Hydrogen: A New Path for Clean Energy?

Hydrogen is back on the agenda, not for paradise, but as a valuable element in an energy transition

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • March 13, 2019
  • Simon Blakey and Shankari Srinivasan

This article ran in a special section of the Wall Street Journal published on March 13, 2019. 

The Love that moves the Sun and other stars.” Dante may have known about love when he penned the closing line to “Paradise” in his Divine Comedy, but he did not know about hydrogen — the real power in the sun. Today, hydrogen is back on the agenda, not for paradise, but as a valuable element in an energy transition. 

Hydrogen is the lightest element and the most abundant. Several years ago, with fears of oil shortages, hydrogen won prominence as a possible transport fuel, but momentum petered out owing to the chicken-and-egg problem of who should take the lead — the fuel suppliers or the vehicle manufacturers? 

Now, the drive is on for clean energy, and for more than just transport. Solar and wind cannot do it on their own, because they are not always available when and where they are needed. This requires finding other clean energy solutions in response to climate change and air pollution. And so hydrogen has come to the fore again. 

Hydrogen’s advantage is that it can conveniently serve the whole of the energy system. It can fuel trucks and buses, where the economics of weight and distance favor hydrogen fuel cells over electric batteries. But it can also heat homes in place of natural gas, using the same pipes as today, and has a wide range of industrial uses, too. Hydrogen remains relatively costly in any end-use, and cannot compete today with traditional fuels, but can be a viable option when compared with zero- or low-carbon sources of energy. Whether hydrogen has a future, therefore, will depend on policy frameworks that focus on low emission targets. 

And hydrogen has a capability that is becoming increasingly important: It offers a way to store wind and solar power. Renewable power is limited: the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow, while we need electricity every hour of every day. 

But increasingly there is the problem not of too little, but of too much electricity when supply exceeds demand, for example, in the middle of bright and windy summer days. This surplus electricity can be “stored” by using it to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. Hydrogen produced from electricity can be stored for long periods, on a scale much larger than batteries. When electricity from wind and solar is not available, this stored hydrogen can drive turbines or run fuel cells to generate electricity. In effect, the zero-carbon power from wind and solar becomes available at nighttime and on dull winter days — the very times people most need electricity. 

The cost of producing hydrogen this way is still not competitive with existing energy sources. However, energy companies are now investing in pilot projects, like the 400 megawatt (MW) Magnum plant in the Netherlands, to generate electricity from hydrogen on an industrial scale. 

The technologies for producing hydrogen are also evolving. New forms of electrolysis, using proton exchange membranes, have moved out of laboratories into commercial use. In Europe, there are now 40 hydrogen making water electrolysis plants in operation. Today’s electrolyzers are 1-10 MW in size; manufacturers are offering plants at 100 MW. Japan has targeted bringing the cost of hydrogen down to that of conventional fuels and next year, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games will display its ambition for a “hydrogen-based society.” China is not far behind. Hydrogen could allow countries to become less dependent on imported energy sources and widen the portfolio of energy options. In both Europe and Asia, the challenge from electrolysis techniques is driving rapid innovation in the “reforming” process that today provides most of the world’s 60 or 70 million tons of hydrogen each year. 

While there is no overarching national energy transition policy in the U.S., many states, municipalities, and private businesses are seeking to reduce their carbon footprints dramatically. Hydrogen can serve as part of the pathway. With a goal to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2045, California places a strong emphasis on removing emissions from the transportation sector, relying on both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. California’s earlier effort to create a “hydrogen highway” went nowhere. But a decade and a half later, California has embarked on developing a network of hydrogen refueling stations, subsidizing hydrogen production through its low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS), and offering significant hydrogen-fuel vehicle purchase incentives. 

Ambitious, planned innovation in hydrogen is also foreseen in the U.K. The North of England H21 project envisages converting home heating to hydrogen in whole cities, in a rerun of the 1960s natural gas conversion program. The challenge of providing a low- or zero-carbon solution to Britain’s winter heating needs, where much of the housing stock is old and difficult to insulate, will likely prove beyond the capability of electric heating systems. Hydrogen, with carbon capture at the “reforming” stage, represents a viable alternative. This project has the engagement of Norway’s state oil and gas company, Equinor, with its long experience capturing and storing CO2 offshore in depleted oil and gas fields. 

Costs have to come down further. Although hydrogen is again receiving much attention, it will not be a panacea for the world’s energy problems. IHS Markit’s new research study — Hydrogen: Thee Missing Piece of Europe’s Net Zero Carbon Puzzle? — suggests it could contribute about 10 percent of Europe’s energy demand by 2050. That’s equal to roughly half of the energy supplied by coal or natural gas, but more than the share nuclear power provides today. IHS Markit is undertaking similar analysis of the potential in China and North America. An assessment by the Hydrogen Council — a group of companies with long-term ambitions for hydrogen — suggests that up to 20 percent penetration of global energy markets may be possible. Hydrogen is the power that drives the sun and the stars. It looks like this time it will find practical down-to earth uses as well. 

Simon Blakey is Senior Advisor, Global Gas and Climate and Shankari Srinivasan is Vice-President, Global Gas and Europe for IHS Markit. The authors would like to thank Mark Griffith, Alex Klaessig, Patrick Luckow, Deborah Mann, Catherine Robinson, and Wade Shafer for their contributions to this article.