There’s a lot to like about hydrogen, particularly for electric utilities. Start with hydrogen’s enormous promise in reducing carbon emissions while maintaining or growing the standard of living in developed or emerging economies. Add in the fact that much of the technology needed to realize the long-envisioned “hydrogen economy” already exists, and you begin to understand why interest in hydrogen is surging now.
And yet, after decades of buoyant projections, the path to a pervasive hydrogen economy—and the role utilities will play in it—still seems pretty indistinct. Engineers figured out long ago how to produce, transport, and use hydrogen. China now produces more than 20 million metric tons of it annually and the U.S. about 9 million tonnes. However, nearly all of this hydrogen is used to refine petroleum, produce chemicals and fertilizer, treat metals, and for other industrial purposes. The U.S. has about 2,500 km of hydrogen pipelines in operation, and there’s a robust infrastructure to truck hydrogen to locations where pipelines do not make economic sense.
On the grid, hydrogen will probably be used initially to store electricity. But it will be a rather unconventional kind of storage. During times of low demand but high electricity production, for example from renewables like solar or wind, hydrogen could be produced in commercial-scale electrolyzer plants. Then, when demand is high, the hydrogen can provide electricity by reacting with ambient oxygen in a fuel cell or even by powering a turbine.