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“We think it’s a carbon-free energy vector, which can really help the change and will be needed to change the energy system,” says Karsten Wilbrand, a Senior Principal Scientist at Shell, talking about hydrogen power.

For Wilbrand, and the rest of Shell, hydrogen is essential to facilitate the world’s transition from carbon-emitting fossil fuels to a world of clean energy.

“We think it’s just not going to happen without hydrogen. It will be really helpful for transport, for storage, and for other different applications,” Wilbrand continues. 

But are Wilbrand and Shell right? Is hydrogen the often-overlooked missing link in the transition to sustainable transport?

Hydrogen as an Energy Carrier

“We see hydrogen as an energy carrier which you can use for storage. You can import it because it’s a molecule, it has advantages over the electron because electrons are very hard to store,” explains Wilbrand.

“For really large scale storage, we think molecules are better and we see hydrogen as an important energy carrier for the energy system.”

This understanding of hydrogen as fundamentally different to electrons is essential to getting to grips with Shell’s understanding of where hydrogen fits into its plans. 

We’re speaking to Wilbrand at the Shell Technology Centre in Hamburg, having just completed a tour of the site and heard from a range of company executives about how the oil company is transitioning to an almost fossil-free future.

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Shell’s Karsten Wilbrand (L) talking in front of the Forze Racing team’s Hydrogen-powered VIII car

“Industry will need a lot of hydrogen,” continues Wilbrand.

“Think about the steel industry, the chemicals industry, even for heating processes, they will use hydrogen. But we think the mix is going to be important. So using electricity, when it’s locally available from solar and wind when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, makes more sense because then you use it directly and you don’t have any losses.

“But, at the same time, you need to be sure you have some energy for when it’s dark outside and when the wind isn’t blowing. So, you need an energy carrier, and that’s how we want to set it up.”

This notion of using hydrogen as an energy carrier makes it a fundamentally different proposition from using electron-storing batteries – even if those batteries are being used to store energy at a house, for example. 

Hydrogen production is quite different, as well. Last January, Shell created its so-called “Green Energy Hub” in Hamburg that would work to extract hydrogen from water through electrolysis. 

The plant was built on the site of a decommissioned coal power plant and could produce up to 100 megawatts of hydrogen. By using solar power, the plant would strip hydrogen from water through electrolysis before then being stored and transported. The hydrogen is then turned back into electricity in the fuel cell of a vehicle, which is used to power it.

Don’t Argue with the Market

The similarities between hydrogen and oil in being able to store and easily move power around the world are certainly not lost on Shell.

We ask Wilbrand whether a commodities market for hydrogen might one day emerge as countries and companies that produce hydrogen look to shift it around the world at a profit.

“I think that is the future and that’s what most of the European hydrogen strategy is all about,” he explains. 

“It is clear that many countries, like Germany, for example, we will not have the ability to produce all our renewable energy ourselves.”

Countries that could produce a lot of green hydrogen – those with a lot of sunny or windy days, for example – could become the new energy exporters, akin to many Middle Eastern countries today.

Shell Forze Racing Viii

“Germany has a primary energy consumption of 3,000 terawatt-hours per year and currently we have 500 terawatt-hours of electricity demand, and we do 40-50% of that renewably,” says Wilbrand. 

“So, you see the potential needed growth of direct local production of renewable energy will not be possible and it means we have to import energy as we do today. We import like 75% of our energy from, say the Middle East, and from other countries where we buy coal or our gas from Russia.

“So, in the future, we will need a commodity market as we have it today with the fossils. We will have that with hydrogen, or there’s also a lot of discussion about other energy carriers like ammonia or methanol, which are like molecules made from hydrogen. So, we always say it could be hydrogen or derivatives of hydrogen.”

According to Wilbrand, there are a bunch of countries that could produce hydrogen and export it. North African countries, for example, are already connected to Europe by natural gas pipelines under the Mediterranean Sea and these could be adapted to hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen, meanwhile, could be sailed over on a ship across medium distances.

For countries looking to steal a march on the next big energy boom, investing in green hydrogen infrastructure might be the way to go.

What Drivers Want

Of course, for Shell, it all depends on what companies and consumers want to use to power their vehicles and their operations. 

“In the end, we will offer what our customers want to use,” explains Wilbrand.

“So, we are a very customer-centric company in that sense. And we see the demand for electric mobility growing. So that’s why we are pushing very hard in rolling out our charging infrastructure because we see our customers like driving electric cars, they like the charging. So that’s, that’s what is coming first.”

Shell is working with its partners on hydrogen trucks and plans to have 25 on the roads this year. In 2023, this number is set to quadruple. 

However, the company also has 100 hydrogen refuelling stations in Germany for passenger cars. 

“In the end,” says Wilbrand, “we want to have a pan-European hydrogen network so that you can really go across Europe.”

Shell used to be an oil company but now, according to Wilbrand, it is well on its way to becoming a hydrogen company. 

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