Hydrogen – the missing link in the energy transition

There is widespread agreement among policymakers and energy experts that hydrogen will play an important role in the decarbonised energy system of the future. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organisation with 160 member countries supporting the transition to a sustainable energy future, has called hydrogen “the missing link in the transformation of the global energy system”.

Why hydrogen? 

The world is moving towards a zero-emission energy system. The EU aims at a “climate-neutral” economy in 2050. This will require a massive growth of renewable energies, such as solar and wind power. It will at the same time lead to increasing “electrification” of the energy system. 

Nevertheless, experts agree that a 100% electrified energy system, based purely on renewable power sources, would be prohibitively expensive and technically very difficult to achieve. It would require, among other things, huge investments in the expansion of electricity grids as well as major breakthroughs in battery technology. 

Enter hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to store and transport (renewable) energy efficiently. And it can provide high-grade heat, helping to meet a range of energy needs that would be difficult to address through direct electrification.

How is sustainable hydrogen made?

  • Hydrogen can be made from (renewable) electricity through electrolysis. For example, offshore wind farms or solar parks can be used in combination with electrolysers to produce renewable hydrogen. This process is also called power-to-gas.
  • Hydrogen can also be made from natural gas through steam methane reforming and other processes. This hydrogen can be made carbon-free if the CO2 that is emitted from the natural gas is captured and stored underground (CCS) or used in other industrial processes.

What are the uses of hydrogen?

  • Hydrogen can be used in power stations to produce electricity.
  • It can be used in high-temperature heating processes in industry and as chemical feedstock.
  • It can be put in fuel cells that in turn can be used to power cars, trucks and ships or to heat buildings.
  • It can be used as a “green gas” to heat houses and buildings.
  • Hydrogen can also be converted into methane, methanol and ammonia which in turn can be used in heating, transport and industrial processes.

What is done to promote hydrogen?

There are several high-level international initiatives promoting hydrogen.

  • The Hydrogen Council is a global initiative of leading energy, transport and industry companies with a long-term ambition for hydrogen to foster the energy transition. Launched at the World Economic Forum 2017, in Davos, it includes companies such as Daimler, BMW, EDF, Equinor, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Shell, Sinopec, ThyssenKrup, Total, Toyota, Airbus, Air Liquide, Alstom and Bosch.
  • Hydrogen Europe, the European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, represents more than 100 industry companies, more than 68 research organizations as well as 13 national associations. The association partners with the European Commission in the innovation programme Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU).
  • The Hydrogen Initiative was signed in Austria on 17 September 2018 by 25 EU countries “to maximise the great potentials of sustainable hydrogen technology for the decarbonisation of multiple sectors, the energy system and for the long-term energy security of the EU.”

There are also many other nationalhydrogen initiatives, such as the Waterstof Coalitie in the Netherlands, which includes not only industrial and energy companies, but also researchers and NGOs such as Greenpeace.

Where can you find general information on hydrogen?

Hydrogen Europe published a Hydrogen Roadmap Europe in February 2019. It lays out a vision for the ramp-up of market deployment of hydrogen across all applications, setting milestones between now and 2050.

The report “Hydrogen from renewable power”, published by IRENA in September 2018, shows how hydrogen could become a key element in 100% renewable energy systems.

The Australian national research agency CSIRO published a National Hydrogen Roadmap in 2018, showing that while government assistance is needed to kick-start the industry, hydrogen can become economically sustainable thereafter.

The report Hydrogen – Industry as a catalyst, published in February 2019 by the World Energy Council shows how hydrogen can be used to reach the European target of a carbon-neutral and eventually carbon-free economy in 2050.

What hydrogen projects are under way?

There are more than 200 hydrogen projects that receive financing under the EU’s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH-JU) programme. 

Two EU flagship projects are HyCARE, started in 2019 in Italy, which investigates the storage possibilities of hydrogen, and H2FUTURE, a project for the generation of green hydrogen in Germany.

An overview of projects in Germany can be found on the Power-to-Gas Strategy Platform  website of the German Energy Agency (Deutsche Energie Agentur – Dena).

There are many other large hydrogen projects underway, usually based on public-private partnerships. Here are some examples:

  • The Port of Rotterdam has an ambitious project, called Porthos, to become CO2-free with the help of hydrogen. 
  • The H21 Leeds Citygate Project aims at converting the entire existing natural gas network of Leeds in England to 100% hydrogen.
  • The grid operators TenneT, Gasunie Deutschland and Thyssengas have put forward detailed plans for coupling the electricity and gas grids through hydrogen.
  • German power and gas grid firms Amprion and Open Grid Europe (OGE) announced in February 2019 they would apply to build the country’s first large hydrogen plant, to be called Hybridge, that can convert wind power to hydrogen.
  • The companies Nouryon, Gasunie and BioMCN are planning to build a 20 MW water electrolysis facility in Delfzijl in the Netherlands. 
  • Equinor, Vattenfall and Gasunie are studying the possibility of converting Vattenfall’s gas power plant Magnum in the Netherlands into a hydrogen-powered plant.
  • In France ENGIE is trialing the injection of hydrogen into the natural gas distribution network of a new neighborhood, Le Petit village, and an NGV refueling station for buses located in the Dunkirk Urban Community (GRHYD project).

Most of these projects are all still at an early stage. Given all the support for hydrogen, it is not unlikely that a global “hydrogen economy” will eventually emerge. But it will take many decades. That’s why hydrogen is sometimes called the fuel of the future. 

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