What is the status of the hydrogen economy?

Thomas Fröhlich
7 min readJun 25, 2018

The de-carbonisation of the economy is one of the main challenges policymakers face in times of human-driven climate change. Recent research has outlined the necessity for de-carbonisation and a roadmap towards its completion (Rockström et al., 2017). While its authors are clear on certain policy measures, they remain vague on concrete recommendations regarding a future energy matrix. For example, they only briefly mention hydrogen as an ‘established alternative’. This has prompted me to recap the current status of the hydrogen economy and the viability of hydrogen in the de-carbonisation process.

Components of the hydrogen economy. Source: US Department of Energy

The ‘hydrogen economy’ describes an energy system where “energy sources would be used to produce hydrogen, which could then be distributed as a nonpolluting [sic] multipurpose fuel” (Gregory 1973). The advantages of hydrogen, apart from being a non-polluting fuel, include: the technical ease of its production — including through renewable energy sources; the possibility of using existing distribution networks; the similarity to gasoline in terms of transport infrastructure; and its use for energy storage. Many of these properties answer several of the pressing questions of the present debate about renewable energy. Familiarity of industry plays a key role. As Brandon (2012) points out, “hydrogen is already used extensively in the chemical industry so industry is familiar with its production, handling and distribution on a large scale” and this production can happen in different forms.

The two main forms of hydrogen production are steam reforming and electrolysis. The process of steam reforming uses hydrocarbon fuels to generate hydrogen. It is currently the main production method of hydrogen and takes advantage of a reaction with a natural gas (mainly methane) with steam (United States Department of Energy 2017). The downsides of this method are an overall loss of energy as it takes more energy input than the subsequent hydrogen energy output, which is associated with a relatively high price of the end product (Jechura 2015). While economies of scale could lower this price, the issue of fossil fuel use combined with CO-2 emissions during production remains (Rostrup-Nielsen and Rostrup-Nielsen 2001: 18).

The electrolysis of water method of production seems to offer an alternative. In this method, water is separated into oxygen and hydrogen by passing an electric current through water. This system can be assisted with chemical additives, such as using alkaline water (Santos et al., 2013). The biggest drawback of hydrogen production via electrolysis is the high amount of energy that is needed for the production. Estimates vary between 33 and close to 50 per cent of efficiency, which makes clear that hydrogen production via electrolysis is only reasonable with a high level of excess energy production.

Previously, proponents of the hydrogen economy suggested the use of nuclear energy for the electrolysis of water (e.g. Gregory 1973). The rapid expansion of wind and solar energy production, especially wind-hydrogen systems, has changed the debate on this and seem increasingly relevant. Wind energy can be used to conduct electrolysis and hydrogen offers an opportunity to store excess wind energy from peak production at a lower initial investment rate than for nuclear energy. This wind-hydrogen system can ideally be integrated into a national energy grid and thereby expand the overall output of wind parks (Sherif et al., 2005).

While the storage of energy as hydrogen can be used for utility scale energy production and can compete with battery storage (Pellow et al., 2015), the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel at this point is more advanced and closer to a large-scale roll-out. Hydrogen can be used as a transport fuel either through combustion or via fuel-cell technology.

Research on fuel-cell technology for vehicles has been the focus of several automotive producers. Nevertheless, there are currently only three models, which are commercially produced and their sales have not exceeded 10,000 cars. As seen with hybrid and electric vehicles, however, an aggressive marketing campaign combined with increased security about the availability of refuelling infrastructure might spike sales. While the former is a decision taken by manufacturers, the latter is dependent on political decisions and strategies.

The leading countries in hydrogen technology are the US and Japan. In the US, mainly California and Colorado are actively pursuing a hydrogen transition. Particularly California’s Advanced Clean Cars Program has incentivised the creation of a basic hydrogen infrastructure. Currently, there are over 30 hydrogen fuelling stations operative for commercial use in California, mainly in greater Los Angeles and the Bay Area (CAFCP 2017). The network provides hydrogen along the coastline and Sacramento. A further 30 stations are currently being built or are in the licensing process.

The US government’s 2008 plan towards realizing the hydrogen economy. Source: US Government

Japan on the other hand, is stepping up its hydrogen game in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a plan to increase the hydrogen fuel stations tenfold between 2016 and 2020, to incentivise a hydrogen fleet of at least 40,000 vehicles (FT 24.10.2017). In 2015, Toyota teamed up with the local authorities of Yokohama and Kawasaki to establish a hydrogen network in Japan’s second largest metropolitan area (Toyota 2015).

China in early 2017 published its “Technology Roadmap for Energy-Saving and New Energy Vehicles” which outlines that fuel cell powered vehicles shall match the performance of traditional vehicles by 2025 and exceed it by 2030. At the same time, local authorities have implemented hydrogen fuelled tram projects for local transportation with the first units coming into operation in October 2017.

In the EU, the Renewable Energies Directive (COM(2016) 767 final/2) offers little direct incentives for the development of a hydrogen economy but leaves space for benevolent interpretation. The Commission Staff Working Document on Electricity Storage (SWD(2017) 61 final) on the other hand, offers several paragraphs emphasising the important role of hydrogen for this purpose.

In Germany, with its volatile wind power resources in the North Sea, hydrogen has been the topic of several industry-driven research projects and trials. Flagship projects are the Power-to-Gas (P2G) facility in Falkenhagen operated by German utility E.ON and Linde’s P2G facility in Mainz. In 2016, the German government extended the National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies (NIP) until 2026 and seeks to increase scale effects in the production of fuel-cells as well as expanding the existing infrastructure for hydrogen for transport. One of the results from the previous round of this program is Alstom’s Coradia iLint train — a so-called “hydrorail” — that will enter a test phase in the German state of Lower Saxony in early 2018 and commence regular service by 2021.

A hydrogen fuelled BMW 7 series. Source: Jack Snell

Many cities, such as London, São Paulo and Oakland — along with several Japanese cities — already deploy hydrogen-fuelled busses in their public transport systems. This shows that technology can also be driven by local actors that face local problems such as air pollution. In times when cities enter the arena of global climate change diplomacy with organisations like the Compact of Mayors, hydrogen’s chances of becoming a stable component of the energy matrix seem promising.

All the previously mentioned initiatives have gradually improved the status of hydrogen as a viable alternative for private consumers as well as industrial producers. In 2015, the International Energy Agency published a road map (IEA 2015) for hydrogen and fuel cells until the year 2045. This long-term plan outlines the steps that need to be taken on the way towards a hydrogen economy. While progress has been slow, the time has never been as promising for the advancement of hydrogen as it is today. Advances in technology and increased visibility of hydrogen-powered transport solutions will open the public’s eye and make way for significant changes towards the hydrogen economy over the coming decade.

A Toyota hydrogen tank for demonstartion purposes. Source: Joseph Brent

This article was first published in the Newsletter #68 of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS) at King’s College London.

References

Brandon, Nigel (2012). What’s the ‘hydrogen economy’? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/11/hydrogen-economy-climate-change

California Fuel Cell Partnership — CAFCP (2017). List of Hydrogen Stations in California. https://cafcp.org/sites/default/files/h2_station_list.pdf

Financial Times (24.10.2017). Japan is betting future cars will use hydrogen fuel cells. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/98080634-a1d6-11e7-8d56-98a09be71849

Gregory, Derek P. (1973). The Hydrogen Economy. In: Scientific American Vol. 228, №1 (January 1973), pp. 13–21.

International Energy Agency (2015). Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. Available online: https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/TechnologyRoadmapHydrogenandFuelCells.pdf

Jechura, John (2015). Hydrogen from Natural Gas via Steam Methane Reforming (SMR). Lecture given at the Colorado School of Mines. Slides available online: http://inside.mines.edu/~jjechura/EnergyTech/07_Hydrogen_from_SMR.pdf

Pellow, Matthew A.; Christopher J. M. Emmott; Charles J. Barnhart; Sally M. Benson (2015). Hydrogen or batteries for grid storage? A net energy analysis. Energy Environ. Sci., 2015, 8, 1938–1952. DOI: 10.1039/C4EE04041D (Analysis).

Rockström, Johan; Owen Gaffney; Joeri Rogelj; Malte Meinshausen; Nebojsa Nakicenovic; Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (2017). A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. In: Science, 24 Mar 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6331, pp. 1269–1271. DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3443.

Rostrup-Nielsen, Jens R.; Thomas Rostrup-Nielsen (2001). Large-scale Hydrogen Production. Available online: https://www.topsoe.com/sites/default/files/topsoe_large_scale_hydrogen_produc.pdf

Santos, Diogo M. F.; César A. C. Sequeira; José L. Figueiredo (2013). Hydrogen production by alkaline water electrolysis. In: Química Nova vol.36 no.8 São Paulo 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0100-40422013000800017

Sherif, S.A.; F. Barbir; T.N. Veziroglu (2005). Wind energy and the hydrogen economy — review of the technology. In: Solar Energy Volume 78, Issue 5, May 2005, Pages 647–660.

Toyota (2015). Public and Private Sectors Work Together to Test Renewable CO2-free Hydrogen Supply Chain. Press release 8 Sep 2015. Available online: http://newsroom.toyota.co.jp/en/detail/mail/9279985

United States Department of Energy (2017). Hydrogen Production: Natural Gas Reforming. Available online: https://energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-natural-gas-reforming

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Thomas Fröhlich

Politics, International Relations, Energy, Climate Change, Campaigning. @froehlichTM linkedin.com/in/froehlichtm