Clean Hydrogen Use Gaining Momentum in Countries

Scaling up the use of the energy carrier could be key to a cleaner atmosphere in the future,
and countries such as Germany and Japan are setting ambitious targets, experts say.

December 27, 2021, By Elliott Davis Jr.

A hydrogen sign is displayed at a pumping station for hydrogen-powered cars in Berlin, Germany.
Germany is one of several countries to set ambitious targets for hydrogen in their renewable energy plans.

Less than two months after arguably the most important summit on climate change in history, countries are considering ways to slow global warming and steer the world toward a more optimistic environmental future. Some of the measures that leaders agreed to take at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, are nothing new: phasing down the use of coal power, halting deforestation and cutting methane emissions.

One other part of the solution might not be front-of-mind for everyday people, but experts say it is gaining momentum. Scaling up the use of hydrogen — particularly the clean kind — could be a key element of the future of renewable energy, and countries from Australia to Germany to Japan have already set ambitious targets.

"If you were at COP in Glasgow, where all the climate folks were, hydrogen was by far the most used word," says Marco Alverà, the CEO of Snam, an Italian energy infrastructure company. "If you talk to new energy experts, they will all say that hydrogen is the future."

Hydrogen isn't so much an energy source but rather an energy carrier, says Jose M. Bermudez, an energy technology analyst at the International Energy Agency, a forum created under the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. It is already used a lot in oil refining but "practically all of it" comes from fossil fuels, which carries significant carbon dioxide emissions, according to Bermudez and analysis from the agency. Its production is responsible for about 830 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, which is equivalent to the United Kingdom and Indonesia's combined emissions of the greenhouse gas.

The key, then, is to use cleaner hydrogen and expand it to new applications, such as transportation and assisting the direct integration of renewables in the power grid, Bermudez adds. A common term for this type is "green hydrogen," which is produced using water, a machine called an electrolyzer and electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind, Greentech Media reports. The IEA doesn't use the color-coded system — which includes blue and gray — of describing hydrogen and prefers to describe the ideal kind as "low-carbon," according to Bermudez.

Experts give common answers when asked which countries are pushing the hardest on clean hydrogen. Many European countries — including France, Germany and the Netherlands — and Australia, Chile, Japan and the U.K. have set aggressive goals. In total, more than 10 countries, including China and South Korea, have developed detailed hydrogen strategies as of August 2021, according to KPMG. Bob Brecha, professor of sustainability at the University of Dayton, notes that Sweden and Volvo Group are partnering to create fossil-free vehicles using steel made from green hydrogen.

The United States is growing its focus on hydrogen, too. The Department of Energy in June launched its first energy "earthshot" based on hydrogen, which seeks to reduce the cost of the clean form by 80% in one decade. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently signed into law by President Joe Biden, also includes billions in funding for clean hydrogen.

Overall, the growing number of countries that are investing in hydrogen adds weight to its utility. Jack Brouwer, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California — Irvine and co-author of a paper on the subject, says in an email that he believes hydrogen "is the only known zero emissions vector that has some of the features that are essential for sustainability."

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, speaks with employees during a tour
of a clean hydrogen plant in Beziers, France, on Nov. 16. (GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

"If you want to decarbonize everything, hydrogen has the potential to do that with these applications," he adds, referring to things such as computer chip manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. "Electricity alone does not."

The U.S. energy department's earthshot provides a hint as to why clean hydrogen isn't being widely produced just yet. Bermudez, of the IEA, and Brecha both note that it's very expensive. But there is some optimism that this could soon change.

Alverà projects in his book, "The Hydrogen Revolution," that green hydrogen's cost will decline from where it is currently at $100-140 per megawatt-hour to $35-55 in 10 years. For large-scale adoption, the cost could get down to $22-28/MWh, Alverà forecasts in the book. In the U.S., the average residential price of electricity in September 2021 was 14.19 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the Energy Information Administration. Alverà's company, Snam, is already investing in green hydrogen initiatives and in 2019 launched a first-of-its-kind experiment that introduced a hydrogen and natural gas blend into the Italian gas transmission network.

Some experts stop short of saying, as Alverà describes, that hydrogen is the future. Bermudez says his agency believes it "will play a critical role in certain sectors," but is not going to be a "widespread field." Brouwer agrees with the notion that hydrogen is "part of" the future, especially when it comes to "some of the things that we haven't figured out how to solve yet and make zero emissions." But he says calling it the future makes it "sound like it's the solution to everything, and it's not."

"I think that societally, we're just entranced with this silver bullet thinking," adds Mike Timko, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "You're hoping that each one's the perfect solution, when in fact, you're probably going to need a layered approach — lots of different solutions for different applications."

Some of those applications include ammonia for fertilizers — cited by several experts, including Timko — and steelmaking, as Brecha noted in the real-world example out of Sweden. Factors that could lower the cost of low-carbon hydrogen and make projects like these more common include technological innovation, scaling up production in and of itself and the "continuous decrease" of renewable electricity costs, according to Bermudez.

"The question is by how much and how fast this can take place, which itself depends on the adoption of policies and, on the other hand, the speed at which the projects are deployed so the scale-up can happen," he adds.

Bermudez notes that within the IEA's net-zero emissions scenario, renewable hydrogen can become competitive with fossil fuels-based hydrogen by the end of this decade. But for now, green hydrogen is still expensive and another driving factor in changing that would be a combination of renewable energy "really becoming cheaper" and "commitments from countries to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions," says Brecha.

"Economists will say that this isn't just a tax, this idea of the carbon tax," he adds. "It's a recapturing of actual costs to society that are coming about due to climate change, for example. In a functioning market, all costs have to be taken into account. And so if you're not taxing emissions, then you're missing something that is costing society but is not in the product's price of things you're selling. So in that sense, it's really a matter of leveling the playing field.

2000, University of California Irvine Combustion Laboratory (UCICL)
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