What is Hydrogen Power?

By Kirsteen Mackay


Hydrogen power presents a clean and renewable energy solution. Discover how hydrogen power works, its renewability, and the roadblocks it faces.

The Potential and Challenges of Hydrogen Power

Hydrogen power is the energy produced by harnessing the potential of hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant chemical element in the universe. When hydrogen combusts in the presence of oxygen, it releases energy in the form of heat, which can be converted into mechanical power. Unlike many conventional fuels, hydrogen's combustion produces water as its only byproduct, making it a clean energy source.

How Does Hydrogen Energy Work?

The primary mechanism of deriving energy from hydrogen revolves around the process known as electrochemical conversion. This involves a device called a fuel cell. Within a fuel cell, hydrogen is introduced to the anode, while oxygen (from air) is introduced to the cathode. A catalyst at the anode breaks hydrogen into electrons and protons. While the electrons move through an external circuit, providing electric power, the protons migrate through a membrane to the cathode, where they reunite with electrons and oxygen to form water. This seamless process is what makes hydrogen energy a compelling proposition for a cleaner future.

How Many Energy Levels Does Hydrogen Have?

From a quantum physics perspective, hydrogen's atomic structure plays a significant role in its potential as an energy source.

Hydrogen's atom comprises one electron orbiting its nucleus. This electron occupies various energy levels, or "shells." The simplest and most prevalent form of hydrogen, known as protium, has its electron primarily in the first energy level. As an electron absorbs energy, it can move to higher energy levels. However, when it returns to its ground state, it releases energy in the form of light. This fundamental understanding of hydrogen's energy levels is crucial for applications in fields like spectroscopy.

The hydrogen atom's simple structure, with just one proton and one electron, provides a rich playground for understanding the fascinating and often counterintuitive principles of quantum mechanics. Its energy levels, transitions, and spectra have been pivotal in developing modern physics theories and applications.

This electron doesn't move in simple orbits but instead exists in specific energy states, described by quantum numbers. When the electron changes states, it either absorbs or emits light, leading to unique patterns called spectra. Modern physics uses equations, like the Schrödinger equation, to describe the behavior of this electron, showing us that instead of clear paths (or orbits), the electron has probable regions (called orbitals) where it can be found.

Is Hydrogen Power Renewable?

Hydrogen power stands out not just for its cleanliness but also for its renewability. Since hydrogen does not naturally occur in large amounts on Earth, it must be extracted from compounds like water or hydrocarbons. When derived from water using renewable energy sources, hydrogen becomes a sustainable fuel. The cycle of producing hydrogen from water and then converting it back to water when it's used as fuel ensures that hydrogen power can be a renewable energy form.

How is Green Hydrogen Produced?

'Green hydrogen' is a term that's gaining traction in energy circles. It refers to hydrogen produced exclusively using renewable energy sources, ensuring zero emissions throughout the production process. The most common method is through electrolysis. When electricity, generated from renewable sources like wind or solar, is passed through water, it splits the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is then captured, stored, and used as a clean energy carrier.

Read our article on hydrogen as a renewable energy and find out more about the different hydrogen colors.

Hydrogen Power Plant

The culmination of hydrogen's potential is seen in hydrogen power plants. These facilities convert hydrogen into electricity using fuel cells or combustion processes. While the concept is similar to traditional power plants, the difference lies in the source. Instead of relying on coal or gas, hydrogen power plants harness the abundant element, ensuring cleaner and more sustainable energy production.

Hydrogen power plants can be owned by various entities, and the ownership is not limited to one specific group. Here's a general overview:

  • Private Companies: Many private companies, especially those in the energy sector, invest in hydrogen technology and own hydrogen production facilities. Companies such as Air Products, Linde, and Air Liquide are some of the major players in the hydrogen industry.

    • In 2006, a joint venture between BP (NYSE: BP) and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO) initiated the Hydrogen Energy California Project (HECA). The project's interests were later acquired by SCS Energy, a private power plant development company based in Concord, Massachusetts. Although ambitiously planned, HECA faced challenges like high costs, public opposition, and regulatory hurdles. By 2016, the project had not materialized and was no longer pursued.

    • In 2021, construction started in French Guiana on a pioneering renewables project that integrates the world's largest hydrogen power plant with solar panels, batteries, an electrolyser, and a fuel cell. The Centrale Électrique de l’Ouest Guyanais (CEOG) project will ensure consistent renewable power throughout the day and night, thanks to French Guiana's stable daylight hours. Siemens Energy (OTC: SMNEY) will operate the €170m facility, co-owned by Meridiam, Société Anonyme de la Raffinerie des Antilles, and HDF Energy. The project, set to be fully operational by 2024, promises to produce electricity at a cost comparable to or lower than local diesel sources.

  • Utilities: Some utility companies, particularly those that are forward-looking and investing in alternative energy sources, may own or operate hydrogen power plants or integrate hydrogen into their existing operations.

  • Public Entities: In some countries, the government may invest in hydrogen infrastructure as part of its green energy initiative or energy independence goals. These can be owned wholly by the government or in partnership with private companies.

  • Joint Ventures: Given the significant capital required to set up and operate hydrogen production facilities, some companies form joint ventures to share costs and expertise.

  • Research Institutions and Universities: While they might not own "power plants" in the commercial sense, many research institutions and universities have pilot plants or smaller-scale hydrogen production facilities for research and development purposes.

  • Automobile Manufacturers: Companies like Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda, which produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, have vested interests in the hydrogen ecosystem and might invest in hydrogen production or partner with hydrogen producers.

If you are interested in a comprehensive look at companies investing in hydrogen technology, read our article on hydrogen companies to invest in

What are Hydrogen Power’s Limitations?

Hydrogen power, while promising in many aspects, does have several limitations:

  • Production Costs: Currently, producing hydrogen, especially green hydrogen (which is derived from renewable sources), can be expensive. The electrolysis process, in particular, requires a lot of electricity.

  • Storage and Distribution: Hydrogen has a low energy density, meaning it takes up a lot of space for the amount of energy it provides. Storing and transporting hydrogen requires either high-pressure tanks, low temperatures, or chemical reactions, all of which pose challenges.

  • Infrastructure: The current energy infrastructure worldwide is predominantly tailored to fossil fuels. Transitioning to hydrogen would require a significant investment in new infrastructure, such as refueling stations, pipelines, and more.

  • Energy Loss: When converting electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity (as in fuel cells), there are energy losses, making it less efficient than using the electricity directly.

  • Safety Concerns: Hydrogen is flammable, and its wide flammability range makes it a potential safety risk. However, with proper safety measures, these risks can be mitigated.

  • Source of Production: While hydrogen itself is clean when burned (producing only water as a byproduct), the methods used to produce it aren't always clean. Currently, the majority of hydrogen production is from steam methane reforming of natural gas, which emits a significant amount of CO2.

  • Material Limitations: Hydrogen can make certain materials brittle, which poses challenges for storage tank and pipeline materials. This phenomenon, known as hydrogen embrittlement, can lead to failures in the infrastructure.

  • Competing Technologies: As the race for clean energy sources heats up, hydrogen power faces competition from other technologies such as batteries, which are rapidly advancing in efficiency and decreasing in cost.

While hydrogen has great potential as a clean and abundant energy carrier, several challenges need to be addressed for it to play a significant role in the global energy mix. Continued research and development are critical to overcoming these barriers. 

Nevertheless, Hydrogen power stands at the cusp of reshaping our energy landscape. With its clean combustion, renewability, and promising advancements in green production, it signals a future where energy is both abundant and sustainable. As we deepen our understanding and expand our capabilities, hydrogen power could very well lead the charge toward a greener tomorrow. Read our detailed guide on investing in hydrogen to get all the facts and be ahead in the world of clean energy. 


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Author: Kirsteen Mackay

This article does not provide any financial advice and is not a recommendation to deal in any securities or product. Investments may fall in value and an investor may lose some or all of their investment. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.

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