Can Green Hydrogen Really Help Heavy Industry to Decarbonise?
Heavy industry is under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, and it’s begun harnessing hydrogen to do it. The world’s second-largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal, recently successfully tested the use of green hydrogen to reduce iron ore in Canada. Engineers replaced seven per cent of the natural gas used with hydrogen made from renewable electricity, or green hydrogen. It’s a small but significant milestone for an industry that’s highly carbon-intensive and accounts for seven to nine per cent of all direct emissions from fossil fuels.
In October, Volvo unveiled the world’s first electric truck made out of green steel. It weighs eight tonnes, is designed to be used in quarries and mines, and was made by replacing coking coal with green hydrogen.
These are small steps, but steel manufacturers need to halve their emissions by the middle of the century in order to hit global net-zero emission targets. The companies are constrained by expensive existing infrastructure and the high volumes of renewable energy that are required. For example, Europe currently produces around 100 million tonnes of steel a year using carbon. To convert all that to using hydrogen would require about 400 terawatt hours of electricity, or about 15 per cent of all the energy Europe consumes today, and all of it would have to come from renewable sources.
The EU and the UK have both published ambitious plans to develop a hydrogen economy. Manufacturer British Steel has pledged to deliver net zero steel by the year 2050, collaborating with EDF, University College London and the Materials Processing Institute as part of its efforts to decarbonise.
Like steel makers, cement and petrochemical manufacturers are under pressure to utilise cleaner hydrogen. They all have huge carbon footprints due to the extreme heat needed during production. The cement manufacturer Hanson UK is working with Swansea University to replace natural gas with green hydrogen in burners at its plant in Port Talbot in southern Wales, while chemicals group Ineos is creating a clean hydrogen supply hub in Norway, by producing green hydrogen through the electrolysis of water.
But making greener hydrogen more widespread requires big-picture thinking from policymakers, including government subsidies to kickstart development, and investment in power grids and infrastructure. EU nations have committed to a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, so despite the financial, regulatory and infrastructure challenges, heavy industry may have little choice but to forge ahead with hydrogen.