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Hydrogen in Action

Opinion: Pierre-Etienne Franc, Hydrogen – Ready to scale

In September, 160+ investors and industry players met in New York during Climate Week in order to discuss how hydrogen solutions have a singular role to play in accelerating the energy transition.

Earlier this year, a number of major industrial players announced the creation of the Hydrogen Council at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a committed coalition of global CEOs advocating for hydrogen to foster the energy transition. Pierre-Etienne Franc, the Council’s Initiative secretary, provides his analysis of the prerequisites to this transition.

Few technologies have been subject to as much fascination, anticipation and simultaneous misrepresentation as hydrogen. Some say it is a technology of the distant future, only a niche solution, too expensive, or – most misleadingly – unsafe. It’s time to set the record straight.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and an inevitable part of our everyday lives, from the water we drink (H2O) to industrial operations, where hydrogen is used at thousands of sites including refineries, electronics fabrication plants, heat treatment units and chemical and steel factories. In fact, more than 60 million tonnes of hydrogen is supplied every year for a market estimated at over 100 billion dollars. This is the result of 60 years of development, beginning in specialty applications such as NASA’s space exploration in the early days and expanding to encompass nearly all of our energy related needs.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used as fuel for power or in industry as feedstock. It generates zero emissions at point of use and can be produced from (renewable) electricity or from carbon-abated fossil fuels. Development of hydrogen technologies has made changes in the last few years, moving from laboratories to mature products trusted and used by some of the leading companies in the world. Walmart and Amazon’s recent investments in hydrogen-powered forklifts for their warehouses or Equinix’s decision to use hydrogen fuel cells to improve efficiency and reduce emissions of their data centres are among the most recent examples of this decisive change.  More broadly, large projects are underway in the U.S., Europe, Japan and most recently China to roll out hydrogen in residential and commercial heating and cooling, for transport fuel, or storing intermittent energy from wind and solar power. The breadth of hydrogen’s proposition appeals to players across the entire energy value chain, which in turn creates sufficient industrial capacity to deliver at scale.

This is in large parts because of hydrogen’s versatility, an essential characteristic to manage the paramount changes in the energy system as we move towards a renewable energy future. This transition requires solutions. Downstream consumers will need to electrify their energy demand, starting with transport and the uptake of electric vehicles. Here as well, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies will allow for increased vehicle autonomy and refuelling options on par with the speed we know today. Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies’ energy efficiency per mile is comparable to that of battery-based technologies for a high level of autonomy (> 350 miles), thanks to lower weight and a better heat management of the systems. Furthermore, as a system building block, hydrogen can help respond to rising electricity demands across the board, safely and at competitive prices through the integration of vast amounts of renewables into the grid.

A study by the Hydrogen Council with analytical support from McKinsey & Company, to be released at the upcoming event this November during COP23, shows that by 2030, millions of hydrogen-powered cars will be on the roads and multiple key gas-fuelled cities will enable renewable storage through 10% hydrogen blending. Hundreds of chemicals and steel plants will be blending up to 20% of hydrogen in their heating systems and buffering capacities, and large hydrogen caverns will be built to accompany the need to store and transport alternative energy. The depth of those developments now only depends on scaling up – fast.

There are no technical bottlenecks to reach scale, but there is a need to anticipate investments. This includes ramping up the total number of hydrogen stations worldwide from 300 to 3,000 in the next 5-7 years. This is why the hydrogen revolution needs a strong mobilization from both industrial players and investors. Assuming alignment of economic dynamic and political will, analysts expect the current hydrogen market to double over the next 15 years, a pace comparable to the growth of solar and wind. This is a massive opportunity not to be missed.

We can already witness the first signs of this ongoing transition. Manufacturing capacities across the world are growing, which will yield additional cost decrease in coming years. New plants have been announced in the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea, China… Some markets are already fully activated, leveraging cost-competitive products such as material handling and captive fleets of vehicles like taxis and buses. We need to go faster still.

There are no silver bullets to deliver on the formidable task of bringing together climate action, energy security and economic success, and scale deployment of hydrogen and other technologies will not happen overnight. Yet what can be confirmed is that we have reached a critical point of alignment between technological maturity, political demand and commercial opportunity when it comes to hydrogen. The cost of hydrogen technologies has gone down dramatically and the commercial momentum is set to continue. The future has arrived, and hydrogen is ready to scale.

Pierre Etienne FRANC, Initiative secretary of the Hydrogen Council.

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