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How do we secure the water supply needed for hydrogen production?

January 23, 2024

By Nathan Ashcroft and Jillian Flanagan

Hydrogen will play a key role in decarbonizing our energy infrastructure. But where do we get the water that we need to produce it?

The energy transition will demand several upgrades and modifications to our energy infrastructure. We must make these changes and find sustainable solutions if we hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and combat the effects of climate change.

The good news? As leaders in industrial water and energy, we are already seeing major efforts to decarbonize our energy infrastructure. We are seeing more integration of renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower. We are seeing more investment in carbon capture technologies. And we are beginning to modernize our electrical grid in a way that can provide reliable energy to communities in need.

One of the other key trends we are seeing is the development of hydrogen production methods. Why? Because hydrogen can serve as an alternative fuel that releases no GHGs during combustion. This has led industry experts to believe that hydrogen can help us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and drive the energy transition forward. 

By transitioning away from traditional sources of energy like natural gas or other fossil fuels, we can power homes, vehicles, and even planes with clean burning hydrogen fuel. 

While there have been great strides made in hydrogen production, there are still many questions facing the industry. One of the biggest challenges facing hydrogen production methods? Water. Why? Because we need a large amount of water to produce hydrogen. And it has experts wondering: How can we secure the water supply we need to produce bountiful amounts of clean-burning hydrogen?

So, let’s review hydrogen and what we’re seeing in our work: What it is, how it’s produced, and how we can source water for it. We’ll also look at the current state of hydrogen industry in the United States and around the world.

A brief background on the colors of hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Plus, it is light, nontoxic, and reactive. These attributes make hydrogen an efficient energy carrier. If we can transition away from fossil fuels and toward a form of energy like hydrogen, we’ll have the ability to reduce emissions in a meaningful way.

There are a few different methods to produce hydrogen. We categorize these methods as the “colors” of hydrogen. Some of them have been around for a while, and some are relatively new approaches. Let’s review the colors of hydrogen:

  • Grey hydrogen is primarily produced using natural gas or other fossil fuels and does not implement carbon-capture technologies. This leads to the release of a significant amount of GHG emissions into the atmosphere—and varying opposition to its use.
  • Blue hydrogen is also primarily produced using natural gas or other fossil fuels. However, carbon capture is implemented to reduce the carbon footprint of the generation facility.
  • Green hydrogen is produced from water using renewable energy sources and releases no GHGs in the production process. As you can likely guess, green hydrogen is highly sought after as we press forward with the energy transition. We can pair it with solar, wind, or hydropower facilities.
  • Turquoise hydrogen is a newer development that we are seeing in the industry. And it can help us solve multiple problems at once. Turquoise hydrogen is produced through methane pyrolysis and results in hydrogen and solid carbon. We can use the carbon to create graphite—a critical mineral used in the production of electric vehicles.
  • Pink hydrogen, also referred to as red or purple hydrogen, is produced using nuclear energy. We’re still developing this type of hydrogen production, but it is feasible and could lead to large-scale energy production.

Now that we’ve explored the different hydrogen production methods, you may be wondering: what does this have to do with water? So, let’s explore where water comes into the hydrogen-production process and why a large amount is necessary.

The process of electrolysis needs water of extremely high purity to keep the equipment free of foulants.

Why is water needed for hydrogen production?

Industry experts, and many of our clients, have spent the last few years trying to understand how to make hydrogen at commercial production levels. Now it’s time to move from concept design to feasibility and detailed design of hydrogen-production facilities. We must understand how to make the production equipment the most reliable it can be. And that’s where the water comes in.

One of the most prominent ways to produce hydrogen is through a process called electrolysis. How does it work? Well, the process uses electricity—whether from fossil fuels, renewables, or nuclear energy—to split water into its two elements: hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is released, and the hydrogen is harnessed and used for energy. But the water is gone. And in a world where we are facing a climate crisis and a water crisis at the same time, we must figure out a way to produce hydrogen while sustainably managing our water supply.

Electrolysis is the popular method of producing hydrogen for a few key reasons. First, it’s the most developed technology and is commercially available for those interested in producing hydrogen. Second, it is a relatively cheaper method. And third, the technology works well with renewable energy sources. This paves a path forward for abundant green hydrogen production. 

In world where we are facing a climate crisis and a water crisis at the same time, we must figure out a way to produce hydrogen while sustainably managing our water supply.

The challenge is getting enough water for the entire lifecycle of the project. It takes nine litres of water to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. And this excludes other typical service water needs such as heating, cooling, and general services. The process of electrolysis also requires water with extremely high purity to keep the equipment free of foulants.

Electrolysis is energy intensive. So, it’s best to produce hydrogen with this technology when it is paired with renewable energy sources. This is complex because the water supply must be available when renewable energy is available—24 hours a day and through every season, storm, and drought. So, how do we secure reliable water supply?

As we begin doing more work in hydrogen production, we see most facilities exploring water from a single source, based on proximity. Many factors ahead of water—such as renewable energy or access to import/exports—impact site selection. But this is proving to be a potential flaw in early planning.

With these projects moving forward, we’re seeing that the supply of reliable water may depend on several water options. Some of these include natural sources, existing infrastructure, or even third-party arrangements.

We also realize hydrogen production methods will rely on a mix of water sources to match the best-suited site locations, protect the environment, and responsibly manage the water needed for communities to thrive in the region. This could mean groundwater, municipal reuse water, or water from streams. Marine sources are not well suited to electrolysis but could possibly offset freshwater use in cooling systems.

The water challenges change based on where a production facility is located. Local climate, for example, could affect heating and cooling needs for the facility as well as the water needed for it. Existing water infrastructure could play a role as well, depending on how big it is and what is available. Are there dams? Is the local utility able to supply any water? What are the local groundwater and surface water supplies like?  

The more we work with our clients around hydrogen production, the more we are uncovering when it comes to procuring the water. Hydrogen production is brand new, and it’s a living, breathing process that will continue to evolve.

The colors of hydrogen matter. Green hydrogen production relies on renewable energy production. 

What is the current state of hydrogen in the US and around the world?

The hydrogen market is growing worldwide. This is especially true in the US after the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The legislation earmarked $7 billion for hydrogen production. That money is now being used to design and construct seven hydrogen hubs across the US, from California to Virginia. Collectively, these hydrogen hubs should produce about 3 million metric tons of hydrogen each year.

It's important to keep in mind that the location of renewable energy may not be the same as the location of available water. And the hubs may not be in regions where there is established water infrastructure, or where industrial activity is occurring. As we said earlier, we must look into several factors when deciding on the right site location—so a robust understanding of the surrounding environment is key.

As new hydrogen facilities are built, we anticipate more stand-alone facilities in a variety of locations. They must meet strict standards and will use water in new ways, like supporting carbon capture and producing green hydrogen from electrolysis. We expect these facilities to integrate renewable energy into operations. And they should also achieve more water reuse through zero liquid or minimal liquid discharge.

The world produced about 95 million metric tons of hydrogen in 2022. But that figure is poised to rise significantly as we press forward with the energy transition. In fact, Statistica believes that by 2030 the world will produce up to 300 metric tons per year. To that end, more than 1,000 hydrogen production facilities are currently planned. But it will take further developments to both the technology and energy policy to drive these projects from mere plans to operational production facilities.

The more we work with our clients around hydrogen production methods, the more we are uncovering when it comes to procuring the water.

What we need heading forward

It’s clear that we need to address the climate crisis and take meaningful actions to reduce emissions and protect the planet for future generations. Hydrogen can help us do that—especially once water and energy experts talk to each other. By transitioning away from traditional sources of energy like natural gas or other fossil fuels, we can power homes, vehicles, and even planes with clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

But we also have another crisis on our hands—the water crisis. Water is a precious resource that humanity needs to survive, so we must manage our resources in a responsible way. Can we produce enough hydrogen while maintaining water supply for local communities? This certainly is the goal. And we know we have the tools and technologies to do the job right.

As discussed, there are challenges—and potential solutions—to this pressing issue. The energy transition could depend on how we—water and energy experts—work together to solve those challenges.

  • Nathan Ashcroft

    As a strategic business developer, Nathan is always looking for ways to improve our ability to help our clients. That’s involved expanding our geographical business as well as researching new applications of existing products like bitumen.

    Contact Nathan
  • Jillian Flanagan

    With a focus on delivering water projects that help with the energy transition and mitigate the effects of climate change, Jillian is a regional practice lead with Stantec’s Industrial Water team.

    Contact Jillian
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