Hydrogen’s role in energy transition

Mona Bhagat, Director of Technology and Energy Transition, KBR Sustainable Technology Solutions, at the 2024 Lisbon Energy Summit - Photo by ACCELERATE

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Hydrogen’s deployment is at a tipping point, says Mona Bhagat, Director Technology, Energy Transition, at KBR Sustainable Technology Solutions. 

“On one hand there are improvements such as a growing and gradually maturing pipeline of projects and supportive decarbonization regulation,” she said in an interview with ACCELERATE. “On the other hand, there are issues such as cost increases, project delays, continued regulatory uncertainty, and financing costs.”

While blue hydrogen projects will likely dominate the next 10 to 15 years, an increasing number of tax incentives and credits in the U.S. and the European Union are supporting green hydrogen projects, says Bhagat.

“If you compare last year to this year, the sheer number of green hydrogen projects being pursued this year is a lot more. And that shows the direction and the trajectory of green hydrogen going forward.”

Bhagat notes that more than 1,400 clean hydrogen projects were announced this year across all regions — up from about 1,040 in the previous year.

Knowing the interest is there, scaling green hydrogen requires two key elements, Bhagat says: investment in the technology needed to isolate and store the energy source, as well as in the infrastructure required to support hydrogen production.

“We need to improve the technology. And as the technology scales up, the costs and the economics of doing green hydrogen projects will improve over time. As we saw, for example, with solar technologies.” 

Then, says Bhagat, “your infrastructure has to be developed to enable end-to-end access to hydrogen.”

This requires infrastructure development to produce hydrogen, but also to store the fuel, she explains.  

Additionally, international cooperation to share best practices, setting standards to ensure compatibility of hydrogen production and applications, and coordinating on cross-border infrastructure will also be essential prerequisites for the wider deployment of hydrogen, says Bhagat. 

“Building effective public-private partnerships (PPTs) can further add to the uptake of the hydrogen economy.”


Blue VS. Green: An explainer on hydrogen

Lightweight, versatile, and abundant, hydrogen can do everything from run city buses and manufacturing plants, to heat homes. 

How it works: When a hydrogen molecule combines with oxygen in a fuel cell, it produces energy in the form of electricity and heat. The only by-product of this process is water vapour. While burning hydrogen doesn’t produce harmful carbon emissions, producing hydrogen can, depending on the production method you employ.

Separating pure hydrogen from other elements it bonds to — because hydrogen is rarely found in its pure elemental form in nature — can be a carbon-intensive process that produces both CO2 and methane. 

For example, hydrogen produced from natural gas via steam methane reforming (SMR) is called blue hydrogen (which still results in fewer carbon emissions compared to the direct combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, or natural gas).

But hydrogen that’s produced using renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, using an electrolysis process that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, is called green hydrogen. Green hydrogen does not create CO2 emissions. 

Therefore there’s significant interest in scaling the production and use of green hydrogen as we work toward net zero targets. 


Subsurface storage and modelling can help scale green hydrogen adoption

Whether producing hydrogen via blue or green methods, it needs a place to be stored, says Kiran Venepalli, Head of Energy Transition at Computer Modelling Group (CMG).

And there are many different storage options, he says. 

For instance, hydrogen can be compressed and then stored in high-pressure tanks, or cooled so that it liquifies and becomes more compact with the ability to be stored in above-ground tanks.

“The problem with storing hydrogen in high-pressure tanks is that it becomes very expensive, using a significant number of other sources to compress the hydrogen or cool the hydrogen,” Venepalli says. 

Which is why subsurface storage is a more attractive and cost-effective option for housing larger volumes of hydrogen.

“By injecting hydrogen into the subsurface into a geological storage unit, it will stay there until you need to produce it,” he says. “Relatively speaking, it’s cheaper. Once you establish your entire infrastructure, that’s about it.” 

Subsurface storage isn’t without challenges, though. 

Hydrogen is highly flammable, so it’s important to keep it contained within the reservoir. There is significant environmental, financial, and reputational risk if it leaks and contaminates groundwater, Venepalli explains. 

He echoes Bhagat’s point that technology investment is key to ensuring that hydrogen storage is safe and secure enough to meet growing energy demands and to be able to scale the use of the energy source over time. 

Fortunately, there are already well-established modelling technologies that can be applied to hydrogen storage to reduce subsurface complications and challenges. 

Take CMG’s subsurface software, for instance, which models complex geology, and measures integrity and capacity using 3D animation of the ground underneath the surface at potential storage sites. 

By running long-term simulation of the subsurface, modelling technology can determine a safe area to store hydrogen, and ensure there are no leaks, Venepalli says. 

“By using technology to model the entire subsurface unit, you are able to reduce risk and ensure that the hydrogen stored is safely contained without a single instance of leakage.

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