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Transition trends in hydrogen

Published by , Editorial Assistant
World Pipelines,

Steve Biagiotti, Jr. P.E., Chief Engineer and Gary P. Yoho, P.E., Principal Consultant, Dynamic Risk, discuss the evolution of hydrogen adoption in the pipeline industry and the role it will play in reaching global net-zero goals.

Transition trends in hydrogen

The deadline to achieve the 50% reduction target set by the UN Climate Change Committee is rapidly approaching. It’s only six years away. Targets will not be achieved without substantial infrastructure changes. Europe is much further ahead than most of the 195 partner nations that have voluntarily approved the Paris Agreement.1

Meeting ambitious climate goals will require substantial and aggressive investments in infrastructure, technology development, and regulatory frameworks to ensure efficient and sustainable production, distribution, and utilisation. Greenhouse gas emission (GHG) targets of +40% below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050 will be virtually unattainable without incorporating hydrogen as an element in the global energy strategy. Hydrogen, especially when produced through low-carbon methods, offers a versatile and clean alternative to fossil fuels.

The broader society accepts that climate change is occurring and that something needs to be done to slow the rate of change. Governments appear to be struggling with how to integrate hydrogen into CO2 reduction targets within their broader energy and environmental policies. More specifically, the acceptable form of hydrogen generation continues to be a stumbling block. This pace in adopting hydrogen strategies is too slow to meet even the minimum emissions targets: more prompt and determined action is necessary.

Trends in hydrogen adoption

In the early 2000s, some forward-thinking countries, particularly those with a focus on renewable energy and sustainability, began considering hydrogen as a key component of their energy transition strategies. Initial discussions and exploratory studies on hydrogen as a clean energy carrier took place during this period. By the mid-2000s, several governments started to formalise their commitment to hydrogen by including it in their energy policy frameworks.1, 3 Countries with a strong emphasis on reducing carbon emissions and diversifying their energy mix began setting preliminary targets for hydrogen development.

The 2010s witnessed a significant increase in the number of governments worldwide setting explicit targets and incorporating hydrogen into their long-term energy plans. Targets often included specific goals for hydrogen production, infrastructure development, and integration into various sectors, such as transportation and industrial processes. Towards the end of the 2010s and into the early 2020s, the momentum for hydrogen targets further accelerated. Several countries announced ambitious strategies and commitments, emphasising hydrogen as a crucial element in achieving carbon neutrality goals. These targets were often aligned with international climate agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, reflecting a global push toward sustainable and low-carbon energy solutions.2

In parallel, collaborations and partnerships between countries and international organisations aimed at advancing hydrogen technologies gained prominence. These efforts contributed to the sharing of best practices, research findings, and the establishment of global standards.

Overall, the setting of hydrogen targets by governments has evolved over the past two decades, mirroring the increasing recognition of hydrogen’s role in addressing climate change, enhancing energy security, and fostering a more sustainable energy landscape. The specific timing and nature of these targets depend on each country’s unique energy policy priorities and commitments to environmental stewardship.

Meeting the challenge

The path to lowering CO2 emissions requires replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources and carbon capture. This transformative transition will require innovation and investment. These changes require the retirement and replacement of equipment, modifications to processes to maintain safety levels, and public education on the global benefits. However, change takes time.

To meet the voluntary initiative the US Greenhouse Gas Emissions targets are 50 - 52% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.14 Canadian targets are 40 - 45% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.13 The European Union targets are based on 55% reduction below 1990 levels.15 More governments must support and establish policies soon if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Industry Think Tanks5 are suggesting that hydrogen must make up at least 15% of the global energy mix by 2050 to meet the goal.

However, the adoption of hydrogen into the gas delivery mixture has been slow. Companies are still evaluating projects to better understand the nuances of transporting and delivering hydrogen utilising existing infrastructure. Key technical questions to answer include:

  • What is the ‘sweet spot’ with respect to the level of hydrogen that can be blended and transported with natural gas?
  • What is the demand for transportation of a 100% stream of hydrogen?

Educating stakeholders

It is a logical desire to want hydrogen included in the energy network. Some assume that since it is a combustible gas, like natural gas, it can be easily blended and transported in the existing transmission and distribution pipeline network. Although this belief is partially correct, hydrogen introduces different safety, operational, tariff, liquified storage, and pipeline integrity concerns. Unlike the long successful history the industry has with natural gas, only a few specialised operations (e.g. feedstock into petrochemical processes, fertiliser production) have been working historically with hydrogen gas. However, the transportation of hydrogen in steel pipelines has had a long and successful history over the last century, albeit with limited mileage. This means there is a need to educate a large population of engineers and pipeline technicians.

The industry has responded with webinars, short courses, workshops, and conferences to help share experience and knowledge gaps. The rise in industry events that include hydrogen-related topics and symposia noticeably peaked around 2022. It is unclear whether recent activities by AGA2 and others are meaningfully reducing the operational and integrity concerns of transporting blended hydrogen. Contrary to the general increase in hydrogen-related seminars, it appears that pipeline company operations related to pilot projects have been delayed or…

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