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Why you should care (more) about hydrogen

 
Before you click away, dismissing yourself as ‘not a chemist’, please give us a chance. We’re providing a societal viewpoint on hydrogen, explaining why this elementary particle is important to all of us working in the energy transition. And not just to those multinationals, startups and countries exploring how it can be developed and used. It is also important to understand what it is for you and me: citizens concerned about our sustainable future. Here are four reasons why we all should care (more) about hydrogen.
 
First off, for the energy geeks: when we talk about hydrogen in this article, we mainly refer to low-carbon hydrogen, like green or blue hydrogen, with the (obvious) preference for zero-carbon. But rather focusing the discussion on which ‘color’ of hydrogen, let’s see which one fits in the future we want (see point 4).
 
1 / Hydrogen is the missing link
Many of the pathways to a zero-carbon society are centered around electrification: driving electric, consuming less energy (isolation) and producing your own energy (e.g in cooperatives solar, wind). However, we are unlikely to electrify all our energy needs as the transmission and storage of electricity has its limits.
 
What can we use to fill this gap to decarbonize our society’s energy demand? Hydrogen is the missing link, as the European Commission describes in its hydrogen strategy: “Hydrogen has a strong potential to bridge some of this gap, as a vector for renewable energy storage, alongside batteries, and transport, ensuring back up for seasonal variations and connecting production locations to more distant demand centres.” (link)
 
2 / Governments are opening their wallets
We now know hydrogen is needed, but why don’t we see it everywhere around us yet? Well, the price of current fossil sources (coal, natural gas) of hydrogen is below its low-carbon blue (using carbon capture and storage) or renewable green (made from renewable energy) equivalents. Therefore, countries throughout Europe are investing in hydrogen developments. For example, in its hydrogen strategy, France announced to invest 7 billion euros by 2030.
 
These investments are needed to shape our carbon neutral and just energy future. If you’d ask me, we indeed do need subsidies to boost the innovation of electrolysers for example (electrolysers make green hydrogen using electricity). But does that mean we have to subsidize every hydrogen project? Please not. Because it doesn’t make sense everywhere (see 3).
 
3 / We need to be patient
Hydrogen is often seen as the holy grail of the energy transition, as the hydrogen story often seems to promise infinite abundance and solving all our climate problems within a generation. But not everywhere it makes sense to use hydrogen.
 
On a system level we must choose where we really need hydrogen (spoiler for point 4: where direct electrification is no option), and not be tempted to choose for the easiest or cheapest applications first. Green hydrogen will be quite scarce for at least a decade or even two, because the electrolysers need time to scale-up to producing large amounts of hydrogen. It also takes time to develop the wind-and solar parks needed to fuel those electrolysers.
 
So, we must be realistic and not expect that our subsidies and investments result in large amounts of hydrogen and solving our energy problems immediately. And we need to be open about this when making these investments.
 
4 / It is all about the energy future we want
Hydrogen supply will be scarce, but it is also not obvious to most where we can use hydrogen. And while many of you know we cannot plan transitions top-down, we need to think collectively on our desired energy future rather than ‘where will the consumer pay the most for my hydrogen?’ Thus, reasoning from an energy systems perspective: Where do we want to use hydrogen for? Do we want to become energy independent as country or EU? Do we invest in carbon capture and storage (for blue hydrogen) or in wind capacity at sea (for green)? What is a just and fair distribution of the limited amounts of hydrogen? Giving to industry or using it for our cars, or both?
 
To answer this last question: as much energy is lost when producing green hydrogen, it only makes sense to use hydrogen where the electrification alternative is very hard. So, using it for your residential heating or car? Please not.
 
Are you not entertained?
Let’s not leave the hydrogen discussion entirely to the energy geeks, but let’s make it a societal discussion when our governments are opening their wallets. Let’s find out together how we can use hydrogen to shape the just and carbon neutral future we want and fuel the right things in our lives.
 
If you would like know more about hydrogen, please find our report ‘Hydrogen for the Port of Rotterdam in an International Context’ here, or watch our colleague Carien van der Have talking as panelist about hydrogen (in Dutch only):


Date
July 1, 2021