Climate change is the defining challenge of this generation, according to the United Nations, and if you ask NASA it is one of the most complex issues we face today. At the heart of the climate debate is the energy sector. There is now a global consensus that hydrogen is a key cornerstone on the transmission path to a sustainable energy future and to phase out from burning fossil fuels.
Hydrogen has entered mainstream discussions. The Tokyo Olympics shine a light on hydrogen, the G20 summit in Japan had a strong focus on hydrogen and the International Energy Agency launched a report “The future of hydrogen” concluding that the time is right to tap into hydrogen’s potential.
Hydrogen is the only currently available modular and non-fossil fuel option to store large quantities of energy over longer periods of time. It makes the large-scale integration of renewables into the energy system possible, enables energy utilities to store energy from short to long-term as a buffer between supply and demand, and allows to distribute this energy geographically. Hydrogen has the potential to decarbonize key sectors of the economy – power generation, transport, district heating and industrial heat processes.
After economic theorist and futurist Jeremy Rifkin predicted the rise of The Hydrogen Economy in 2002, history failed to cooperate with him. The US, then hooked on foreign oil, developed hydraulic fracking and became a net oil exporter. Fossil fuel use increased globally, driven by demand in Asia. Hydrogen seemingly went into hibernation during the rise of solar panels, wind power, and electric vehicles. Rifkin’s prediction seemed far off target—until recently.
2019 was a formidable year for hydrogen – and thanks to a few key developments over the past few years it seems hydrogen is back for real:
Falling costs of renewable electricity generation:
The last few years have seen a rapid decrease of costs of solar and wind and an increase in the installation base far beyond expert expectations. The share of renewables in electricity generation has increased up to 50% in some regions of the world like Southern Australia. This also revealed the intermittency challenge, which leads to overproduction and significant curtailments during some hours of the day and lack in others. Coal fired baseload utilities, guaranteeing the baseload power, cannot follow these dynamic patterns and have to be kept running even in times of high renewables output, exacerbating the situation. Hydrogen looks like a promising solution to store energy from renewables at low costs over days, weeks or even months.