The challenges of hydrogen in the transition to net-zero

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Green hydrogen could help decarbonise transport
Green hydrogen could help decarbonise transport

Last month the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its Global Hydrogen Review, a worldwide in-depth analysis of this vector of energy that could play an important role in decarbonising carbon-intensive economies. Jordan Hairabedian from EcoAct’s Climate Innovation & Knowledge Center (CLICK) looks at the report and the core challenges of hydrogen.

The energy system transition is already underway in many sectors and regions according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, investments in and deployment of low-carbon technologies are still well behind what is required to limit global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial conditions. Hydrogen is touted as having the potential to drive deep emissions reductions needed for a net-zero scenario. However, several core challenges have to be solved in order to unlock this potential.

Hydrogen today

Hydrogen is often seen as a key lever for the decarbonisation of the energy sector. However, it is important to bear in mind the current landscape of the hydrogen sector today:

  • First, hydrogen is technically a misuse of language. To be scientifically accurate, dihydrogen is the current terminology to describe this source of energy. Two atoms of hydrogen (H2) structure the dihydrogen molecule and it is this that holds the high energy potential.
  • Second, hydrogen is a “vector of energy”: it stores energy produced by a primary source to final users, as electricity. The carbon footprint of hydrogen is therefore dependant on the carbon intensity of its energy source.
  • Third, today, hydrogen is mostly used within the chemicals industry and almost 100% of its energy source comes from fossil fuels (mostly natural gas and coal). Consequently, hydrogen is responsible for 900 MtCO2, which is 2.5% of global CO2 emissions in energy and industry or the CO2 emissions of Brazil and the United Kingdom combined.
The challenges of hydrogen in the transition to net-zero
                                                                                                                             ©IEA

Unlocking hydrogen’s decarbonising potential

Because of its reliance on fossil fuels,  the present day snapshot of hydrogen is far from green. A rapid shift to low-carbon production is needed to ensure its decarbonisation potential.

The IEA urges governments to lead on policy and develop strategies to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as a clean fuel. It believes that concrete targets for deploying low-carbon production will help to build stakeholder confidence in the potential market for low-carbon hydrogen. The growing interest in green hydrogen is a vital first step, which hopefully will create momentum and trigger more investments to scale up and accelerate deployment.

According to the IEA hydrogen will play a key role in its Net Zero Scenario (NZE). In this scenario:

  • Volumes: the production of hydrogen should be multiplied by five by 2050.
  • Production sources: moreover, from 2030, more than 50% of the production should be low carbon, using electrolysis and fossil fuels with carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS). Eventually, in 2050, 60% of hydrogen should be produced via electrolysis powered by renewable energy (solar, wind hydro energy or biogas; this is referred to as “green hydrogen”) and 40% by fossil fuels with CCUS processes (referred to as “blue hydrogen”). However, the requirement for clean energy sources will be competing with the growing demands for renewable electricity, for example for buildings and electric vehicles (EVs). Besides, significant improvements in energy efficiency would be required to make hydrogen competitive, reducing energy losses during several conversion processes. This means that large investments and rapid scale-up in low-carbon energy are one of the main cornerstones of the net-zero scenario in which hydrogen plays a key role.

The “well below 2°C” pathway which has similar hydrogen volume projections to that of NZE, states the following:

  • Targeted economic sectors: in this scenario, the use of hydrogen is focused only within the industrial sector until 2030. In 2050 only, transport would represent around two thirds of hydrogen final energy demand (hydrogen-powered engines, synfuels, ammonia, electricity). Cars and trucks seem the most promising technologies, not planes or container ships. At present, hydrogen won’t enable a revolution in the transportation sector in the short term but it most definitely has the potential to enable decarbonization on the middle/long terms.

    The challenges of hydrogen in the transition to net-zero
                                                                                                                                      © IEA
  • GHG Mitigation potential: The IEA predicts that hydrogen could reduce CO2 emissions by 5%, . However, to achieve this hydrogen must transform from a net emissive sector today to a net reduction sector, which is highly challenging.

    The challenges of hydrogen in the transition to net-zero
                                                                                                                                          © IEA

Looking ahead

In order to overcome the challenges of hydrogen and build a decarbonised hydrogen sector, states and industries need to consider these steps:

  1. Decarbonise hydrogen production first.
  2. Identify sectors/subsectors with the greatest need and potential for hydrogen. Transport is already identified as key, particularly hard to decarbonise aviation and shipping subsectors
  3. Arbitrate which technology is best for each usage (electric vs hydrogen): light utility vehicle, bus, truck, heavy transport etc.
  4. Integrate a regional analysis: not all solutions are feasible in all locations (costs and available technologies).
  5. Identify the best partners for industrial projects
  6. Ensure the customers are not reluctant to the envisaged solutions: social acceptance is key.
  7. Scale up investment.

 

The urgent need for deep decarbonization is growing as the window for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change narrows. To reach net-zero by 2050 we need solutions now. Renewable or “green” hydrogen looks likely to be one of the solutions for the deep decarbonization needed by the energy system. However, though progress in hydrogen technologies is increasing it still falls well short of what is needed in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

For now, the IEA believes more efforts are required in demand creation and in reducing emissions associated with hydrogen production before it can start delivering on its potential as a green alternative to traditional fossil fuels and help in the global transition to net-zero.

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