How Green Hydrogen Could End The Fossil Fuel Era

As climate change accelerates, finding clean alternatives to fossil fuels is more urgent than ever. Social entrepreneur Vaitea Cowan believes green hydrogen is the answer. Watch as she shares her team’s work mass producing electrolyzers — devices that separate water into its molecular components: hydrogen and oxygen — and shows how they could help make green, carbon-free fuel affordable and accessible for everyone. “This is how we end the fossil fuel era,” Cowan says.

We’re going on a field trip together. We’re going back to middle school, to chemistry class. Do you remember this? It was an experiment we did with salt water, a battery and two pencils. Guess what?

The reaction you witnessed then is a key to tackling climate change. Yes, at 14 years old, we already knew. And today, we have the means to replace fossil fuels with green hydrogen. Let’s walk through this. The experiment I’m alluding to is called water electrolysis. And it is a way to create hydrogen. On Earth, hydrogen is found in the greatest quantities in water: H2O. And when you use renewable electricity to split water into H and O, that’s green hydrogen. And the device creating this reaction is called an electrolyzer. There are other colors of hydrogen out there, but they use fossil fuels. So we’re not going to talk about those today, they’ll only make climate change worse. We are talking about green hydrogen, which is 100 percent clean. And the quickest path to scaling green hydrogen is by mass producing electrolyzers. But first, why do we need green hydrogen? When we look at our global energy consumption today, only 20 percent comes in the form of electricity or electrons. This means the remaining 80 percent of our world’s energy use is in the forms of molecules.

And while the world is making rapid progress in greening our electricity, we need to look towards our molecules as well. Think about your industry, transport, heating and cooling sectors. They’re all powered by molecules. And yes, this means largely by fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. We won’t be able to electrify all of our sectors. And here’s why. Let’s start with an example from the industrial sector. Molecules create the reaction, not electrons. To make steel the old way we first mine iron ore, then burn coal to remove the oxygen from the iron mix.

Seven to nine percent of our world’s CO2 emissions come from this process. It’s the coal that provides the molecule, creating the reaction to get rid of the oxygen. Electrons can’t do that. But what they can do is power the device that creates green hydrogen. And this clean molecule will create the reaction, attract the oxygen and emit only water in the process. So by changing the process, we can eliminate up to 95 percent of our CO2 emissions. And today, major European steel manufacturers are already building green hydrogen-based steel production processes. (Applause) That’s just one of the countless industrial processes, small and big, that need a molecule. Another example, let’s say, that we can’t use electricity for everything-everything is weight. Take the aviation sector. An 80-passenger aircraft flying on batteries. Kind of impossible. One would need more batteries just to fly the battery. Hydrogen planes, though, they’re taking off emission-free.

This is a 20-seater aircraft, and its commercial flights are scheduled two years from now. And by 2026, we’ll be welcoming the 80-seater. And these are just two examples of how we can end our reliance on fossil fuels. The world is turning to green hydrogen because it is effectively coupling those hard-to-decarbonize sectors with green electricity. An electrolyzer connected to solar and wind power generation is transforming green electrons into green molecules. Green hydrogen is transforming our renewable electricity into an energy carrier that is extremely versatile. And today, this clean molecule is already being used in a wide range of applications. It can be combusted directly as a fuel and emits zero carbon emissions. It’s also being turned into hydrogen-derived fuels like green ammonia, green methanol, which can fuel global shipping.

Green hydrogen is being stored across seasons without losing energy, like here in the Alps. And it can then be used in a fuel cell to create electricity emitting only water, like in this remote village in Malaysia. Hydrogen is one of the most energy-dense molecules, and by mass it contains three times as much energy than diesel. So you might be wondering, well, why aren’t we using this already everywhere? And so previously, the reason was the cost of green electricity. But that’s no longer the bottleneck. So what’s the challenge? It’s the speed, scale and cost of making these green hydrogen generators. Luckily, people are already working on making green hydrogen a reality. Because to make green hydrogen the fuel source of the future, it needs to be cheaper than fossil fuels. And this means electrolyzers are going to need to be really, really cheap.

We started Enapter in 2017 with this one goal in mind and urgency in our hearts. And so we chose a means that is a bit different from how others in the industry proceed. We turned to economic history for approaches that scaled fast and reduced prices significantly. And the answer was clear. If you want to take a solution around the globe as quickly as possible, you need to make it a standardized, mass-produced commodity. A product that’s easy to make and use. And so some believe we need larger machines. But we believe the electrolyser should be a standardized, mass-produced commodity. A product that can make green hydrogen anywhere for anyone. So to better understand our approach, let me draw an analogy. Up until the ’80s, mainframe computers, they were considered the future of computing. They were huge and complex equipment, and they were designed for businesses only.

Then came the PC, and at first people laughed and wondered: Why would we ever need such a tiny computer? But ultimately, it disrupted the industry. And today, data centers, they use blade servers, which is PC technology. Why? Because the PC became a compact, standardized and mass-producible product that was cheap to make, easy to build, and that could be used in any kinds of context. It’s time to do this with green hydrogen. To this end, Enapter is designing all of its electrolyzers as products and not projects. At the heart of our electrolyser is an electrolysis core generating green hydrogen, and it is the foundation for all of our products. And we’re taking these core stacks and other components of our electrolyzers into mass production. And so instead of building larger electrolyzers, we’re building compact ones that can be combined to achieving any hydrogen quantity needed. And we believe this is the quickest way to scale green hydrogen and drive down its price. And the next step is going into mass production.

This is our campus. And it’s going to be fully powered by renewables, of course, and that’s where we’ll be tackling speed, scale and cost. By focusing on one single core size, we can leverage massive economies of scale and drive down the price of green hydrogen. Because that’s what it’s all about: making green hydrogen cheaper than fossil fuels. We have the means to make green hydrogen the fuel source of the future. It’s time to listen to our 14-year-old selves and the 14-year-olds of today. Our generation has a unique opportunity. It’s time for the next industrial revolution. We can build our world’s energy supplies sustainably, made of a lot of green electricity and a wave of green hydrogen molecules. This is how we end the fossil fuel era. Thank you.

Vaitea Cowan

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