Hydrogen economy lacks action in energy transition

Attitudes about nuclear power have changed but structural barriers to investment remain, says Ernest J Moniz, former US Secretary of Energy at Temasek’s Ecosperity in Singapore.
Hydrogen economy lacks action in energy transition

The development of a hydrogen economy has been a slow process, hampered further by the Russia-Ukraine crisis, but there is promise for a green, or even turquoise, future, according to Ernest J Moniz, president and chief executive of The Energy Futures Initiative and former US Secretary of Energy.

Ernest Moniz

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused some bumps in the road in the energy transition, and the use of coal is still on the rise across developed and emerging markets, Moniz said at the Ecosperity opening dinner on Tuesday (June 7) organised by Temasek. But he is optimistic about the use of hydrogen as the world eventually moves away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources.

He’s particularly enthusiastic about ‘turquoise’ hydrogen, which produces the chemical using high heat in a non-oxygen atmosphere to produce less harmful emissions. Traditionally, hydrogen today, or ‘grey’ hydrogen, is created using steam in a process that produces carbon dioxide. The process that creates turquoise hydrogen produces solid carbon instead of CO2.

“[’Turquoise’ hydrogen] is pretty inexpensive, relative to the other options,” he said. “There’s a market for that [solid] carbon: tires, ink, soil improvements, some plastics, etc. It's got a lot of options. And furthermore, it has the option of switching to biomethane as the source, in which case you'd have a negative carbon process.”

However, he hopes to see quicker development of gas and renewables, and faster movement of the hydrogen economy.

“A lot of the conditions for a real market are not there with hydrogen at the moment. But I think that's the job – to streamline regulatory constraints while still obviously protecting the environment.”

In addition, attitudes towards nuclear power have changed, but whether actions will be taken remains to be seen, he said. Nuclear power plants are able to create hydrogen in less pollutive ways, and investors have begun to warm to technology after the EU said it would be added to the green taxonomy next year.

“Frankly, despite the change in attitude, there remains to be an uncertain future. One example is the fact that the management of the spare fuel has not been resolved. It's all still sitting at reactor sites. So the attitudes have changed, but it's still a mixed bag. And I don't see the actions yet matching the attitudes,” Moniz said.

“There are still major barriers to investments in getting new nuclear built. Small modular reactors are the presumed favourite, but frankly, some of those have been ready to deploy for many years, and none of them has been deployed. So we still have structural barriers to the investment community willing to put in what is very, very significant capital.”

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