Despite obstacles and problems to solve, hydrogen technology is experiencing unprecedented momentum due to its ability to accelerate decarbonization processes in strategic sectors. It is the most abundant element in the universe and could become the centerpiece of our environmentally sustainable future. Discovered in 1783, hydrogen can only be found on Earth combined with other elements, in liquid compounds, mineral substances, hydrocarbons and biological molecules. There is only one way to obtain pure hydrogen: break it down from the molecules in which it is combined.
The most common processes currently available to extract it are steam reforming and water electrolysis (hydrolysis). In the first case, hydrogen is extracted from methane or other hydrocarbons. With hydrolysis, hydrogen is obtained from the water molecule by breaking it down and separating the oxygen by using a very powerful flow of electric current. Each of the two technologies has a different level of CO2 emissions, and that is why hydrogen is classified according to certain colors, from black (most polluting), to green (zero emission). However, till now there are not comprehensive infrastructure, extensive pipeline networks or commercial hydrogen transport vessels. Another critical issue is how hydrogen is produced and transported for various uses, i.e., that is the selected energy carrier. The best solution will depend on volumes required and the geographic distribution of demand and supply. At a more advanced stage, the challenge will lie in the process of converting existing gas networks and end users (industrial, commercial, and residential) to pure hydrogen networks.
The public and private sectors will have to coordinate their activities in planning, financing, and implementation phases. The indisputable fact is that hydrogen can provide clean energy in strategic green and digital transformation sectors even outside industry such as transportation, construction, and electricity generation. Let's analyze them in brief.
Hydrogen in transportation
Hydrogen mobility is now a reality. With a charging time of less than five minutes and a range of up to 500 km, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are efficient for long-distance travel and these trips represent 75% of CO2 emissions in the transportation sector. However, talking about hydrogen as a strategic solution to decarbonize the transportation sector is still premature, because obvious limitations persist. First and foremost, energy efficiency for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is less than a half of battery electrics vehicles.
Another factor hindering the deployment of hydrogen in transportation systems is the low efficiency associated with the production, distribution, and utilization process.
So that, at least in the short and medium term, hydrogen-powered cars, buses, and trucks are likely to remain rare and inefficient, since hydrogen will still be produced mainly from polluting hydrocarbons.
Hydrogen in construction sector
The construction sector is among the most energy-intensive industries. Most economic revitalization strategies in recent years have promoted and supported actions to upgrade the building stock to increase its energy efficiency and reduce its environmental impacts.
In Europe, the residential and commercial stock, which is increasingly obsolete both structurally and systems terms, is responsible for 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions (source: European Commission).
In a historical phase of geopolitical instability and sharply rising prices, it is crucial to focus on electrification and building upgrading. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% within 2030 as set by the EU, or risk missing the energy transition train and further burdening citizens' pockets.
For this reason, the European Union has included among its strategic priorities the development of a green hydrogen supply chain, produced using energy from renewable sources, which will become increasingly crucial in construction.
Hydrogen in energy sector
Germany first and then France have announced a massive investment in the development and production of hydrogen to be used for energy needs, from electricity to transportation. Estimates by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking - a public-private partnership born out of the synergy among the European Commission, industry, and research bodies - say that hydrogen in the EU can reach 24% of end energy demand and create 5.4 million jobs by 2050.
The European Commission has launched the Green New Deal challenge to decarbonize Europe with a public and private funds plan - for a total of 1 trillion euros - to boost the use of renewable energy. In Italy, European House Ambrosetti and Snam, in a recent study, indicated as a potential goal to achieve 23% of national energy needs to be produced with hydrogen by 2050. This would allow the industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 28%. Additional initiatives to support the hydrogen supply chain include subsidized installations of micro-cogenerators and those planned by the Ministry of Economic Development that indicate the installation of 5 GW of electrolyzers in Italy by 2030.