From mobility and industry to research and environment, hydrogen is a systemic solution with the potential to solve many different challenges linked to the energy transition. However, this solution has also raised several legitimate questions pertaining to a number of risks and setbacks tied to hydrogen’s development. This is the classic “Yes, but...” response that can often stymie any meaningful action. So what is the criticism all about? And is it credible?
“Gas-powered cars pollute less than in the past, thanks to the removal of lead from fuel and the adoption of the catalytic converter in 1993. On the other hand, the purchase price of a hydrogen car is much higher for essentially the same driving experience.”
It is true that the sticker price of hydrogen cars is a major setback for many consumers. And yet, in 2019, more than 10,000 hydrogen cars are already on the world’s streets, more than half of which are in California. And their number is only rising. Starting in 2021, Toyota and Hyundai plan to manufacture 30,000 hydrogen cars per year, which will unlock substantial economies of scale. As polluting vehicles face stricter restrictions on the road, hydrogen models like the Toyota Mirai or the Honda Clarity already provide ample incentive to make the switch to decarbonized mobility, while also responding to changes in driver behaviors and habits. Manufacturers are also exploring several ways to reduce the cost of hydrogen fuel cells, which would help to bring down the cost of hydrogen cars even more. The future is bright!
“Without a distribution network as developed as other fuels, sales of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) will never take off.”
It’s true, the full rollout of hydrogen cars cannot happen without the development of a widescale fueling network. To make that happen, financial support from public authorities is essential – and it works! In California, more than 40,000 FCEVs are expected to hit the streets by 2022, while the state already boasts one of the largest hydrogen station networks in the world. Little by little, fueling infrastructure is gaining ground elsewhere around the world, as well. In Europe, Germany will have assembled a wide network of 100 stations by the end of 2019, with 300 more scheduled in the years ahead. In China, to support its promise of manufacturing 1 million hydrogen vehicles by 2030, the government has also planned to build 1,000 stations by the same date. That is three times the total number of stations in the world today!
“As France and Germany have decided to create a joint industry for battery production in Europe, the future of the auto industry seems more likely to head in the direction of electric cars using this technology. Global sales notably climbed by 40% in 2016 according to the International Energy Agency.”
Hydrogen solutions represent an efficient and ecological alternative for designing the future of mobility. Buy why pit them against battery electric vehicles (BEVs)? While BEVs are well suited to short daily trips, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer greater range for driving longer distances. They can cover an average of 600 kilometers on a single tank with a refueling time of just a few minutes, compared with 30 minutes to several hours for BEVs. And that’s not all: hydrogen is also an ideal solution for managing vehicle fleets. In France alone, over 100 Hype taxis already roam the streets of Paris – and their number is expected to climb to 600 by 2020.
“Considering that the electric grid is not expanding fast enough to cover the energy needs of the world’s population, there are serious doubts surrounding the idea of using hydrogen instead of thermal power plants in isolated regions.”
From mountains and archipelagoes to geographically isolated zones and regions facing extreme temperature cycling, many parts of the world are not connected to continental electric grids. Many of the solutions now used to supply energy in these areas are costly and polluting, whereas coupling hydrogen with fuel cells can meet these energy needs without emitting carbon. And it works! On the Orkney Islands in Scotland, excess electricity produced by community wind turbines is now transformed into hydrogen through a completely clean process based on electrolysis. It will notably be used to power the next-generation ferries that will connect the islands.
“As far as fossil fuels go, natural gas boasts a low production cost and limited environmental impact. Rather than using hydrogen, a secondary energy still obtained mainly by using natural gas, we may as well use natural gas directly to supply electricity and heating for industry and individuals.”
While it is true that natural gas pollutes less than coal or diesel, it is not renewable and emits particulates, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide when burned for fuel. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is present in an infinite supply throughout the universe, and it can be used to store, transport and reproduce energy with zero emissions. It can also be injected into existing grids to provide electricity and heating to industrial sites and homes, all while limiting carbon emissions. In the United Kingdom, a project aiming to convert the natural gas grid to hydrogen is already underway in the city of Leeds. In 2016, Japan installed more than 100,000 stationary fuel cells to supply energy to homes, buildings and commercial spaces. They convert hydrogen produced from the city’s natural gas into electricity and heating.
“The energy transition is a complex question. To reduce the CO2 emissions generated by our activities, we need to increase the share of renewable energies. However, they are intermittent by nature and it’s an illusion to think that we can properly store these energies.”
In 2018, the combined global production of solar and wind energy reached 1 terawatt, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That represents an increase of 65 times since 2000. These advances have led to substantial investments and proactive support in terms of public policy. 40% of electricity production in Germany came from renewable sources in 2018, while in the United States, renewable energy production surpassed coal in April 2019. But to move beyond this level, we must solve the problems tied to intermittency. Hydrogen allows us to overcome this obstacle by providing decarbonized, long-term storage of renewable energies. From season to season, excess electricity can be converted into hydrogen with zero emissions, via electrolysis, then reinjected into the grid during peak demand using a fuel cell. This system is already in place on Réunion island.
“Though hydrogen is widely abundant in nature, it is rarely available in its pure state. In order to use it, we first have to produce it by separating it from other elements like carbon and oxygen, then compress or liquefy it. There are many methods to do this, but they are far from clean...”
Several technologies currently exist for producing hydrogen. The main process is called steam reforming. It consists in reacting the methane present in natural gas with steam in order to obtain a synthesis gas containing hydrogen. Power output is high – on the order of 80% – but its carbon footprint is not optimal, even though produced hydrogen already pollutes nearly 30% less than traditional fossil fuels. In addition, other production methods are available. Electrolysis of water can notably produce massive quantities of hydrogen in little time, while releasing nothing but oxygen back into the atmosphere. The best part is that it can be performed with renewable or low-carbon electricity, which allows for a neutral or limited impact across the entire production chain.
“Hydrogen obtained through electrolysis costs two to five times more than hydrogen produced from other processes. And that price goes up when using electricity from renewable sources. That makes it impossible to deploy hydrogen energy on a wide scale.”
Hydrogen obtained through electrolysis powered by renewable electricity requires massive investments, both in terms of infrastructure and the production process. However, the cost price of solar and wind is expected to become much more competitive in coming years as substantial increases in power output arrive. On top of that, technological advances will also facilitate hydrogen’s widescale rollout. A study conducted in 2017 during COP 23 demonstrated that hydrogen may represent nearly a fifth of all energy consumption by 2050. It would even make it possible to cut CO2 emissions by 6 gigatons based on current levels, all while being more beneficial in the long run than fossil fuels.
“Compared with other frequently used energy sources like propane, natural gas and gasoline, hydrogen is the molecule that holds the largest energy power.”
It is true that hydrogen is a flammable gas, just like all other fuels. As with any other energy source, certain precautions must be taken in order to use the gas safely. However, objective analysis of industry applications shows that the risk of accident related to hydrogen is scarcely different than other energy sources, due to the extreme precautions taken with its handling and distribution. In fact, the hydrogen industry operates on a strict set of standards that guarantee a high level of safety across the entire production, supply and distribution chain. The aim is to prevent or control leaks by developing storage solutions that meet the standards in every field in which hydrogen is used.
“Adopting hydrogen as an energy solution depends too much on the political will of governments for it to ever become a global solution. In Europe alone, the situation is far from consistent between France, which supports the development of battery electric vehicles, and Denmark or Germany, which have shown a greater openness to hydrogen.”
Building a hydrogen society will not happen overnight. It depends on the level of commitment from governing bodies. But around the world, things are looking up, particularly with rising investments from governments and companies to promote hydrogen as an energy solution. In its report titled “The Future of Hydrogen” released in June 2019, the International Energy Agency observes that clean hydrogen is currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, which has driven a rapid increase in the number of projects underway around the world. Public-private partnerships expanded in 2018, notably giving rise to Japan H2 Mobility, which brings together investors, owners and operators of hydrogen stations to work together on developing hydrogen mobility in Japan. Not to mention the fact that the Hydrogen Council, a consortium that now includes 60 international corporations which support the expansion of hydrogen, quadrupled its membership during the same year… It all points to a global dynamic that has given rise to many concrete initiatives. Among these is Hysetco, a company created from a partnership between the carmaker Toyota, the Hype taxi company, the Idex Group and Air Liquide, with the objective of democratizing the use of hydrogen taxis in Paris.