Inevitable fragments of a carbon-neutral society: natural gas coupled with CCUS, renewables, and hydrogen

As global society keeps pursuing a zero-carbon energy system, hydrogen’s role is becoming more notable. Seyed Mohsen Razavi, energy technology analyst, energy economics and forecasting department at GECF Secretariat, explains.

Just a couple of years ago, everyone had agreed that hydrogen would gain a meaningful share by around 2050. However, these days, due to sanctioned projects and the advancement of the related technologies with a set of adopted strategies, it is believed that the hydrogen era will materialise much earlier.

Hydrogen is not the only piece of the puzzle to achieve carbon neutrality, but it is the one that promises a feasible pathway towards net-zero emission through complementing other routes such as electrification and natural gas, coupled with CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation, and storage).

The supremacy of hydrogen is based on the possibility that it can be employed to decarbonise the so-called hard-to-abate sectors or in sectors in which other decarbonisation pathways, such as electrification, are challenged. These sectors include but are not limited to steel, iron, and cement, as well as heavy long-haul vehicles, aviation, and maritime and railways transportation.

The GECF Hydrogen Scenario encompasses some of these recent developments in its latest update, which was published in February 2021. The Scenario has taken into consideration the latest updates and strategies adopted by countries and groups and assessed their impacts.

Currently, several countries have officially published their hydrogen strategies or hydrogen roadmaps. In some of the roadmaps and strategies such as the EU Hydrogen Strategy, the main priority has been attached to renewable hydrogen.

While in some others, such as for Japan, Russia, and South Korea, blue hydrogen is envisaged to take a meaningful role. In certain strategies, definite and clear targets are set, like for the EU Hydrogen Strategy that considers a minimum of 40GW installed renewable hydrogen electrolyser or 10 million tonnes (mt) of renewable hydrogen by 2030.

Within the EU Hydrogen Strategy, another 40GW is also defined as a target to install in the neighbouring countries and import to the EU.

The GECF Hydrogen Scenario

According to the latest results from the updated GECF Hydrogen Scenario, which assumes a practical penetration of hydrogen into the future of the energy system, the demand for hydrogen by 2050 will increase by more than four times.

However, the carbon saving through this hydrogen penetration is forecasted to be less than six tonnes of CO2 equivalent – far below the amount needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

This result emphasises that, firstly, the hydrogen production supply chain needs to advance in all parts, and the cost should be reduced to gain more share in the future of the energy system.

Secondly, the result highlights that hydrogen could not be the only solution in the carbon neutrality pathway, and other clean and decarbonised options, such as the application of natural gas coupled with CCUS has to be seriously taken into consideration by all stakeholders.

Henceforth, let’s take a look at some results and forecasts from the Reference Case Scenario (RCS) of the latest GECF Global Gas Outlook 2050 (GGO 2050), as it will enable a clear view of the potential needs to fully decarbonise the hard-to-abate energy sectors when hydrogen is hypothetically assumed to take a sole role.

According to the RCS results, the total EU transport demand in so-called hard-to-abate sectors will be reduced from 217 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe); in 2019 and pre-Covid-19 pandemic situation, to around 150mtoe by 2050.

This reduction is primarily due to the energy efficiency enhancement of the fleets. In order to produce 150mtoe of energy, around 52 mt of hydrogen is needed1, requiring more than 500 GW of electrolyser2.

This should be added to the demand from the iron, steel, and cement industry (other assumed hard-to-abate sectors.) The fossil fuel demand (coal, natural gas, and oil products) from these sectors in the EU is forecasted to stand at 24mtoe by 2050. To meet this level of demand only with green hydrogen, around 70GW of the electrolyser must be installed.

Forecasting electrolyser capacity

Based on the forecasted demand levels, the EU will need around 570GW of electrolyser capacity to decarbonise the aforementioned hard-to-abate sectors in case that the green hydrogen is assumed to be the only solution.

Based on technical circumstances and the policy, in the EU Hydrogen Strategy, the target was set to 2x40GW renewable hydrogen by 2030. Therefore, the needed electrolyser capacity for 2050 seems to be challenging but feasible in the EU.

However, we still need to bear in mind some other salient points. The first point is that these results are based on assuming a successful effort in enhancing energy efficiency, and the level is subject to uncertainty.

The second is that this is the volume needed only to decarbonise the referenced hard-to-abate sectors. Several other consuming sectors are supposed to be decarbonised through other pathways such as electrification. They also create a massive volume of renewable electricity demand.

A big question mark here is to gauge if there is a sufficient potential of renewable energies within the EU to accommodate all renewable electricity demand in the sectors and meet the electricity demand of electrolysers to produce green hydrogen.

No sole solution

By looking into this subject from a global perspective, it can be observed that much more hydrogen is needed to decarbonise even these so-called hard-to-abate sectors. According to the latest modelling results published in GGO 2050, the global energy demand from hard-to-abate subsectors within transportation will stand at around 1,800mtoe per annum by 2050.

In a hypothetical assumption, to provide this amount of energy only through green hydrogen production, more than 6,000GW of electrolyser will be needed. This level is around five times more than the total current wind and solar installed capacity.

With similar calculations again on the imaginary only-green hydrogen assumption, 1,500GW of electrolyser should be installed for the decarbonisation of iron, steel, and cement sectors. While numerous sectors are still not included in these calculations, other measures are assumed for the purpose of decarbonisation as well.

In conclusion, the undeniable fact is that there is no sole solution for carbon neutrality. Indeed, a combination of measures needs to be applied to achieve a net-zero emission. Apart from the energy conservation and energy efficiency enhancement that results in a reduction in final energy demand, clean energy supply should be diversely sourced from all clean available potentials.

Renewables, natural gas, and CCUS will take greater roles in their original form, and all of them should contribute to the hydrogen production. In closing, renewables, natural gas, CCUS, and hydrogen are inevitable parts of a fully decarbonised energy system.

1 LHV energy content is considered (120.1 MJ for Energy content of 1kg H2)

2 An efficiency of 88% is considered for electrolysers and 4,000 running hours a year