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Hydrogen will take a bigger energy transition role, but clear messaging is critical

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Hydrogen is often described as a fuel of the future. Industry needs to communicate clearly its benefits to governments and the investment community for its use to become more widespread

Hydrogen was described as an unarguable part of the energy transition during the Hydrogen Middle East Symposium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia late last week.

Delegates at the event heard that over time, it will contribute to decarbonisation, but that the international community needs to communicate clearly the importance of hydrogen. The potential of hydrogen has been discussed over many years, but for its use to expand, government policy makers and private companies must clearly understand how hydrogen can contribute to the clean energy mix.

A key aspect of that clear message is to stop focusing so heavily on the ‘colour’ of hydrogen. Today, it is typically referred to as ‘green’ (produced using renewable energy), ‘blue’ (produced from natural gas, with carbon emissions captured) or ‘grey’ (produced from natural gas, with carbon emissions vented into the atmosphere). Panellists at the conference said attaching a colour to hydrogen created a confusing message. Whilst this may become important in the future, today hydrogen is still an emerging opportunity in the energy sector, and colour should not be the emphasis.

Governments need a simple message of why they must embrace the hydrogen economy and how they can encourage its use. They also need to ensure that policies are in place that prevent barriers restricting its use. Those policies and regulations should be international, to help facilitate cross-border trade in hydrogen.

Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency, Laszlo Varro, kicked off the conference with a focus on growth in hydrogen use, stating that if “hydrogen did not exist, we would need to invent it”.

Although much of the focus has been on transport, heavy industry such as metals and cement offer a real opportunity for expanded use, as these sectors need to decarbonise. Globally, steel accounts for about 7-9% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and a greater role for hydrogen in meeting energy needs is considered a step towards reducing the sector’s emissions.

Clear messages are also critical if investment is to be attracted. For research projects to scale, and for the infrastructure to be in place, both private and institutional investors need to believe that hydrogen usage will increase. Ahmad Al Khowaiter, Chief Technology Officer at Saudi Aramco, highlighted as an example hydrogen energy storage, which he said could play a critical future role, but to grow it needs both further research and investment.

About 3% of CO2 emissions today are associated with hydrogen production. Renewable energy could play a significant future role in producing hydrogen, and if done at scale, would help reduce emissions associated with its manufacture. Its current role is small however, and often talked of as a by-product of renewable energy use, where excess power is used to produce clean hydrogen. Panellists questioned this approach, saying if renewable energy was to play a greater role, it needed to be at a larger scale, not through using excess energy to produce hydrogen. The need for scale is also directly linked to production costs, because as this happens, production will become more economically viable.

Solar energy has experienced a significant cost reduction in recent year, shifting from a technology that was more expensive than fossil fuels, to one that is now lower. As prices fell, usage increased and investors took more notice. In a host of countries, including Saudi Arabia, targets have become more ambitious, with renewables now expected to contribute a far higher percentage of the total energy mix than thought possible just a few years ago.

Hydrogen is forecast to experience a similar path, with its use rising in the energy system, as it becomes more economical. As this happens, more countries will embrace the hydrogen economy, expanding efforts towards decarbonising energy systems worldwide.

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