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Hydrogen can play a key role in the chase to net zero. But the process of tweaking its ‘colour’ (from the less sustainable ‘grey’ to ‘blue’) calls for one more engineering trick – workable, affordable carbon capture facilities. And that hangs on a much clearer understanding of the subsurface, argues Ignacio Torresi, Seequent’s Executive Vice President, Latin America.

When Shell published their “Scenarios” sketch of a US heading towards net zero by 2050, they visualised a difficult but feasible path. The report prescribed a route that called for fundamental changes to the US energy system at a pace described (perhaps modestly) as “highly challenging.”

Despite those challenges, the report looked at the existing expansions of green energies, the self-avowed determination of major US companies like Amazon and Apple to reach net zero well ahead of 2050, and the growing acceptance by Americans that climate change is a major threat, and declared itself realistic but optimistic.

One area it focused on, which traditionally attracts less attention than solar or wind, is the place of hydrogen. In fact the report urged that early and rapid deployment of hydrogen as a fuel source “will be critical to decarbonising heavy duty road transportation, heavy industries such as steel and chemicals, as well as shipping and short haul aviation.”

The exponential rise of clean hydrogen…

To do this, it saw that hydrogen deployment would need to increase exponentially from a negligible amount today to 7% of total final energy consumption by 2050. Significant investment and growth would be required, but again Shell felt confident of the pedal to the metal that hydrogen could undertake – a view encouraged by a combination of the country’s affordable and abundant natural gas resources, thriving chemical industry and an historically innovative automotive sector.

But hand in hand with the investment required to commercialise grey hydrogen (from the breakdown of natural gas) would be the creation of carbon capture facilities to partner those of gas production, storing the resultant CO2 emissions and thus offering a low carbon fuel (termed blue hydrogen).

So the report also concluded that – with the short time frame of 30-40 years for the world to hit net zero – CCUS was “an essential solution” in this mix. The US offered “significant geological potential for storing carbon,” with one estimate calculating that almost 60% of the world’s underground CO2 storage capacity could currently be found in the US.

…and the increasing importance of subsurface understanding

However, both the acceleration of hydrogen production from natural gas deposits and the discovery of suitable places to store the resultant CO2 underground require the same thing – a much better understanding of the subsurface, and a level of insight that can be delivered to organisations more rapidly, reliably and efficiently than ever before. That insight’s ability to clearly inform and enable important cross-sector coalitions will also be vital.

At Seequent we have specifically shaped our Leapfrog Energy solution to tackle projects faced with complex geophysical subsurface challenges; projects that not only require rapid and robust 3D conceptual models, but call for varying data formats and very different geoscientific disciplines to be brought together under the same collaborative umbrella.

Like Shell we also see Hydrogen and CCUS as important stepping stones in the route to net zero. But both will need significant help to hit their targets. Subsurface ambiguity is one hurdle they can do without, and we believe Leapfrog Energy has a key part to play in increasing clarity and reducing risk along that journey.

To read more about how Leapfrog Energy can accelerate the sustainability transition, click here.

The scale of the challenge

  • Analysis by the Shell Scenarios team determined that for renewables to account for 85% of power, solar would need to become the country’s largest source of electricity by the mid-2030s, followed by wind.
  • Hitting the 2050 target would call for 4% of America’s surface area to be covered by solar power plants, though that figure could fall if panels became more efficient and roof top solar more widely adopted.
  • For wind to make its required contribution, around 20,000 wind turbines would need to be installed every year compared to the average rate since 2005 of around 3,000, predicted Shell.