Green Hydrogen: The Key to Carbon-Free Industry?

Most people have heard about reducing emissions by switching to electric cars or replacing fossil fuel plants with renewable energy parks. But there is another clean energy technology that isn’t talked about: green hydrogen. Green hydrogen can enable sectors such as heavy-duty transport and industry to transition away from fossil fuels, where they previously could not. However, some speed bumps in the way of its adoption need to be overcome through policy and business initiatives.
While most fossil fuels can be phased out through electrification and renewable electricity, there are exceptions. Certain industrial processes and modes of transport cannot be electrified and are therefore reliant on fossil fuels like natural gas. This has long been a thorn in the side of the energy transition, but a solution is emerging that can solve this issue: Green hydrogen.

What is Green Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is already used for a lot of industrial processes like the production of ammonia and methanol. Through a reaction called steam methane reforming, natural gas is heated to separate hydrogen and release CO2 as a byproduct. This process creates what is typically called grey hydrogen since the process relies on fossil fuels and releases CO2. In contrast, green hydrogen is produced by passing an electric current through water, separating the hydrogen while only leaving oxygen as a byproduct. If the electricity produced comes from renewable energy sources, the process is entirely fossil-free and therefore green.
Hydrogen that is produced using renewable electricity is called green hydrogen, as opposed to grey hydrogen which is produced from fossil fuels.
Hydrogen that is produced using renewable electricity is called green hydrogen, as opposed to grey hydrogen which is produced from fossil fuels.

This hydrogen can not only replace the grey hydrogen currently used in making methanol, ammonia, and more, but it also holds a lot of renewable electricity that can be used for heavy industry and heavy-duty transportation.
  • Hydrogen can be combusted at temperatures of over 2000°C, making it viable for industrial processes that require higher temperatures than current electrification technology can otherwise provide, such as the production of steel and cement, two of the world’s most used products.
  • Since hydrogen can store a lot of energy compared to a battery of the same weight, vehicles that need to travel long distances without stopping to charge can be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. This is important for heavy-duty vehicles like trucks but also for marine transportation, two sectors that are in desperate need of clean fuels in the short term.
Green hydrogen has a lot of potential, but it needs to be supported by policymakers and businesses alike. For green hydrogen to help phase out fossil fuels, deliberate efforts are needed in policymaking, infrastructure, and financial incentives.

Paving the Path for Green Hydrogen: Obstacles to Overcome

Green hydrogen can be used in a lot of different ways, but that doesn’t always mean it should be. While the technology to develop hydrogen through renewable electricity continues to improve, the supply of green hydrogen will be limited in the near term. Since the electrolysis process involves a significant energy loss, it should only be used when there are no other viable alternatives for electrification, such as the previously mentioned cases of steel and cement production and heavy-duty transportation. These are also the sectors that are more likely to pay the extra cost of adopting and producing green hydrogen, due to the lack of alternatives.
This increased cost can be an obstacle to adoption, but it’s mitigated in multiple ways. Aside from technological innovation reducing production costs, the Inflation Reduction Act provides the 45V Hydrogen Production Tax Credit, a tax credit for clean hydrogen that is based on emission intensity. This means that the tax credit for green hydrogen can be as high as $3 per kg of hydrogen produced. Compared to the production cost of $5-6 per kg of green hydrogen, the tax credit can reduce the price by more than half, supporting the adoption of this technology significantly.
If technological innovation, policy support, and demand from customers all fall into place, green hydrogen has a bright future ahead of it and can be scaled to be a crucial part of the energy transition. There are, however, some things that have to be considered to make this scale-up sustainable and beneficial for a carbon-free society.

Making Sure the Hydrogen Stays Green

In late 2023, the United States Treasury released a set of guidelines outlining demands that the hydrogen industry must meet to get the tax credit on hydrogen production. The main issues that the production needs to address are “three pillars” related to the electricity used to produce the hydrogen: temporal matching, incrementality, and deliverability.
To support the sustainable scaling of green hydrogen, the U.S. Treasury announced a tax credit attached to a set of guidelines that must be followed.
To support the sustainable scaling of green hydrogen, the U.S. Treasury announced a tax credit attached to a set of guidelines that must be followed.

Temporal matching refers to the requirement to match the amount of electricity being used in hydrogen production to the amount of zero-carbon electricity being produced within a specified time period. If the energy used for hydrogen production equals the supply of zero-carbon electricity, the hydrogen can not be considered fully green. To begin with, the matching period will be annual, but due to the variance of renewable energy supply over the year, this will not necessarily mean that every kg of hydrogen will be produced using clean energy. Coal and natural gas generation will be used for hydrogen production when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Therefore, the Treasury has proposed a phase-in of hourly matching starting in 2028. All hydrogen projects, including those built before 2028, will be required to meet hourly matching requirements to be eligible for the highest-level credits from 2028 onwards.
Incrementality, or additionality, requires that electricity used for green hydrogen production is new and explicitly dedicated to hydrogen production. The proposed guidance requires new renewable generation or new carbon capture and storage (CCS) installed at existing fossil fuel power plants within three years of hydrogen production, to ensure that hydrogen production does not take away clean energy that would otherwise be used for reducing emissions elsewhere.
Finally, deliverability focuses on the geographic boundaries – how close hydrogen production needs to be to renewable electricity generation. The guidance requires them to be in the same region as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Transmission Needs Study, which is mapped to balancing authorities.
Aside from these requirements, hydrogen molecules can easily pass through most materials due to their small size, meaning that leakage is a significant risk in hydrogen production. This is a concern because hydrogen combustion, like any combustion reaction that heats air to high temperatures, creates harmful pollutants called nitrogen oxides. These are linked to smog, acid rain, and damaging health impacts such as asthma and respiratory infections. To address these issues, more stringent environmental, health, and safety standards need to be implemented throughout green hydrogen production, storage, transportation, and use.
It is also important to consider that historically, communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and air pollution. To ensure that the hydrogen market is growing in a just and equitable way, local communities and affected workforces should be meaningfully engaged and included in the design and development of hydrogen projects.
The potential for green hydrogen as an enabler in the clean energy transition is important in the short and long term if given the right conditions to scale. If you want to learn more about this potential, check out this article and this podcast episode on the WWF website.
  • mary Mwihaki

    2 w

    Wow love this looking forward

    • Adam Wallin

      3 w

      This sounds very promising, having a form of energy that can be used in all these applications. I do hope that the initiatives to make it safe and clean work, since hydrogen production is such an energy intensive process.

      • Sarah Chabane

        3 w

        Interesting! Is hydrogen considered a safe source of energy considering its flammability?

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