Can hydrogen become part of the climate solution?

The MIT Energy Initiative’s 2019 Spring Symposium investigates the resurgence of global interest in low-carbon hydrogen.

Kathryn Luu MITEI

Hydrogen was the element of conversation at the MIT Energy Initiative’s Spring Symposium, held on Monday, June 3, in the Samberg Conference Center at MIT. The annual symposia provide a vehicle for focusing on timely issues in the energy field.

More than 100 people joined MIT researchers and industry leaders to learn about the current state of hydrogen in the energy system and the ways in which it could be employed as part of a low-carbon future. The day-long event, sponsored by Cummins and Électricité de France, featured sessions on topics ranging from transportation and infrastructure to technological advances coming out of laboratories to government policies.

In his welcoming remarks, MITEI Director Robert Armstrong provided background for the day’s hydrogen discussion. “As we work to decarbonize all of the sectors of energy, we can see that we are going to struggle unless we develop new ideas, and new methods for reaching across the power, industry, and transportation sectors,” said Armstrong. The symposia are “an opportunity to bring together experts from different sectors—from academia, government, policy, and industry—to think about an issue in a broad way and to think about what the hurdles and opportunities are in moving forward” toward a low-carbon future.

MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong delivers the welcoming remarks at the Spring Symposium on Monday, June 3, 2019. Credit: Kelley Travers

Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at MIT Energy Initiative, provided framework for the day in his opening remarks. Paltsev is the lead modeler in charge of the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model of the world economy. Paltsev explained that in existing integrated models that combine the human dimension and climate components in order to see how we can reach the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement and avoid severe climate impacts, there is no “silver bullet.”

“We see that under certain conditions, you have some pathways to decarbonize, but we don’t really see the perfect answer because while there are some solutions in some sectors of the economy, there are still a lot of challenges in many other sectors of the economy,” said Paltsev. “What’s so good about hydrogen is that it has the potential to provide energy in all parts of the economy. […]There are many avenues where you can employ hydrogen in order to achieve your goals.” Today, hydrogen is primarily used in the industrial sector for the production of chemicals like methanol and ammonia (a precursor for  fertilizer production), as well as in refining crude oil for producing fuels and petrochemicals. Other potential decarbonized end uses for hydrogen include transportation and industry energy usage; residential heating and power; and as a renewable feedstock. Hydrogen could also be used to power remote communities with no access to the grid.

While there are several benefits to moving toward wider applications for hydrogen, there are also several key challenges: namely, public concerns around around real and perceived safety issues; the need for integrated solutions in industry and infrastructure, and the need for policy support and regulations in order to bring down the cost of hydrogen.

Paltsev also emphasized the need to use clean hydrogen in trying to reach climate goals: “The catch is that it’s only as clean as the way you produce the hydrogen because it’s not the energy source; it’s an energy carrier. You have to produce the hydrogen with energy and then carry that energy to its applications.” Hydrogen can be clean if produced by electrolysis using renewable energy sources or nuclear power, steam methane reforming with carbon capture and storage, or if it is based on renewable biomass.

Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at MITEI (left) led the symposium’s first panel discussion. From left to right: Emre Gençer, research scientist, MITEI; Etienne Briere, director of Storage and Environment, EDF; Morgan Andreae, executive director of the Growth office, Cummins; and Aqil Jamal, chief technologist for the Carbon Management Research Division, Saudi Aramco. Credit: Kelley Travers

Emre Gençer, MITEI research scientist echoed Paltsev’s sentiment in the first panel session, which focused on the opportunities for hydrogen under deeply decarbonized energy system scenarios. “Not all hydrogen is created equal and the role of hydrogen in economy-wide deep decarbonization is solely dependent on how we produce hydrogen,” said Gençer.

Joining Gençer to speak in the first session were Etienne Briere, director of storage and environment at Électricité de France; Morgan Andreae, executive director of the Growth Office at Cummins; and Aqil Jamal, chief technologist in the Carbon Management and Research Division at Saudi Aramco. Robert Stoner, MITEI’s deputy director for science and technology and director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design, served as moderator for the discussion.

Speakers addressed how the overall motivations behind the periodic resurgences of the hydrogen economy have shifted over the past 100 years, from serving basic energy and transportation needs through to today’s global interest in economy-wide deep decarbonization. “If we really want to decarbonize the entire energy economy, we need another energy vector. We can use a molecule such as hydrogen to really help us with our deep decarbonization targets,” said Gençer.

Several of the panelists shared what they believe will be the primary sectors for hydrogen demand. For example, in the United States, some speakers see the primary sector for hydrogen demand as being determined by regional dynamics, since every region has different reasons for using hydrogen. Industry could drive demand in the South; heat in the Northeast; and energy storage and transportation in the West.

The second session addressed infrastructure needs that will need to be resolved in order to scale the deployment of low-carbon hydrogen. Speakers included Karine Boissy-Rousseau, U.S. president for H2 energy and mobility at Air Liquide; Katherine Ayers, vice president of research and development at Nel Hydrogen; Takamasa Ito, senior researcher for the IHI Corporation; Steinar Eikaas, vice president for low carbon solutions at Equinor; and William Licht, chief engineer at Air Products. The panel was moderated by William Green, Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT.

Boissy-Rousseau reflected on the need for the industry to lead the way for hydrogen, saying, “What we see is that we are at the time where scale-up is possible with the existing technology.” She spoke about the need for industry to step up as advocates for the energy transition—which will take the participation of the entire industry to move the needle. She added that the symposium sent a message that “we are ready to move the industry forward.”

Yang Shao-Horn, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT (center) engages with the audience during the “view from the lab” panel discussion. From left to right: Cathy Choi, executive director of technology development and integration, Cummins; Yogesh Surendranath, Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor of Chemistry, MIT; and Clay Sutton, process engineer, ExxonMobil. Credit: Kelley Travers

Another session focused on recent technological advances coming out of industrial, governmental, and academic laboratories to lower the cost of hydrogen. Cathy Choi, executive director of Technology Development and Integration at Cummins moderated a panel comprised of Yogesh Surendranath, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor of Chemistry at MIT; Yang Shao-Horn, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT; Steve Duh, senior engineering manager in the fuel cell development department at Toyota Motor North America R&D; Clay Sutton, process engineer at ExxonMobil; and Dharik Mallapragada, research scientist  at MITEI. The speakers’ presentations ranged from using the production process of metals like aluminum to inspire new and cheaper ways of transporting and producing hydrogen in the lab to industry views on the advantages of using hydrogen to fuel heavy-duty vehicles.

The policy environment needed to scale hydrogen was another key area of discussion. Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president and director of the Energy and National Security Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, moderated the panel, which featured Joseph Cappello, executive advisor to Iwatani Corporation of America; Ilaria Conti, research associate and head of gas at the Florence School of Regulation; and Neha Rustagi, the technology manager for the H2@Scale Program for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Conti spoke to the renaissance of hydrogen in Europe and the current discussions around its applications. “What we are experiencing right now is really a new discovery of its potential and use,” said Conti.

Europe, as in many places around the world, mainly uses hydrogen for fertilization. However, the European Union is looking at potential uses for hydrogen in its pursuit to reach the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement. To that end, Conti cited the Hydrogen Initiative, which was signed by 25 member states of the EU in September 2018. “The purpose [of the Hydrogen Initiative] was to sign a very clear agreement promoting the use of hydrogen, particularly underlining the importance of research and innovation in the field of hydrogen and with the acceleration of projects in hydrogen with the aim to facilitate economic competitiveness of the European Union,” said Conti.

However, hydrogen policy is not standard across Europe; a sentiment that was echoed by the other panelists from around the globe. “We are in a sort of vicious cycle where you have the industry wanting to invest but not really sure where to invest, and the regulators waiting for policy, and policy[makers] looking to see if there are some signs coming from industry, so it’s a moment of debate,” said Conti.

Neha Rustagi, technology manager at H2@Scale Program, U.S. Department of Energy answers an audience question during the policy panel discussion. She spoke about affordable, reliable, clean, and secure energy research across sectors. Credit: Kelley Travers

Rustagi spoke about how the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting affordable, reliable, clean, and secure energy research across sectors. One of the projects that they are helping to fund is the development of nuclear hybrid energy systems, in which the co-production of hydrogen can help nuclear plants supplement the revenue that they receive from power generation.

A main theme returned to throughout the day concerned the driving forces behind the current push for hydrogen. During the closing discussion, Ladislaw noted that in moving toward hydrogen, industry leaders are recognizing future business opportunities and could contribute to decarbonization—if they focus on green ways of producing, storing, and transporting hydrogen.

Ladislaw said that among other factors, “the oil and gas industry writ large is looking at itself in a deeply decarbonized, predominantly electrified future” and what opportunities could lie ahead, and added, “there’s a constituency of interest in figuring out what the future looks like.”

She also noted that other countries may feel that discussions around hydrogen could resonate with the current U.S. administration in climate change discussions.

Another recurring question from speakers concerned whether the renewed attention to hydrogen represents just another periodic spike in interest, or whether hydrogen may start to gain sustained traction. In his closing reflections, MITEI Senior Energy Economist Howard Gruenspecht said, “I think that the tie-in between hydrogen and the need for low- or no-carbon energy is something really different this time.” He went on to discuss hydrogen’s potential allure to policymakers. “Hydrogen is already widely used, not as an energy carrier but as a feedstock, so that means we have experience with storing it, moving it, producing it, and using it safely and at scale.”

Gruenspecht also mentioned that the ability to repurpose existing infrastructure such as natural gas storage systems and technology to accommodate hydrogen, combined with the availability of multiple pathways toward hydrogen production and implementation, are major benefits in the political setting. “There are many potential winners, which can be important in gaining initial support even if not all supply options or uses will actually pan out.  It also means that hydrogen adoption is not dependent on the technical and economic success of any particular pathway. It allows the possibility of starting on one pathway and moving to another,” said Gruenspecht. For example, one could start down a clean hydrogen path by applying carbon capture and storage (CCS) to hydrogen produced from natural gas using steam-reforming, which is today’s dominant technology, and later shift toward electrolysis using clean electricity and other methods that completely avoid carbon emissions.

Howard Gruenspecht, senior energy economist at MITEI, offers final takeaways during the closing discussion about the path forward for hydrogen. From left: Robert C. Armstrong, director of MITEI; Sarah Ladislaw, senior vice president and director of the Energy and National Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Howard Gruenspecht; and William Green, Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering, MIT.

The closing speakers reiterated concerns surrounding hydrogen that had been raised earlier in the day. “There’s the Hindenburg example, and the Columbia Gas fires and explosions [in Massachusetts] where people were out of natural gas and heat for six months,” said Armstrong. “The point is that there are safety concerns around regulation and public perception. The public has to be convinced that this can be done differently than other gas pipeline issues.”

Several speakers, including Ladislaw, also mentioned the element of lost time on the fight against climate change that has brought hydrogen back into the conversation.

“In the last year, I would say there has been a shift to say: maybe we’ve lost time because we’re behind,” said Ladislaw. “Let’s look at the stuff that is going to be needed a little bit further down the line—whether it’s direct air capture or other carbon management technologies or biological sequestration and that whole side of the ledger or things like hydrogen, where you might not need it for several decades, but you really do need to get started on those things.”

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