How green hydrogen will transform construction by 2040


We all know that the construction industry is a major contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions. From the production of building materials like steel and concrete to the operation of heavy machinery on-site, traditional construction practices leave a significant environmental footprint. However, a clean energy revolution is underway – it’s called green hydrogen – and it is poised to be a game-changer, transforming the way we build over the next two decades, writes John Ridgeway.

Hydrogen itself is not new. It's the most abundant element in the universe, but the key lies in its production method. Green hydrogen is produced by splitting water molecules (H2O) through electrolysis using renewable energy sources like solar or wind power. This process creates clean, emission-free hydrogen gas. This green hydrogen can then be used to power various applications, including heavy machinery and equipment in the construction industry.

By replacing diesel and other fossil fuels with hydrogen, construction sites can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, contributing to climate change mitigation efforts. Traditional construction contributes to air pollution through exhaust fumes from machinery and green hydrogen eliminates these emissions, leading to cleaner air on construction sites and surrounding areas.

Hydrogen fuel cells can also be more efficient than traditional combustion engines, offering potential fuel cost savings and a longer operational range for construction equipment.

Green hydrogen in action

Several companies and organisations are already exploring the potential of green hydrogen in construction. Skanska, a Swedish construction and development company, has partnered with PowerCell to develop a hydrogen-powered concrete mixer. This pilot project successfully demonstrated the feasibility of using hydrogen to power on-site equipment, paving the way for wider adoption.

JCB, a British construction equipment manufacturer, unveiled its prototype hydrogen-powered excavator in 2020. This innovation showcased the potential for converting existing heavy machinery to run on green hydrogen. In Australia, a consortium led by energy giant Woodside is exploring the development of a large-scale green hydrogen production facility. This project, if successful, could provide a clean energy source for construction projects in the region.

More recently, Weco, a leading engineering business, was appointed by Helen, a Finnish energy company, to oversee the development of its green hydrogen facility in Helsinki, Finland. This project, named the 3H2 Helsinki Hydrogen Hub, marks Helen's initial foray into hydrogen production and features a pilot plant with a projected capacity of 3MW. The success of this project can serve as a valuable

blueprint for future large-scale green hydrogen production facilities supporting the construction industry.

However, while green hydrogen holds incredible promise, several challenges need to be addressed to ensure its widespread use in construction by 2040. Currently, green hydrogen production is more expensive than traditional fossil fuels. Technological advancements and economies of scale should bring down costs in the coming years. A robust network of hydrogen production facilities, refuelling stations and distribution channels will also be needed to support widespread adoption in construction. Governments and private companies are investing in hydrogen infrastructure development, but it's a work in progress.

Furthermore, adapting existing heavy machinery to run on hydrogen could be costly. Retrofitting existing equipment versus building new hydrogen-powered machinery from the ground up will be a critical decision for construction companies.

Who's on board?

That said, there are already several key players driving the green hydrogen revolution in construction. As already mentioned, forward-thinking construction companies like Skanska and Bouygues are actively exploring green hydrogen solutions and implementing pilot projects. Major construction equipment manufacturers like JCB, Volvo, and Komatsu are investing in research and development of hydrogen-powered machinery.

Energy companies like Shell and Linde are investing in green hydrogen production facilities and infrastructure development and governments around the world are recognising the potential of green hydrogen and are introducing policies and incentives to support its development and adoption.

These collaborations between construction companies, equipment manufacturers, energy providers, and governments will be crucial for scaling up green hydrogen solutions in construction by 2040 when this gas is expected to play a significant role in transforming the construction industry.

By then, the majority of construction equipment, from excavators and cranes to mixers and trucks, will be powered by clean hydrogen fuel cells. The construction industry's overall carbon emissions will be significantly lower as a result, contributing to a more sustainable future.

Green hydrogen is also likely to be used in the production of sustainable building materials like green steel and concrete, further minimising the environmental impact of construction projects. This means a new generation of construction workers will need to be trained and equipped to handle hydrogen-powered machinery and infrastructure, creating new job opportunities in the green economy.

The cost equation

However, for the moment, the cost of green hydrogen remains a major hurdle, but several factors indicate that this will all change. As electrolysis technology and renewable energy sources become more efficient, the cost of green hydrogen production is expected to fall significantly. In turn increased demand for green hydrogen will lead to larger production facilities, driving down costs through economies of scale.

We can also see that governments are offering financial support for green hydrogen projects, including subsidies and tax breaks, making it a more attractive option for construction companies.

While the exact cost of converting existing machinery or building new hydrogen-powered equipment remains a variable, the long-term benefits in terms of sustainability, energy efficiency and potential fuel cost savings cannot be ignored. Construction companies may find a blend of retrofitting and acquiring new hydrogen-powered machinery to be the most economical approach in the transition period.

The successful transformation of the construction industry with green hydrogen by 2040 will also require, as with most things in the construction industry, a collaborative effort. Early adoption of green hydrogen solutions, participation in pilot projects and investment in research and development will be crucial.

There also needs to be an increased focus on developing commercially viable hydrogen-powered construction machinery with an emphasis on affordability and ease of maintenance. Investing in large-scale green hydrogen production facilities and building robust hydrogen infrastructure networks across regions with a focus on construction hubs, will be necessary.

So, we can see that the transformation of the construction industry with green hydrogen is not a question of "if" but "when." While challenges remain regarding cost and infrastructure, the potential benefits are undeniable. By 2040, we can expect construction sites to be cleaner, quieter and more efficient, powered by the clean energy of green hydrogen.

This shift will not only reduce the environmental impact of construction but also create a new era of sustainable building practices, propelling us towards a greener future for generations to come.

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