Clean Tech & Energy

Can Hydrogen Technology Help Support Clean Energy Goals?

As governments, innovators, and environmental investors evaluate potential avenues to a low-carbon future, hydrogen technology has attracted increasing attention. While hydrogen may be less controversial than nuclear power, opinion remains divided as to how effective it will be in helping the world meet clean energy goals.

Hydrogen Test Case: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

To understand the potential—and limitations—of hydrogen, consider everyday transportation. Though it may seem that battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) are likely to dominate the future transportation landscape, many auto experts believe fuel cell hydrogen technology will supplant both traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs) and BEVs.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity; since the only byproduct is water, hydrogen is a “clean” fuel. Commercial FCEVs like buses and forklifts are currently more widespread than consumer vehicles, but this could change dramatically over the long term. Compared to the one to two hours it typically takes to charge a BEV, FCEVs can be refueled through a nozzle in comparable time to an ICE vehicle. FCEV ranges are also closer to those of conventional ICEs.

What are the drawbacks? Although FCEVs do not emit carbon dioxide and harmful pollutants, most hydrogen is currently produced using coal and natural gas, undercutting its overall cleanness as a power source. Even as more FCEVs appear on the market, consumer refueling points are still scarce. It is also expensive to fill up consumer FCEVs—typically double the cost of refueling a BEV—prompting FCEV-makers to offer prepaid hydrogen fuel deals.

Hydrogen’s ability to store power generated by wind and solar—and store it more effectively than lithium-ion batteries—could allow renewable energy to scale.

The Bigger Picture of Green Hydrogen

Hydrogen’s promise as a sustainable investing tool to power a low-carbon economy may depend on its ability to uncouple itself from fossil fuels, reports Karma. There is growing interest in producing hydrogen from renewables, especially if the cost of wind and solar power fall as some expect. Combined with a continued build-out of hydrogen fuel infrastructure, the cost of hydrogen fuel could fall over time. Beyond FCEVs, experts also see increasing hydrogen adoption as a fuel in aviation, rail, shipping, and even in buildings. Hydrogen is also a strong candidate in power generation for storing the variable energy output of solar and wind. As the World Economic Forum suggests, hydrogen’s ability to store power generated by renewables—and store it more effectively than lithium-ion batteries—could allow renewable energy to scale.

Energy firms are paying attention to the potential of green hydrogen, with Royal Dutch Shell and Eneco this year discussing plans for hydrogen production powered by an offshore wind farm. In March, the EU launched its Clean Hydrogen Alliance with the aim of boosting the production and use of hydrogen derived from renewables, or so-called green hydrogen. The EU sees hydrogen playing a leading role in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Government policy will be instrumental in whether or not hydrogen will reach its potential and over what time frame, since hundreds of hydrogen projects currently underway around the world are subject to government funding.

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