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Commentary: Three reasons why the IEA report on hydrogen is a game-changer

Policy makers should be ready to start putting hydrogen plans into action (Photograph: Shutterstock)

The International Energy Agency’s groundbreaking new report on hydrogen, launched this month on the margins of the meeting of G20 energy and environment ministers in Japan, was a key moment for hydrogen, which is enjoying unprecedented momentum around the world.

There are at least three reasons why this report, The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities, is a game-changer in the public debate about the part that hydrogen can play in clean energy transitions.

Firstly, it provides an objective and balanced assessment of the potential role of clean hydrogen in the energy mix from the most authoritative international energy organisation on the planet. The IEA’s comprehensive approach, covering all fuels and all technologies, measures hydrogen against the best available alternatives.

The IEA clearly outlines the great opportunities for clean hydrogen to decarbonise sectors where reducing emissions has proved hardest, like heavy industry and long-haul transport, and in providing long-term energy storage. But it also highlights hydrogen’s main challenges, such as high costs and an unclear regulatory framework. The IEA submitted its report to the G20 at the request of Japan’s presidency of the global forum, elevating the debate on clean hydrogen to the highest level of policy makers around the world.

Secondly, the IEA does a laudable job in clarifying the complementary role of clean hydrogen in the energy transition in those areas where it makes most sense. For instance, it points out that while electric battery-powered vehicles will be a big part of transport around the world, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have a strong case to provide long-distance travel and long-haul friight transport.

And even though electrification can help reduce CO2 emissions from industries like steel and chemicals, the IEA’s analysis shows that deep decarbonisation will also require tackling fossil fuel inputs, in particular through clean hydrogen. It’s often overlooked that industry (mainly refineries and chemicals) are already producing and using hydrogen from fossil fuels. The related CO2 emissions are vast: more than the total emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined, according to the report.

In buildings, there are also circumstances and applications where clean hydrogen is practical and can be cost effective compared with alternatives like heat pumps. The IEA report will hopefully facilitate a more level-headed public debate on what works best in the energy transition.

Thirdly, the IEA report doesn’t try to entice us with visions of a clean hydrogen paradise in 2050. Instead, its main focus is on highlighting real-world springboards for the necessary scaling-up of clean hydrogen in the next 10 years. The IEA has identified four near-term opportunities to boost clean hydrogen:

  • make industrial ports, such as around the North Sea, the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen;
  • build on existing infrastructure,by blending hydrogen into gas grids, for example;
  • expand hydrogen in transport through fleets, freight and corridors; and
  • launch the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.    

To realise this potential, the IEA provides a number of concrete policy recommendations that range from identifying long-term goals and stimulating commercial demand for clean hydrogen to addressing investment risks, supporting R&D to bring down costs and eliminating regulatory. In addition, the IEA calls for international cooperation on harmonising standards, sharing of good practices and cross-border infrastructure.    

The validity of the pragmatic IEA approach was immediately confirmed at an investor forum organised by the Hydrogen Council on 15 June on the margins of the G20 ministers’ meeting. Banks and investment funds showed keen interest in engaging with the concrete clean hydrogen projects that were presented. But they also insisted on using existing value chains and infrastructure as much as possible to manage risks.

An important question is what’s going to happen next.

Governments will hopefully be encouraged to add further momentum to hydrogen by putting in place smart incentives and favourable regulatory frameworks, while actively building private-public partnerships to kick-start new clean hydrogen value chains.

The IEA states clearly that it stands ready to help by providing cutting-edge analysis on hydrogen, monitoring progress and coordinating the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative that was launched in May.

Following the IEA report, policy makers should now be ready to start putting hydrogen plans into action. Opportunities that could make a crucial difference to our clean energy future are there to be seized.

Mr van Hulst, the Hydrogen Envoy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy of the Netherlands, is a former Chair of the IEA Governing Board (2017-2018). He also chaired the High-Level Advisory Panel for the IEA’s report on The Future of Hydrogen.

Noe Van Hulst's picture

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 5, 2019 10:20 pm GMT

This all seems like great news for the hydrogen industry-- Noe, I wonder if you see the IEA report specifically being the catalyst for more government support for R&D into the technology? It seems like it's all still at an earlier stage than emerging technologies so it needs a bit more TLC before it goes primetime. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 7, 2019 5:26 pm GMT

"• make industrial ports, such as around the North Sea, the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen;
• build on existing infrastructure, by blending hydrogen into gas grids, for example;
• expand hydrogen in transport through fleets, freight and corridors; and
• launch the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes."

Clean hydrogen? Noe, the feedstock (source) of 95% of global hydrogen production is either fossil-fuel methane or coal, for good reason: it's the cheapest way to get the job done. Like burning methane or coal, the process releases carbon into the atmosphere - and due to inefficiencies in the process, hydrogen is a worse carbon polluter than either of its feedstocks alone.

Without impugning IEA's motive for writing this report, their prescription reads like a page out of the gas industry's marketing playbook:

1) Named industrial ports are "around the North Sea", source of $1 trillion in annual profit from offshore oil and gas drilling;
2) Blending an infinitesimal amount of green fuel with vast amounts of gas, with the implication it might one day serve as a replacement, is a tried-and-true greenwashing technique;
3) Expanding LNG trade routes directly serves the U.S. fracking industry;
4) Shipping elemental hydrogen never made sense and never will, given its low energy density and propensity to explode violently in contact with a spark or flame.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Jul 19, 2019 1:53 am GMT

You are right Bob, Hydrogen is very tricky. Hyrogen is like a very beautiful girl you really like but she plays "hard to get". She is around everywhere but she always with someone. You want only her so you will need energy to extract her out alone. That energy has to be free of running costs, clean and reliable. That's the rule you can't circumvent. So far, nobody has that energy. 

Hydrogen is nothing new as we all know that. But there are two hugh obstacles that we can't overcome. Production and distribution. We need a new perspective to handle them. We can't go on to do the samething as the fossil fuels.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2019 12:04 pm GMT

I'm interested to hear more about your perspective, Bob. It sounds like you think that with a new perspective it still might be a viable pathway to take-- is that fair to say? What do you think that perspective would have to be? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 21, 2019 12:52 am GMT

Bob, I like your metaphor of the very beautiful girl (from my limited experience with beautiful girls, it's accurate).

As we both have learned the hard way, that girl is never going to change. She teases us, then walks all over us. Time and again, just when we think we've discovered the secret, our hearts are broken.

Finally, we realize the attraction we felt to her was only the challenge she represented - the impossibility of ever starting a relationship with her. When the challenge isn't worth the frustration anymore, we move on.

Similarly, what attracts us to hydrogen is what will never make it available - the way it bonds to carbon or oxygen. Though it bonds to other atoms too (nitrogen, to make ammonia) these compounds are rare in nature. So we're stuck with swapping carbon for oxygen in hydrocarbons (coal, methane, etc.), harvesting the energy it makes, and tossing byproduct CO2 into the air.

Just like our beautiful girl, there is no shortcut with hydrogen. Because our girl/hydrogen will never be worth the frustration/CO2, why continue to make ourselves unhappy?

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Jul 24, 2019 1:54 am GMT

Matt, This is an uncharted territory in which no humans have ever gone in there.  I will start talking about it on my post. By the way, did you see my first post that just being published? I will post more info you can just follow me.

Bob, Thank you for liking my metaphor, it is real true as it appears right now. It seems to my that you already knew a lot about Hydrogen so I don't have to say how good it can be our future fuel. I am not talking about the bonding with any  thing else besides Oxygen. That's right, I am talking about water. The only substance that is sensible to extract Hydrogen out from water. The main thing is it will require a significant amount of energy to extract a usable amount of Hydrogen from water. That energy can't be from fossil fuels. But sadly enough that all energies we have are from fossil fuels. So we don't have Hydrogen. But that is about to change. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 24, 2019 11:27 am GMT

Following you so I can read more

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 24, 2019 8:06 pm GMT

Bob - IMO the most efficient and clean way to generate liquid hydrogen fuel will be high-temperature electrolysis using HTGRs (High-Temperature Gas Reactors), which produce a steady flow of 900°F helium.

Here in the U.S., development hit a brick wall in 2014. Not sure why, but I suspect it had less to do with technological hurdles than the fact it could put the multi-$billion extraction business - out of business.

"R&D on Nuclear Hydrogen production is well under way. Several countries particularly Japan, Korea, US and China are leading in every aspect of R&D. Japan has already demonstrated the feasibility of large scale nuclear hydrogen production. R&D on the interface between the VHTR [Very High Temperature Reactor] and the HPP [Hydrogen Production Plant] is also a major problem area. International programmes and collaborations are further strengthening R&D linkages. R&D on material aspects needs to be taken up more vigorously. These developments would soon lead the way to large scale nuclear hydrogen production, which would soon become the green global alternative as the fuel of the future."

Hydrogen production using high temperature reactors: an overview

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Jul 25, 2019 1:53 am GMT

Bob, I don't praise to use nuclear to produce large scale of hydrogen production. Firstly, it's costly then it's hard to control in term of safety because of its waste and finally it will hit the dead-end. Keep in mind, we have two huge obstacles that we can't overcome. Production and distribution. What you said will end up as a plan forever. 

The best way to hydrogen production is water electrolysis or water splitting because there's no toxin of any thing. But big obstacle is that we have no energy to do that. There have been the projects to do with solar but they didn't go any where. In order to enough hydrogen supply for our energy needs we have to start with the right energy.  

  

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 25, 2019 2:46 pm GMT

Bob - I challenge you to support claims that nuclear is

• Costly (per kWh, nuclear power cheapest form of dispatchable electricity).
https://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_08_04.html
• Hard to control in terms of safety.
https://www.wired.com/2016/04/nuclear-power-safe-save-world-climate-change
• Nuclear waste is a danger to the public.
https://www.nei.org/fundamentals/nuclear-waste
• Not sure what you mean by "dead-end." There are 200 years of recoverable uranium; including re-processed fuel and thorium, 5000+ years of nuclear fuel at current rates of consumption.

Water-splitting (electrolysis) requires an investment of energy - minus efficiency losses, it's exactly the energy we get back when hydrogen is oxidized. This fundamental principle of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) means there is no "free lunch" - if we're burning fossil fuel to split water, we're worse off with emissions than burning it to generate electricity or power transportation.

If we use solar enegy to electrolyze water, efficiency is less than 70% (30% of it is wasted), and we're dependent on weather and nighttime for availability. There is more potential for wind, but it comes at the expense of land use.

Renewable energy? Too diffuse, not enough time. Stone-age humans had an irrational fear of fire, too, but lots of time to figure it out. Now, we don't have that luxury: we can either accept the challenge of harnessing the incredible power of nuclear fission, or surrender the Earth to destruction by fossil fuel.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Jul 26, 2019 1:56 am GMT

Bob, you may say any thing you have learned and praised but the important question still remains "Why we still get stuck with fossill fuels?" It has been long enough for this "renewable methods" to be talked around. I want to stop the conversation now. Because I am not here to discuss about some things that have no way out. Only talking until we die from each other. The next generations may still go on talking with no solutions. 

What I want to ask you along with others who may visit this page is to spend time to listen to my message. It will be very well worth you time. I just got my page on this website. I will keep posting my ideas and invention that will give all of us a fair and blissful life.  I will be back to give you a link to my page. So you can go and read & discuss. So we don't have to face the predicament like you said. Something that I have discovered worked on in these passed ten years. Now it is ready to serve the public...See you later.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Jul 31, 2019 1:32 am GMT

Hi Matt, Bob and everyone. Here is the link I was telling you guys about. Please check this new perspective and please drop some comment there., 

Bob, you said no matterr what there is no free lunch. Well, that because we are on the wrong route when it comes to energy realm. Wrong stuff, wrong structure. As you follow me you will learn that actually there is "free lunch" for all of us. Our mother Nature is extraodinary sumptuous. I will keep posting more information. So see you guys there.    https://www.energycentral.com/c/um/paranormal-creations-wind-power

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