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Hydrogen’s Energy Promise

Author Marco Alverà says that if we are serious about getting to net zero, we’ve got to think big. And the biggest idea is to embrace hydrogen.

Book interview

Hydrogen is just a means of storing solar energy,” says Marco Alverà, “it’s as simple as that.” It’s not as versatile as electricity, probably won’t have the same sort of business-to-consumer profile that electricity has, and will certainly be one of those technologies that operates ‘behind the curtain’. When it comes to how it will heat our homes, Alverà thinks that “the jury is still out on that”. What he does know is that as the price of solar energy decreases, hydrogen will – or should – play a bigger part in how we power the world with clean energy.

Author of ‘The Hydrogen Revolution’, Alverà has spent more than two decades in the energy industry and is currently CEO of Snam, one of the world’s largest energy infrastructure operators. A leading advocate for hydrogen, he is also author of ‘Generation H: Healing the Climate with Hydrogen’. Both in his new book and in person, Alverà has a talent for expressing vast challenges and complex concepts in simple terms. For him, one of the key reasons for bringing hydrogen into the mix is simply the economics of solar.

“This has been my journey in energy,” says Alverà. “When I first started in this field, solar energy cost about €1,000/MWh, with electricity from coal and gas between €60 and €70/MWh. I thought that renewable hydrogen made from solar was beautiful – ideal – but way too expensive.” Looking at the present, “we have solar at €10/MWh in sunny places. No technology can compete with it because it is static. We can apply to solar the development path of digitalisation, which enhances the productivity and performance. It has no moving parts and there are plenty of sunny places.”

Germany is so notoriously overcast that in the vocabulary of renewable energy it has its own term for winter – ‘Dunkelflaute’ – which translates literally as ‘dark dull’. Critically, Germany also has, according to Alverà, “an ambitious and bold hydrogen strategy”. He describes Germany as a “quintessential” manufacturing country: “It’s a country that produces steel, cement, plastics, fertilisers and cars. It’s also a country that’s running on coal, nuclear and diesel. It doesn’t have a lot of sun or sea and it’s densely populated.” These factors, along with a tendency for nimbyism, combine to mean that Germany is, “really struggling to build renewables. And they have the Dunkelflaute – long spells with no sun and no wind. In winter they have snow that settles on the solar panels in the Black Forest, which is called ‘black’ for a reason.”

Finding itself having to “suddenly exit coal, exit nuclear and exit diesel”, Germany’s hand has effectively been forced, and it will need to import renewable energy. Alverà goes on to explain that according to current statistics, the cost of importing hydrogen via ship could be 5-10 times more than by pipeline. All of which means that in situations such as the one German finds itself in, “a lot needs to happen. But I don’t think that we need a lot of politics or subsidies.” When it comes to a hydrogen future: “We just need to do what we did for natural gas,” which was essentially to connect the source of energy to where it was needed.

Imagine a time not too far in the future – perhaps in 2050 – when the news headlines declare that the looming shadow of climate change has been banished for good. The planet has stabilised. Rainforest and reef thrive in a world at ecological equilibrium. This may sound like science fiction, but it could be reality, says Marco Alverà in his thought-provoking and incisive ‘The Hydrogen Revolution’. His book explores a pathway to Net-Zero by embracing element H, atomic number 1. Alverà argues that hydrogen is the missing link between today’s energy mix and a truly clean future, making the case for it ensuring reliable, green and consistent power to fuel commercial transport, trains and aeroplanes. But we need to act fast, he says, as he lays out his three-point action plan for companies, governments and consumers. Compelling stuff.

‘The Hydrogen Revolution’ explains how, by doing little more than bottling sunlight, we can find the missing link between ourselves and a clean energy future. The beauty of hydrogen lies in its versatility. You can do almost anything with it: store it, transport it, pipe it and even burn it (and the only by-product of the reaction is water). Existing infrastructure can be repurposed to move it around the world. All we need to do is manage the costs.

There could be a PR job to do, too. In his chapter on safety, Alverà refers to a consumer poll that confirms when people hear the word ‘hydrogen’ their minds instinctively go to the Hindenburg disaster or the nuclear H-bomb. As you read his footnote that says, “Of course the tankful of hydrogen in your car is not going to become an H-bomb”, you can’t help wondering how many times he’s had to remind people of how science works. In fact, there have only been a couple of minor hydrogen-fuel accidents to date in South Korea and Norway. Despite the public’s general wariness of hydrogen, another poll reveals that most citizens would travel on a hydrogen-powered bus; a finding Alverà ruefully puts down to people trusting buses more than the fuel that powers them.

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Hydrogen, says Alverà, is simply a means of “connecting solar energy from sunny locations to ships, trains, trucks and factories”. But its success is dependent on market economics. For the reader of ‘The Hydrogen Revolution’ this is neatly summed up in what Alverà describes as “the essence of the book” on page 229, where an innocuous-looking table (taking up no more than a quarter of a page) tabulates forecasts for the descending cost of solar energy. This descent into the realistic range it is in now “has only happened in the past three years”, which means that “not many colleagues of mine in this space have ten-euro solar in their mindsets. People haven’t realised this, which is why I wrote the book.”

You could argue, Alverà continues, that ‘The Hydrogen Revolution’ is already obsolete. This is because there has already been a solar auction in Saudi Arabia won at $10.4/MWh, within range of Alverà’s forecast for prices a decade into the future. “Why hasn’t hydrogen happened before? Why isn’t it happening now? It’s because the fall in price of solar is just so recent. But it will change everything.”


Inexhaustible molecule

November 2018: I was in my office in Milan almost at the end of a long day. As CEO of Snam, an energy infrastructure company with natural gas pipelines in Europe and the Middle East, part of my job is to think about what the global energy system might look like, and what we might need to build to make it happen. Among my last appointments was the Snam scenarios team with a study that showed how Europe would reduce its CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. The idea was to look at a host of clean energy sources – solar and wind power, biomass and hydrogen – and how much each might cost to produce, transport, store and use. Armed with this knowledge, a model could figure out the least costly combination of these sources in 2050. As I looked through the study, I noticed there seemed to be a lot of hydrogen in 2050. An awful lot, really, for something that was almost absent from the energy mix and the policy discourse.

I had known about hydrogen for a long time, ever since we’d made it from water in science class at school, using one of those rectangular prism-shaped 9-volt batteries. I’d also encountered the dream of endless hydrogen energy when, at 17, I’d read Jules Verne’s ‘Mysterious Island’. In the novel, he talks about how “water will one day be employed as fuel”, and how the “hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable”. Reading Verne was how my slow-burn love affair with humanity’s inexhaustible, rewardable molecule started. Yet when I went to my first hydrogen conference in 2004, almost 130 years after ‘Mysterious Island’ was written, Verne’s vision seemed as far away as ever.

Source: E&T

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