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Flexibility: the key to hydrogen’s rise?

Flexibility: the key to hydrogen’s rise?

A visiting professor at Imperial College London’s Center for Environmental Policy, David Hart leads strategic advisory and consultation work on fuel cells and hydrogen as a Director of E4tech, a specialist consulting company operating across every area of the energy transition. A passionate supporter of fuel cell technology for over 25 years, he views hydrogen as an elegant solution to many of the problems facing the world today, as it offers the flexibility needed to reimagine our energy system and address air quality, climate change, resource use, energy equity and more. We sat down with Professor Hart to learn more about all the exciting things happening at the intersection of hydrogen technology, policy and business.

David Hart, visiting professor at Imperial College London’s Center for Environmental Policy and Director of E4tech, strategic advisory and consultation work on fuel cells and hydrogen.

How have you seen the policy landscape and attitudes towards hydrogen change in recent years?

There has been a complete sea change. There were always certain governments like Japan who were passionate about hydrogen, but it was often seen as a long way off. In the last few years, and especially in the past six months, we have seen a widespread belief that hydrogen is part of the solution to many problems. Now we have all sorts of policy areas like energy, environment and transport coming together to think about how hydrogen may help them with the solution to the problems they face.

 

Given that shift in attitudes, which countries do you think are the most advanced in terms of hydrogen?

One thing I find exciting about hydrogen is that it touches so many areas of the economy that there is always an opportunity for everyone. That’s a positive thing because it’s inclusive.

In Europe, Germany is always a good choice, because they have had a program for more than a decade now. But other countries have taken different approaches because they have different boundary conditions, such as Norway, Spain or Portugal. Globally, Japan and Korea have taken an industrial policy-relevant approach to how they support hydrogen. Australia has thought hard about the export opportunities, resource base and corollary with oil and gas. Other countries such as Chile are thinking about hydrogen from a renewable and export perspective. One thing I find exciting about hydrogen is that it touches so many areas of the economy that there is always an opportunity for everyone. That’s a positive thing because it’s inclusive rather than exclusive.

 

What do you think are the most important levers for making the hydrogen society a reality?

I think the most important is scaling up, notably by making sure the supply chain is in place to build the right projects at the right scale in order to make a difference. It’s also important to join together the right parts of industry and the economy to make sure we are taking advantage of hydrogen’s diversity. With certain energy solutions, you can only change one area, such as transport. But with hydrogen, we can provide transport fuel, energy storage for the grid, chemical feedstock and more, so we need to consider how all those market opportunities can fit together to create the best value. It’s not just a question of replicating the current energy or chemicals market. It’s about enabling a more flexible market opportunity, so that existing companies and entrepreneurs can invest in what will become an important part of our future.

 

What hydrogen applications are you most excited about?

It’s exciting that regions of the world which historically have not had fossil fuel resources can potentially produce hydrogen for their own use.

I’m excited about all of them! I’m very excited about hydrogen entering heavy-duty transport, because I see it as a way of solving problems I didn’t think we’d be able to address this early on in this sector, such as air quality and carbon emissions. But I also think it’s exciting that regions of the world which historically have not had fossil fuel resources can potentially produce hydrogen for their own use or for export, thus providing solutions relating to their balance of payments or local industry building.

 

Do you see hydrogen as the best solution for carbon-free mobility?

For this particular application, I believe that we will see a coexistence of solutions that will eventually narrow down to batteries and hydrogen. In some places battery electric vehicles will be a great solution, in others some alternative forms of mobility will work well, and in some cases it will be hydrogen. In my mind, hydrogen is an excellent option for zero-emissions mobility in many sectors.

Batteries are heavy for the energy they contain whereas hydrogen makes it easy to transport heavy loads. It's not a question of battery vs. fuel cell, it's about complementarity.

 

We’re hearing a lot of talk these days about sustainable aviation. Do you think hydrogen will be able to decarbonize the air sector?

The advantages for hydrogen over batteries in aviation are clear: a significant benefit in terms of energy density and an advantage in refueling time.

It’s an interesting challenge that has been talked about for a long time and hydrogen definitely offers another piece of ammunition in fighting the climate fight in aviation. I can certainly see hydrogen opportunities for mid-range flights, and perhaps also in the longer range. One thing we need to remember is the trade-off between carbon emissions and other emissions. For water vapor and other emissions at high altitudes, the atmospheric chemistry becomes rather complicated. Anyway, the advantages for hydrogen over batteries in aviation are clear: a significant benefit in terms of energy density and an advantage in refueling time. It’s analogous to the benefits we see in heavy-duty vehicles and other transport modes. Particularly in aviation, where weight is important for take-off and flight autonomy, I think hydrogen offers a fairly significant opportunity. Though it will take some time, experimentation and data gathering to determine the best set of solutions.

 

Covid-19 has led to a sharp drop in the price of fossil fuels. Has it also shifted the lines in favor of hydrogen on the side of investors, companies and shareholders?

The main driver of interest in hydrogen is the importance of net-zero CO2 emissions, since almost all the models suggest we can’t get to net-zero without including hydrogen.

Although we have always seen a comparison between the price of oil and the cost of hydrogen, I think that is decoupling at the moment as other considerations stand high in people’s minds. There is a mounting demand for an equitable energy system that is clean, widely accessible and socially beneficial. But I think the main driver of interest in hydrogen is the importance of net-zero CO2 emissions, since almost all the models suggest we can’t get to net-zero without including hydrogen. This has weighed on investors’ minds, especially long-term investors like pension funds, which now want to invest in companies that have climate resilience built into their thinking. And there is almost an expectation that hydrogen will be part of that solution. We’re also realizing that there may not be a very long runway left for fossil fuels or internal combustion engines, so the companies that are closely involved in those industries are thinking hard about what their future looks like. One of the obvious areas for them to move into is hydrogen: some are already in it and it’s a question of expansion, for others it’s new. I think the third area is the general public, which has increased demands for good air quality and livable cities, which almost certainly includes zero-emission mobility. Although the price comparison is important, I think understanding the nuances around affordability, such as paying a little more for fuel but less for health care, is becoming more important.

 

What makes hydrogen “an option for long-term sustainable investment”?

Historically, investors tended to look at hydrogen as a risky bet. But nowadays, they want to see a hydrogen strategy, since they now consider it as a way of investing in the future.

Investors are increasingly clued up around how the energy sector may evolve. For a long-term investor, it’s not good enough to invest in a company that subsequently goes on to invest in a fossil resource, as it will soon become uneconomical, either because people will not pay for it or because policy does not allow it. Historically, investors tended to look at hydrogen as a risky bet. But nowadays, they want to see a hydrogen strategy, since they now consider it as a way of investing in the future. It’s a very interesting change in mindset.

Prof. David Hart at the 22nd edition of the WORLD HYDROGEN ENERGY CONFERENCE (WHEC) in 2018

Why do you say in a 2019 report that “the development of a hydrogen and fuel cell sector could bring significant economic value to Europe”?

Simply by investing you create jobs, service industries and all sorts of other added value. Of course there is economic growth, industry creation, R&D and all the good things that come with developing simply the industrial aspects of a supply chain, but there is also a quality of life benefit, reduced cost of healthcare, reduced cost of clean-up for other parts of the environment, increased biodiversity and all these good things we hear about on the other side of the register, which are all extremely positive.

 

As an analyst of current and future markets, what opportunities do you identify for hydrogen development? 

There are clear supply chain opportunities in heavy-duty, as many believe hydrogen will be an important component of future rail distribution, trucking and even shipping over the long term. But there are also fascinating opportunities in areas which are still being developed. Through the crossover between different parts of the economy, there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs and companies that can join up the various possibilities of hydrogen, such as utilities or energy service companies who can arbitrage across different markets, or connect non-traditional partners to deliver an end-to-end service.

 

To what extent can hydrogen make it possible to create a more virtuous economy, while meeting the climate imperative?

We often try to optimize just one part of the whole. But hydrogen is capable of supplying so many different services – I often refer to it as the glue that pulls the energy system together. 

By deploying hydrogen in conjunction with renewable electricity and other sustainable alternatives, we can make sure we are optimizing the energy system. It’s important to bring out that notion of energy system optimization. We often try to optimize just one part of the whole. But due to the fact that hydrogen is capable of supplying so many different services – I often refer to it as the glue that pulls the energy system together – I think it’s fundamental to our aims of reducing CO2 emissions, improving air quality and improving all other aspects of the economy while still having vibrant industrial development.

 

Why do you believe hydrogen is the right solution for a successful energy transition?

While there isn’t a single right solution, I think hydrogen is an important part of the solution if we are to move fast enough to avert a climate crisis, and notably to provide better air quality. There are a certain number of things you can do with electricity, but others you can’t because you need a molecule and not an electron. If you look at the entire solution set for net zero, there are very few solutions, and hydrogen is clearly one of them, perhaps the only one.

 

What do you think about the efficiency of fuel cells, since this is one main criticism leveled by hydrogen skeptics?

Once you start thinking about efficiency on a system level, the efficiency question becomes much less simplistic. It even tends more towards hydrogen because you have the flexibility you need.

I find it a very frustrating argument. I’m a mechanical engineer, so I understand thermodynamics and I’m passionate about the importance of efficiency in the right context. Sometimes the efficiency argument is advanced in a limited sense. I agree that if we take renewable energy, turn it into hydrogen and then turn it back into electricity, that is inefficient. But instead of turning electricity into hydrogen and then back into electricity, it’s much more likely that you would offer a suite of solutions with hydrogen.  Once you start thinking about efficiency on a system level – meaning the right amount of renewables, storage, end users and all the other aspects of the economy – the efficiency question becomes much less simplistic. It even tends more towards hydrogen because you have the flexibility you need. 

 

Do you see the wider thinking on hydrogen shifting towards a system perspective? 

Very much so. In general, we now have a much more sophisticated discussion around the system implications of hydrogen. A lot of the big analyses we’ve seen, whether from the Hydrogen Council, Shell, the Energy Transitions Commission or IRENA, now look at hydrogen from a systemic perspective. I think the criticism about roundtrip efficiency is actually having relatively little impact on what is happening.

 

In 3 words, what is your vision of the hydrogen society?

Sustainable, equitable and fun. There are so many interesting things you can do with hydrogen, so I’m looking forward to see all the various things that I have never thought of but somebody else will implement.

 

Are there any other topics you would like to see in the hydrogen conversation?

Hydrogen is not just a developed world answer to a problem that the developed world has mostly caused, but it also helps to lift people out of poverty and improve quality of life for billions of people.

One thing I would like to see explored in more depth is energy equity. How can we use hydrogen to help people who have very limited access to energy and have to survive on a very small amount of money, so that this is not just a developed world answer to a problem that the developed world has mostly caused, but it also helps to lift people out of poverty and improve quality of life for billions of people who don’t have so much access. While some governments and development banks are starting to consider the opportunity, such as using hydrogen as a local resource instead of importing fossil fuels, or for village level microgrids to empower communities, it’s still not as big a part of the conversation as I would like it to be.