Hydrogen on the rise as clean fuel
Market conditions, gains in technology build momentum for a crucial role for the gas in the future energy landscape
then release it back to the power grid in the other seasons.
Therefore, one can say that when hydrogen technologies are commercially ready, hydrogen and its related infrastructure will surely become as strategic an energy form as fossil fuels are today. The key question is when.
Currently, hydrogen technologies still face limitations, especially regarding the cost and durability of the fuel cell stack, the energy conversion efficiency in producing hydrogen, and the cost and convenience of transporting it. But new, favorable momentums are coming, not only from technological progress but also from market conditions.
Fuel cell technologies, especially based on hydrogen, have come a long way since the last rush to the concept around the beginning of the 2000s. Leading fuel cell manufacturers these days are claiming 5,000-plus hours of durability, sufficient for mileage of more than 160,000 km. The cost of each kilowatt has also come down, from $124 (105 euros; £95) per kW in 2006 to $53 as of 2016.
At the same time, the technologies for production and transportation of hydrogen have demonstrated significant progress, in terms of both energy conversion efficiency and the costs of delivering hydrogen along the supply chain.
The US Department of Energy is expecting the fuel cell cost to fall to $40 per kW, together with the hydrogen cost at the fuel station dispenser coming down to $4 per kg, by 2020. At these levels, hydrogen-powered vehicles will become economically competitive with conventional fossil fuel-based vehicles in certain types of fleets.
In the past decade, there have also been game-changing developments in new renewables, especially wind, solar, biomass, biofuel and waste-to-energy. These capacities have been built so fast that in many countries, the absorption of them by the power grids has become an increasingly heavy burden, due to daily intermittency as well as seasonality of these renewables.
While the wasting of renewable energy has become a concern, power grid operators have been obliged to build up more storage capacity, currently focusing on pump hydropower and stationary batteries. These are expensive solutions with limited and nonflexible capacity. Many people expect that the increasing fleets of electric vehicles will become an important factor to absorb the intermittency of renewables in the near future. But even then, the capacity would be insufficient to handle seasonal fluctuation of renewables. Hydrogen can do so, however.
Finally, fuel cell electric vehicles are complementary to battery electric vehicle fleets. This is because battery electric vehicles, limited by the energy intensity and durability of batteries, are mostly suitable for urban and short-distance trips.
But we are yet to see a common and firm vision on hydrogen formed among global policymakers and industry players. Without that, coordination on policies to accelerate the development of the technologies, market and infrastructure for hydrogen is not likely. One should be reminded how the learning curve was realized for solar and wind technologies in the past two decades.
Strong and appropriate policies will create the initial critical mass of demand, so as to drastically bring down costs while improving the performance of the new technologies. That will further enable new niche markets to adopt the technologies. A larger market will invite more investment into the supply chain as well as the infrastructure, while technologies keep advancing due to the learning effect. In the process, economies of scale will gradually kick in, as well as perhaps the lock-in effect in forming new social-technical systems.
A global strategy to coordinate the policies and industries’ moves will add to the effectiveness as well as certainty of such acceleration effects.