Creating A Unique Nested Hydrogen Ecosystem for the Energy Transformation

Ecosystems hold a certain fascination for me. The ecosystem approach can tackle and help resolve some of the more complex issues we face.

We increasingly use the word “ecosystem” to describe our environment that we operate with, but we are often diluting its true positioning.

Truly unique ecosystems are hard to find and certainly to manage. One I really feel reflects a collaborative model worth explaining is the ones that are forming around Hydrogen as the alternative energy vector based on renewables. To replace or become a significant part of any entrenched energy system requires a system design approach. This part of the energy transition fits within the ‘greater’ energy system design.

Let’s look at this with some context and then clarify that approaching Hydrogen needs a unique Ecosystem design. We are presently building a unique ‘nested’ Hydrogen Ecosystem within the Energy Transition. It is interesting to explore, firstly here and then in a follow-up post on one of its specific parts. Firstly the big picture needs us to radically change our energy sources due to global warming.

To tackle full decarbonization is one of the world’s most significant challenges over the next 30 years. The historical Paris Agreement or known in French: L’accord de Paris, is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance, signed in 2016.

One hundred ninety-five countries signed the accord to address climate change that requires deeper emissions reduction commitments from all countries—developed and developing.  It brings us much closer to a safer climate trajectory and creates an ambitious path forward for decades to come. The agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their climate-altering pollution and to strengthen those commitments over time.

The energy transition is to re-design around a global energy system built on clean energy.

A really unique part of any energy transformation is how complex this really is. The transformation requires a massive overhaul to reduce our carbon emissions and put in place radical solutions on how we generate, distribute, store, and consumer energy. Our present dependence on fossil fuels needs us to drive exponential growth in renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and water use.

Today we are pushing for a carbon-neutral economy as fast as we can. We require wind and solar replacing coal, oil, and gas. Yet this only goes part of the way within the energy system. Delivery clean sources of electricity are well on the road to a sustainable and growing future, increasingly cost-competitive to eliminate large sectors based on coal, oil, and to some degree, natural gas. The hard one to crack is changing the gases we rely upon and currently use.

We need to find a climate-friendly energy source that overcomes those current end-use sectors that are hard to electrify as they need to require high-intensity heat levels than coal and natural gas provides. These high-grade industry heat sectors, known as hard-to-abate, such as steel and chemicals, some heavy transport, aviation, shipping, agriculture, and industrial feedstocks, need to place a clean energy carrier.

Enter Hydrogen, reinvigorated and repurposed based on Renewables and new Technology designs

Presently Hydrogen is the only feasible route for at-scale decarbonization. It is a highly versatile, clean, and flexible energy vector. Many have evaluated the potential of the hydrogen sector by sector that ramping up Hydrogen is needed to achieve any energy transition in an efficient and economically attractive way.

The problem today is that Hydrogen is simply not (yet) fit for large-scale deployment. Hydrogen’s accepted wisdom is a perfect solution as a clean energy carrier, feedstock, and fuel. It can facilitate the extensive scale integration of renewables through conversion from H2O to pure Hydrogen (H2). The potential to store Hydrogen as renewable Hydrogen can decarbonize the gas grid and can progressively convert incumbent natural gas and coal to this needed low-carbon through a gas reformation with carbon capture, utilization, and storage solutions (CCUS). It can tackle transport, heating, and cooling in the present energy-intensive industries and is relatively compatible with end-users and offering convenience in replacing the existing end-user application.

Hydrogen has been around for years.

It is part of the industrial process today. Today there is a hydrogen market well established, currently estimated at US$135b per year, growing 6 to 8% annually. It is 95% based on fossil fuel extraction due to the intensity of heat required. It is used in the hard-to-abate sectors of chemical refining, iron and steel production, and high-temperature heat applications, including melting, gasifying, drying and mobilizing a wide array of chemical reactions.  Natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen today, then coal, then oil. In processes through steam, methane reforming is for producing ammonia and methanol. It is within industries where CO2 is emitted in the atmosphere, although carbon capture for such products as urea fertilizer does happen. Many Industries today know a lot about hydrogen properties and have been “handling” them for decades. The challenge needs to change reliance on fossil fuels alongside hydrogen into processes where hydrogen is produced for clean energy or renewables.

The push today and in the future is Hydrogen will be based on clean energy sources, renewables.

Today predictions suggest an ambitious scenario for hydrogen deployment that Hydrogen could provide up to 24% of total energy demand alone by 2050 (BNEF analysis) and a similar share in one recent estimate provided by Hydrogen Europe for Europe.  The challenge is to balance the seeking of low-carbon electricity through fossil fuels with carbon capture, utilization, and storage with replacing it with green Hydrogen, all generated by renewables. The essential need is to achieve in any replacement of existing fuels or process a minimize disruption and replacement, the same or better return, or provide a compelling logic to make the necessary change such as a clear need to switch to clean energy for competitive or societal pressures.

Today Hydrogen solutions are going through varying levels of proof of concept.

Delivery beyond a promise that Hydrogen-based solutions are the viable replacement, there needs to be a massive ramping out in Hydrogen solutions’ scope, impact, and scale. These solutions need to keep pushing compelling business cases for gaining industrial commitments to clear energy-friendly alternatives, and this means to get there, there is required significant cost reduction in “all things Hydrogen.” to bring this into realization. Today this is the intent but not the reality.

The ability to scale is exciting in the next two or so decades.

The Ecosystem for Hydrogen needs to offer vision, substance, and all the necessary connected parts.

To undertake such a change from fossil fuels to renewable clean energy needs real organization; it needs a new system to come into play. Each sector cannot leverage something as radical as changing our energy system; it requires global collaboration. To leverage Hydrogen, we need a highly collaborative world based on an Ecosystem design set of principles.

The conditions of the change are driven by the Paris Agreement, signed in 2016 to reduce our greenhouse gases to reverse the global warming effect. To do this, we need climate-friendly solutions that reduce all the greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

To tackle something as significant as replacing an established energy system with another across all its parts of the value chain is daunting and incredibly complicated.

Complexity needs intense coordination.

To imagine how complex this change to delivering a shift of this magnitude away from fossil dependence into the Hydrogen economy in such an ambitious time scale of thirty years needs an exceptional design to give the Paris Agreement a chance to achieve its goals.

Can you imagine a Hydrogen Ecosystem being created and organized that needs to influence and shape national strategies for energy, provide education and understandings, suggest and provide regulations, standardization, infrastructure, and incentive suggestions?

Shifting the Energy System to Scaling Hydrogen

A shift to a critical energy vector is undoubtedly no easy task in a short period of giving the required momentum over the next 10 to 20 years. This current decade is designated “the H2 decade” to provide Hydrogen with the momentum, the pathway to scaling, and the focus it needs, so it can be an irreversible suggested force by 2030 to gain global recognition and adoption.

To build momentum in any evolution, you need forces that are pushing in the same direction. The ecosystem design lends itself to a structure that provides the environment for a collective response. Any dynamic environment needs to recognize its parts. Ecosystems need to be orchestrated and implemented in staged, evolutionary ways. Concepts and solutions need to be promoted, debated, and then tested, validated, where eventual winners are determined (Darwin’s evolutionary theory applies).  The proposed solutions need to have clear business case validation for making the change, validated in many diverse situations, so the scale and delivery is based on the promise made.

By forming an Ecosystem approach, in the partnerships needed, previous structures formed and built out over a hundred years or so can only succeed in having both the incumbent and disruptors working within the same Ecosystem.

This level of collaboration requires something special; it needs collaboration, trust, and shared belief.

An ecosystem to function requires all of its essential parts to function and be an active part, be these regulators, industry, and investors to build, relate, and invest in this ambitious concept. They all need to come together on a mutual understanding platform, shared commitment but recognizing each has a part to play, its special, specific, often unique part. The “combination effect” enables an ecosystem to feed off and rely on all within it, to give it a vibrancy and sustaining value to keep driving towards a goal that all those involved constantly keeps in their mind.

To deliver hydrogen and all the expectations requires a dedicated approach; it needs building in steps. It needs to adapt and adjust, but like any ecosystem, it needs adaptation to build resilience and show sustainability.

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