Hydrogen – climate hype or climate hope?
Everyone is talking about hydrogen. But what do the researchers say – is hydrogen the answer to the climate crisis? IVL's hydrogen experts Ali Hedayati, Anders Hjort and Julia Hansson explain where the research stands today and what the future may look like for hydrogen as a fossil-free energy source.
What is the significance of hydrogen in the transformation of our energy systems?
Ali Hedayati: Hydrogen is the backbone of the green transition. Although there is no single solution to the climate crisis, hydrogen plays a crucial role in several of the solutions. Together with CCS and bioenergy, hydrogen technology is a mainstay in the transformation of the energy and transport sector. It is not the only solution, but an absolute must to achieve the climate goals.
Anders Hjort: Hydrogen and hydrogen-based alternatives, such as various so-called electrofuels, are absolutely an important alternative in the future energy system. But it is still unclear how and where the hydrogen will be used and to what extent, as well as, not least, what it will cost?
Julia Hansson: If we look at the transport sector, which I focus on in my research, there are many factors that affect the role of hydrogen and other hydrogen-based energy carriers. These include the development of fossil-free electricity production, the cost reduction of hydrogen-based solutions and their climate and environmental performance, as well as the demand for hydrogen and the willingness to pay. The supply of sustainable biofuels and the development of electric alternatives for different modes of transport, as well as the development of CCS, also play a role. In practice, different policy instruments will also affect the introduction of hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels.
Since both renewable electricity and clean water are needed to produce green hydrogen, there is a risk of dissatisfaction and criticism if the drinking water supply and electricity supply are affected
Anders Hjort: The role of hydrogen in the future energy mix may also differ between Sweden and what it looks like globally. I am thinking in particular of the fact that the industry will need a lot of hydrogen that can be produced nationally, while the transport sector may have its need for electrofuels produced in another country. The International Energy Agency (IEA) mentions, among other things, ammonia as a hot candidate for shipping, which does not need to be produced in Sweden. Since both policy and economics govern what the energy mix will look like in the future, my guess is that hydrogen development will look different in different parts of the world.
Ali Hedayati: Since both renewable electricity and clean water are needed to produce green hydrogen by an electrolyzer, there is also a risk of dissatisfaction and criticism if the drinking water supply and electricity supply are affected. In addition, hydrogen is associated with certain safety risks, which requires careful safety procedures at all stages. Another challenge is how to distribute hydrogen over longer distances. The production facilities can be far from the end users and the volumes that will need to be transported place high demands on the infrastructure.
What areas need to be explored more and what does it take to get production started?
Anders Hjort: We need to know more about hydrogen's potential climate impact before we start up large-scale production of hydrogen, to prevent possible negative effects of hydrogen emissions. We need to investigate access to clean water and take into account possible water shortages. Another issue is the electricity grid and that a lack of capacity on the grid can put obstacles in the wheels for hydrogen investments, and that the price of electricity must not be too high.
Julia Hansson: I agree that there are many things left to investigate. Given all the expectations around hydrogen, it's easy to think it's mostly about speeding up the introduction itself. But even the companies leading the development say that many issues remain, linked to production, distribution, storage and use as well as to energy system issues and policy, sustainability and business opportunities. In the policy context, hydrogen is often described as an emission-free alternative, but even with renewable electricity, hydrogen today is not completely without greenhouse gas emissions from a life cycle perspective. In the long run, of course, emissions can decrease if the whole of society changes, but it is important to already analyze the sustainability of hydrogen and better understand where hydrogen and other hydrogen-based fuels do the most good. We have recently mapped barriers for hydrogen introduction in the shipping sector, and then above all the high cost is considered to be the biggest obstacle. But the uncertainty that characterizes the energy issue today and thus the risk of investing in the wrong fuels also appears central.
As the technology scales up and demand increases, costs will fall, but at this rate it is difficult to determine whether we will meet the global goals for green hydrogen production.
Ali Hedayati:The cost of green hydrogen is absolutely one of the most important barriers. All green energy sources must stand up economically in order to compete with fossil-based ones. As the technology scales up and demand increases, costs will fall, but at this rate it is difficult to determine whether we will meet the global goals for green hydrogen production. To meet the two-degree target, at least 20 percent of total emissions reductions by 2050 must come from the use of clean hydrogen in different sectors (instead of fossil based resources), equivalent to 660 Mt, according to the IPCC's latest report.
The need and demand are significantly greater than the supply and the scale-up rate is unfortunately slower than expected. Therefore, I believe it is absolutely crucial to have strong political support together with large-scale demonstration of the production and application of fossil-free hydrogen. Without it, we can hardly expect investors or end users to be willing to invest in or pay for clean hydrogen, even if it is one hundred percent environmentally friendly.
Read more about IVL's work in hydrogen