If 2020 gave hydrogen more awareness, 2021 will bring more focus

This article was first published in H2 View.

By Daryl Wilson, Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council

Hydrogen came into 2020 vision last year. More announcements, investments, policy commitments, and communication volume. As we enter a new year, there is a need to further focus the enthusiasm on meaningful next steps on the long road to overhauling our energy systems.

Daryl Wilson, Hydrogen Council Executive Director

While global support for hydrogen has never been stronger, expectations have also never been higher. In the past twelve months an unprecedented sense of urgency, accelerated by the COVID crisis and its recovery, is driving action around the global clean energy transition. In search of technologies that can make our energy systems and economies more resilient while contributing to climate neutrality objectives, policymakers around the world have shifted their attention to hydrogen, acknowledging its huge potential. All of this attention on hydrogen is well placed.  As we seek to transform our energy future, the scalability and capacity of hydrogen is up to the job.

Yet, much of our energy system is hidden from public sight; therefore, it is not surprising that the public has a limited understanding of the vast scale of infrastructure which is behind the energy we consume every day. The most visible part of the system is the electrical side. This is also the focal point for our aspirations to decarbonise. However, the “electron flow” in our electrical system typically accounts for not more than 15-20% of the energy we use[1]. The greater part of our consumption is molecular flow supported by liquid fuels and natural gas. This 20/80 split of electrons to molecules is a key reason for the important place of hydrogen in the future. Many of the attributes of molecular energy are attractive and helpful in the ways we use energy.

If we were to “electrify everything” we would need to increase our system of generating and transporting electricity by five times. The immediacy of the electrical system where we must make it and use it very rapidly is also an issue. The molecular systems of oil and gas give us the ability to store and move energy at a much more manageable pace than electrical systems.  Hydrogen brings a similar ability to store and move energy around better than electrons on the grid.  In a car, hydrogen provides more range and rapid fuelling. This is because it is a gaseous molecule which can fill a tank in minutes.  Vast amounts of natural gas are stored in large reservoirs in our heating energy system.  Hydrogen can duplicate these large-scale storage capabilities.

Pundits enjoy setting up zero-sum game debates in times of change. But wisdom is always found in a win-win balance, grounded in facts. Our energy future is going to be about “both/and” that includes both electrification and hydrogen. The complementary relationship of electrical systems working in concert with hydrogen systems is actually the foundation of all of the recent attention.  As large power producers and fuel producers as well as utility operators are now facing the compelling real need to decarbonise they are beginning to understand how important hydrogen is in the future equation. The leaders in these fields do understand the scale of our energy systems and what kinds of attributes will be needed in a new decarbonised regime. They see the benefits of using hydrogen as a means to store energy. Hydrogen enables more renewable energy to stabilise grid operation and make our energy systems a much more synergistic whole than ever before.

The biggest hurdle keeping hydrogen from breaking through in the past was the high cost associated with hydrogen applications. Today, the landscape is changed, and the economic conditions appear exceptionally favourable for hydrogen. Costs are projected to fall sharply by 2030[2], and our job collectively is to ensure this happens, through collaboration and scale.

In 2020, governments around the world put commitments and investments on the table as part of significant economic recovery plans; their pledges are backed by the positive cost trajectory expected for hydrogen applications in the coming decade. Investors, including the firms in the Hydrogen Council’s own investor group, are focussing a keen eye on identifying and potentially funding the next big project.

These spectacular budgets and potential funding must be used wisely. Based on science, technology and industry expertise, the funds need to be directed into the right programmes and projects that can help the energy industry to set up long-term sustainable business models and grow the global clean hydrogen economy. Hydrogen needs a commercial breakthrough, and this will come if industry provides concrete, viable projects that allow our sector to demonstrate the necessary scale and returns expected when delivering an affordable clean energy transition with hydrogen. At the same time, we mustn’t lose sight of the continuous need for research and innovation to make hydrogen technologies even more efficient and sustainable – the technology may be ready to scale, but innovation will multiply its societal benefits over time.

Encouraging projects are already being rolled out today. In Europe, “Hydrogen Valleys” are bringing together the wide range of hydrogen applications along the value chain in integrated hydrogen ecosystems, showcasing hydrogen’s ability to foster sectorial integration[3]. In Japan, the world’s largest renewable hydrogen plant opened in March this year[4]. In Saudi Arabia, there’s a green hydrogen production facility gearing up for the export of green hydrogen to global markets[5]. In California, the California Fuel Cell Partnership envisions 1,000 hydrogen refuelling stations and one million FCEV’s by 2030[6]. The direction of development is certainly positive, but the expectation is large-scale systemic transformation for a more sustainable future.

As the new Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council, I’m putting all my energy into working with our 90+ members and global partners – including governments, international organisations, the investor community, and the wider hydrogen industry, to seize the current opportunities and deliver on the hydrogen promise. I know this sector has what it takes – and the world stands to benefit greatly from a clean, affordable energy transition with hydrogen at its core. But the hydrogen industry as a whole must think smart and act bold. If we can transform all this hydrogen hype into actual hydrogen action – then our future is bright.


References

[1] World Energy Outlook 2020, IEA, October 2020, https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2020 / Shell World Energy Model, Shell, April 2017, https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/scenarios/shell-scenarios-energy-models/world-energy-model.html

[2] Path to hydrogen competitiveness: A cost perspective, Hydrogen Council, January 2020, https://hydrogencouncil.com/en/path-to-hydrogen-competitiveness-a-cost-perspective/

[3] “Hydrogen Valleys”: demonstrating the power of hydrogen, Mission Innovation, May 2019, http://mission-innovation.net/2019/05/13/hydrogen-valleys-demonstrating-the-power-of-hydrogen/

[4] The world´s largest-class hydrogen production, Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field (FH2R) now is completed at Namie town in Fukushima, Toshiba, March 2020, https://www.toshiba-energy.com/en/info/info2020_0307.htm

[5] Air Products, ACWA Power and NEOM Sign Agreement for $5 Billion Production Facility in NEOM Powered by Renewable Energy for Production and Export of Green Hydrogen to Global Markets, Air Products, July 2020, https://www.airproducts.co.uk/news-center/2020/07/0707-air-products-agreement-for-green-ammonia-production-facility-for-export-to-hydrogen-market

[6] 2019 Annual Evaluation of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Deployment & Hydrogen Fuel Station Network Development, California Air Resources Board, July 2019, https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2019-07/AB8_report_2019_Final.pdf

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