By Ken Silverstein Senior Contributor
Does the aviation sector have its head in the clouds? Indeed, the experts are working hard to make hydrogen a sustainable aviation fuel.
Given the expansion of the production tax credits and the funds for regional hydrogen hubs, hydrogen’s stock is rising. Its possibilities lie in the hard-to-decarbonize industrials or things that cannot quickly electrify. That applies to planes, trains, ships, and long-haul trucks. Electric generators can also run on a blend of hydrogen and natural gas.
“We see the technology coming and the cost coming down. The price of natural gas is lower than today’s price of hydrogen,” says Judith Judson, head of hydrogen at the National Grid, in a webinar hosted by Our Energy Policy. “But with tax credits, the economics are moving in the right direction. Like wind and solar, the prices will come down. In meeting our net zero goals, hydrogen has a role to play. Our goal is to see green hydrogen produced from renewable energy. We plan to eliminate fossil fuels, but we want to do so affordably.”
Green hydrogen-derived sustainable aviation fuels may be a long flight, but that plane will take off within 15 to 25 years. Consider Delta Airlines: Louisiana-based DG Fuels is supplying it 385 million gallons with 75%-85% fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional jet fuel.
Various forms of renewable energy make up sustainable aviation fuels. That includes food waste, animal waste, and sewage sludge, which easily mix with jet fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy says its carbon footprint can be 165% smaller than petroleum-based jet fuel. A study by Clean Sky 2 and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 says that hydrogen-powered aircraft could be ready for flight as early as 2035, although 2050 may be more doable for longer flights.
Azul Airlines, British Airways, Jet Blue, KLM, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Australia, and Virgin Atlantic have already used biofuels for commercial flights. As for Jet Blue, it is using sustainable aviation fuel at its hub in the Los Angeles International Airport. It works with World Energy and World Fuel ServicesINT +2.4% to get sustainable aviation fuel.
“Our ultimate goal is to achieve climate-neutral aviation by 2050. Turning this ambition into reality requires the seamless integration of a range of important new technological advancements, one of which is hydrogen-powered aircraft,” says Axel Krein, Executive Director of Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking.
Besides the production tax credits provided by the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that passed a year ago includes up to $7 billion to establish between 6 and 10 regional hydrogen hubs across the country. The goal is to create a network of hydrogen producers and industrial consumers with an interconnected infrastructure to accelerate the use of clean hydrogen — part of the White House’s plan to reach net-zero targets by 2050.
For example, the hubs want to optimize each region’s strength — comprised of their natural resources and their industrial base. Some regions are rich in natural gas, while others have a lot of solar and wind energy potential. At the same time, companies must stand ready to buy the resulting hydrogen. Critical to the pursuit: converting legacy infrastructure and building new pipelines.
“The regulatory environment is key,” Thomas Green, a fellow with the Energy Department’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Office, said during the program. “We need to lower barriers and ensure stakeholders are engaged while assuring the highest amount of environmental fidelity.”
Today 99% of all hydrogen is produced in reactions involving coal and natural gas, considered “grey hydrogen” that does nothing to limit CO2 emissions. The aim is to produce hydrogen from low-carbon energy sources — green hydrogen — and expand its use in the transportation and power generation sectors. In its Hydrogen Economy Outlook, Bloomberg New Energy Finance says it could supply 24% of the world’s energy demands by 2050 while cutting CO2 levels by 34%.
For that to happen, the price of green hydrogen has to fall. The Energy Department is taking an “Earthshot,” launched in June 2021. It seeks to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per 1 kilogram in 1 decade. Currently, hydrogen from renewable energy costs about $5 per kilogram. If the program is successful and the price falls, the potential has no bounds: steel manufacturing, clean ammonia, energy storage, and heavy-duty trucks, says the agency.
National Grid’s Judson says that her utility would be a corporate buyer of the hydrogen fuel. It would help balance the supply and demand, benefiting electricity customers. She says that hydrogen and renewable natural gas derived from organic waste could be blended, powering gas turbines while using the existing wires and substations.
Hydrogen can be used in fuel cells to generate power — a chemical process that splits hydrogen from oxygen. There are no emissions — only water vapor. How? For example, battery-stored solar electricity is run through an electrolyzer to create pure hydrogen gas. While solar costs have dropped by 85% over 10 years, the focus now is on achieving economies of scale for electrolyzers.
While hydrogen can be injected directly into the existing natural gas turbines or the pipelines that carry it, the blending rate is only 20%. The Intermountain Power Project in Utah is converting from a coal plant to a combined cycle natural gas plant, creating a pure form of green hydrogen and transmitting it to Los Angeles.
There are 550 megawatts of fuel cells installed across the country, says Connor Dolan, vice president of external affairs for the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association. The users are critical faculties like data centers and hospitals that can’t afford to lose power at any time. MicrosoftMSFT +2.9% Corp. wants to power its new data centers with hydrogen. The cost to do so is high, but those prices will decrease.
The hydrogen hubs are essential to achieving economies of scale. “This will help bring about cost parity and drive adoption,” says Dolan, during the webinar. “We will see hydrogen for export from the U.S. We would see a huge amount of domestic production, and we might have excess to ship around the world.”
Planes, trains, and automobiles are coming. Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota are creating fuel cell-powered cars, while FedEx ExpressEXPR 0.0% is running a hydrogen-fueled delivery truck in New York State with a range of 240 kilometers. But more than 20,000 hydrogen-powered forklifts are already here and used by companies like WalmartWMT +1.1% and TargetTGT +0.1%.
The groundwork is laid and the public policies are in place, providing the rocket fuel for an emerging hydrogen-powered economy.