexible way for many applications, from industrial processes, e-mobility to power generation. It is rather similar to fossil fuels that we use today, in many cases, there is no need for complete changes in the infrastructure or our behavior, it comes without hazardous local emissions – just water and oxygen.  

In comparison to many battery technologies, the hydrogen infrastructure is also much more ecological-friend to build. No rare (and sometimes dirty) resources are needed.

“Clean hydrogen production is not yet at the stage of mass production which makes it expensive.

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Hydrogen is an explosive gas. In the industrial process, in which hydrogen has been used for a long time, the risks related to hydrogen have been controlled very well. Nevertheless, there is still skepticism in the general public regarding the use of hydrogen – also driven by what they have heard about hydrogen bombs. 

This seems to be rather the case for older people. 

The roundtrip efficiency of hydrogen is not very high – for short and medium-term power applications, battery storage is much more efficient. The biggest con is still the costs associated with the production of green hydrogen.”

Production costs of green hydrogen will come down with a dedicated infrastructure – including additional renewable energy assets

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Green Hydrogen is appointed as expensive to make, on which depends to make its production cheaper?

TH: “Clean hydrogen production is not yet at the stage of mass production which makes it expensive. 

Electrolyzers that are needed to generate clean hydrogen comes with significant investment costs. This investment requires high utilization rates. This is why using excess energy from solar and wind parks does not seem to be too promising. 

Production costs of green hydrogen will come down with a dedicated infrastructure – including additional renewable energy assets in locations with ideal solar or wind resources.  

Some players talk about huge-scale hydrogen production facilities – kind of multi-Giga hydrogen factories – that would bypass a slow upscaling process and make green hydrogen cost-competitive soon. “

The technology is there – the question is rather are we as a society ready and willing to act quickly.”

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

Are we talking about the near term or in the long term?

TH: “Analysts are still rather modest in their forecasts regarding the cost development of green hydrogen – but it was pretty much the same for solar and wind. If we can manage to scale-up the generation of green hydrogen quickly, this could be years. 

However, investors are typically, very risk-averse. I would assume we will see a process that is similar to that of solar and wind. That means we would talk mid to long term. 

If a substantial price for carbon was introduced quickly, this process could be accelerated tremendously. 

The technology is there – the question is rather are we as a society ready and willing to act quickly.”

Which companies are leading the way to commercialize green hydrogen?

TH: “The landscape is still very fragmented. Many players are ramping up their activities in green hydrogen production. Building a huge hydrogen production site soon could generate tremendous cost advantages. 

The question is which company will be the Tesla of hydrogen – and who will be the Elon Musk of hydrogen?”

Air Liquide, a French multinational company with a presence in more than 80 countries, recently announced a partnership with the Durance, Luberon, Verdon urban area (DLVA) and ENGIE to produce green hydrogen on industrial scale named the “HyGreen Provence”.

“We are pleased to contribute to this flagship project, which will demonstrate, in France, on an industrial scale, the key role that hydrogen will play in the energy transition. For more than 40 years, the Group has developed a unique know-how in the field of hydrogen. This project is in line with the Group’s climate strategy, the most ambitious in its sector,” said Guy Salzgeber, Executive Vice President and member of the Air Liquide Group Executive Committee supervising Industrial Merchant, Hydrogen and Innovation.

“Companies such as Michelin and PSA (Peugeot) have recently announced an alliance to build hydrogen fuel cells.”

Dr. Thomas Hillig, renewable energy expert.

E-mobility – The automotive industry

How green hydrogen applies to the Automotive Industry?

TH: “Green hydrogen could be an alternative to battery-based e-mobility. Fuel cells would convert hydrogen to electricity that powers electric engines. 

There have also been approaches trying to use hydrogen in combustion engines, but it seems that the electric approach has won. 

The business model would still be rather similar to what we know today. Refueling at stations and not charging at home or in locations on the road where we will spend time anyhow – like shopping centers or restaurants. 

This is also why we can expect that incumbents such as big oil and gas companies will strongly support hydrogen. Hydrogen would allow them to at least use their downstream infrastructure in the future.”

Companies such as Michelin and PSA (Peugeot) have recently announced an alliance to build hydrogen fuel cells.

Could hydrogen fuel cells be an efficient alternative to plug-in EVs?

TH: “Efficient” is the right keyword here. Battery based e-mobility is much more efficient. 

I would assume that in for short-distance transportation, they are in the pole position. For longer distances and utility vehicles, this might be different. 

This could be the sweet-spot for hydrogen in the mobility sector.”

What are your impressions after having participating in the World Energy Councils “Hydrogen Innovation Forum” this week in London?

TH: “A key topic was that the World Energy Council announced a global charter promoting hydrogen actors from governments to investors and corporate off-takers. The objective is to send a signal and to put numbers to the short- and mid-term demand and investment activities in hydrogen. In the end, this initiative is meant to act as a catalyst for the development and scaling-up of green hydrogen.”

Via News TV