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the solution to decarbonize the economy?

Hydrogen burns without directly emitting carbon “Recalls France Strategy in a report devoted to hydrogen and its costs, published in May 2022. An interesting property that could allow countries around the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

But, before making it a major lever for decarbonization, Maddyness wanted to know more about this subject in the company of Aurélie Orcibal, head of hydrogen strategy at EDF. How is it produced? What is it used for ? Important questions because 80 million tons of this gas are used each year in the world, especially in industry. Three industrial uses are particularly energy-intensive: oil refining, ammonia production and methanol production, two derivatives that are themselves used in the manufacture of fertilizers, plastics, insulation, etc.

Industrial hydrogen, used for a hundred years, is 95% derived from fossil fuels. Its use is in fact a strong emitter of CO2”, recalls France Hydrogène in the 2021 edition of its Hydrogen in France report. Today, in fact, hydrogen is produced either from natural gas or from coal. We then speak of gray hydrogen or black hydrogen.

Towards a decarbonation of hydrogen

Also, hydrogen becomes interesting in the context of climate protection when its production is low-carbon. It could considerably reduce the carbon footprint of high-emitting industries first, but also be used for new uses. A report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in June 2019, highlights, for example, the importance of hydrogen made from the electrolysis of water in the decarbonization of the steel industry. It can replace coke (coal) today used to transform iron ore and very emitter of CO2. Similarly, ammonia obtained from carbon-free hydrogen could be used to manufacture e-fuels for maritime and air transport.

It therefore remains to be seen how decarbonated hydrogen is produced and whether the known techniques are viable. Two main low-carbon production routes are being considered by energy players. That of production by water electrolysis, and that of the capture of CO2 during the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels. Electrolysis makes it possible to produce hydrogen from water and electricity, but for it to be effectively low-carbon, the electrolyser must itself be supplied with low-carbon electricity. . Three possibilities in this case: renewable sources, nuclear power plants or direct supply from the electricity grid in countries where electricity is very low in carbon, such as in France.

At EDF, we are betting on electrolytic hydrogen, which will allow us to really get out of our dependence on fossil fuelsconfides the head of the Hydrogen strategy. The implementation of carbon capture processes seems more interesting to us for decarbonizing sectors such as the cement industry, which currently have no other mature solution to drastically reduce their footprint on the climate. »

A solution to mature and challenge

To produce electrolytic hydrogen massively, it will be necessary to be able to produce electrolyzers on a scale, reliable and at an acceptable cost. However, this is not yet the case today: indeed, producing fossil hydrogen costs around 1.50 euros per kilo, when producing the same kilo from an electrolyser costs between 10 and 20 euros. . This therefore requires public support to trigger a real change of scale in order to reach acceptable costs of around 3 euros per kilo by 2030.

Be that as it may, hydrogen, even low-carbon, is not the alpha and omega of the decarbonization of the economy. ” The most relevant solution remains direct electrification in most sectorsbelieves Aurélie Orcibal. For example, when we talk about cars, it is more relevant to make 100% electric battery vehicles, than cars equipped with hydrogen fuel cells.“Because the performance is much better by focusing on the batteries. And we know that their lifespan is longer than we think, not to mention the recycling channels that are developing and making it possible to build an increasingly virtuous life cycle.

On the other hand, decarbonized hydrogen has a key role to play for the decarbonization of uses that cannot be done exclusively by direct electrification: this is for example the case of certain industries (steelmaking, production of ammonia and methanol …) and part of heavy transport, thanks to hydrogen derivatives (e-fuels) which will make it possible in particular to decarbonize maritime and air transport “, explains Aurélie Orcibal.

A complementary solution to other energy sources

If the uses of carbon-free hydrogen develop massively, the production of electrolytic hydrogen in large quantities will require equally large quantities of carbon-free electricity (renewable or nuclear). These quantities will be added to those already needed to decarbonise our economies.

Finally, we must not forget that when we want to decarbonize a sector, we must not only focus on the substitution of a product or process by a less carbon-intensive vector. For example, hydrogen is used to make ammonia and ammonia is used in particular to make fertilizers. We must therefore first ask ourselves the question of the more rational use of fertilisers. This is also true for steel, for which we must also continue to develop recycling, for example.

If low-carbon hydrogen is therefore one of the keys to decarbonization and limiting global warming, it complements other solutions.

Maddyness, EDF media partner

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