Governments must “move faster and more decisively” to scale up their hydrogen ambitions and increase the demand for H2 to ensure the world stays on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Hydrogen: hype, hope and the hard truths around its role in the energy transition
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Back in May, the agency released its landmark report, Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, which declared that 150 million tonnes of “low-carbon” hydrogen would be required by 2030, with 520 million tonnes needed by mid-century in a net-zero world (with 38% produced from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, and 62% from clean electricity using electrolysis).

This morning (Monday), the IEA released its first annual Global Hydrogen Review, which lamented the “slow progress” with clean hydrogen, pointing out that even if every single green and blue hydrogen project currently under development was realised, it would only amount to a little over 17 million tonnes by 2030.

In other words, the IEA released a report in May that set an impossible target for low-carbon hydrogen, and then less than five months later unveiled another study to complain that the world probably won’t even achieve a tenth of that target.

This means one of two things. Either the IEA is totally overestimating the importance of hydrogen to the energy transition, or the world has little chance of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and we’re all doomed.

Let’s hope it’s the former.

The IEA’s net-zero emissions (NZE) scenario seems unrealistic for several reasons. First of all, the amount of renewable energy required to produce 322.4 million tonnes of green hydrogen would be astoundingly high — something in the region of 10,000GW of solar power (compared to 714GW installed globally by the end of 2020).

And secondly, it seems highly unlikely that the world would ever require that much hydrogen.

Some analysts — mainly those with no connections to the fossil-fuel industry, unlike the IEA — believe that the current global hydrogen demand of about 70 million tonnes a year will grow to a lesser extent, doubling in size, or even pretty much staying the same over the coming decades.

For instance, Michael Barnard, chief strategist of Canadian consultancy firm TFIE, points out that the majority of today’s hydrogen demand comes from ammonia fertiliser production and oil refining — and argues that demand for both will fall in the coming decades.

“If we aren’t substantially lowering our use of petroleum-sourced fuels in the next few decades, we aren’t solving climate change,” he says.

Barnard also believes that demand for ammonia fertiliser will fall in the coming decades as farmers adopt more climate-friendly practices, such as low-tillage and precision agriculture, and that the only sector with growing demand for hydrogen will be steel, where H2 can replace the coke used today by providing high-temperature heat, while removing oxygen from the iron ore at the same time.

He and others believe that hydrogen will not be widely used as a transport fuel, with heavy-duty trucks, buses and trains being cheaper and easier to run on batteries or overhead power cables, with biofuels becoming available for harder-to-abate sectors such as shipping and aviation.

And at the same time, the widely predicted use of hydrogen to provide heavy industry with high-temperature heat will also not be needed, with electric options such as infrared, microwave and plasma heaters being cheaper and easier.

However, the IEA declares in its new report that not only should governments scale up their ambitions on clean-hydrogen production, but that they should also “support demand creation”.

“Boosting the role of low-carbon hydrogen in clean energy transitions requires a step change in demand creation,” the study says declares.

So what the IEA is basically saying here is that, yes, the world needs to replace 70 million tonnes of grey hydrogen with cleaner varieties as soon as possible, but only a maximum of 17 million tonnes of clean H2 will be available by 2030 — but in the meantime, we need to increase the demand for hydrogen, which would presumably have to be met with more grey H2 from unabated fossil fuels.

And we want to see $1.2trn of new investment in the sector by 2030 to make all this happen.

Is it purely a coincidence that the new IEA report takes many of its projections directly from the Hydrogen Council, a fossil-fuel-industry-led organisation lobbying for the massive use of hydrogen anywhere and everywhere?

As the study gushes: “The Hydrogen Council in particular shared critical information on technology costs and performance from its industry network, which enriched IEA databases, modelling assumptions and techno-economic parameters.”

Of course, the IEA was formed in response to the 1970s oil crisis to help ensure that Western countries had an adequate supply of oil.

What is the thinking here?

So why does the IEA believe that the only way to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is by massively expanding the use of hydrogen — from 70 million tonnes to 520 million?

Let’s look at where the IEA argues that the demand will be coming from.

The NZE scenario says the world will need more than ten million hydrogen-powered cars on its roads by 2030 — which seems more than a little overoptimistic. As the report itself points out, there are about 34,000 fuel-cell electric cars today, compared to 11 million electric cars, with demand for the latter growing at a far greater magnitude than the former.

With hydrogen cars being more expensive to buy and run than BEVs, with only two models currently on sale, with H2 fuel pumps costing about $2m each (compared to $40,000 for BEV fast chargers), and the hydrogen filling station network being tiny, it is hard to see where this growth in hydrogen cars will come from, or why it would happen.

Yet, the IEA thinks about 100 million tonnes of hydrogen will be needed for fuel-cell electric vehicles by 2050 in its NZE — with 75% of this coming from “passenger light-duty vehicles”.

Curiously, the report does not mention that supplying all this hydrogen from renewable energy would require two-and-a-half times as much wind and solar electricity than using it more directly in BEVs.

The IEA also says that huge amounts of synthetic fuel (derived from hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide) would be needed for the aviation sector by 2050 in a net-zero scenario — with 100 million tonnes of H2 required.

This is despite the report pointing out that “converting hydrogen into synfuels is very costly, however, which could be a primary impediment to their widespread use”.

Only one major airplane manufacturer, Airbus, is even looking into the possibility of directly using H2 as an aviation fuel.

The agency also argues that hydrogen fuel cells could be used in 75% of commercial flights, with hydrogen combustion “technically” able to “potentially cover almost 95% of flights” — even though only one major airplane manufacturer, Airbus, is even looking into the possibility of directly using H2 as an aviation fuel. It also doesn’t mention the years of testing and trials that would be required for the international aviation industry to allow passengers to take to the skies in hydrogen-powered planes.

Hydrogen’s lower energy density by volume compared to jet fuel make it a less-than-optimal option, which is why the aviation sector itself is largely focused on carbon-neutral jet biofuels — also known as “sustainable aviation fuels” — as its primary method of reducing emissions.

The IEA also believes that ammonia (derived from hydrogen) will meet 45% of global shipping fuel demand by mid-century.

“By 2050, hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels meet over one-quarter of total transport energy demand in [the NZE] scenario,” the new report confidently states.

Ammonia and synthetic fuels combined will account for about 30% of the 520 million tonnes of hydrogen demand in 2050 — roughly 156 million tonnes.

Demand for hydrogen from heavy industry (including the chemicals sector) will be even higher in its NZE scenario — growing from 51 million tonnes today to 187 million tonnes by 2050, despite all the high-temperature electric-heating options available.

Another curious conclusion is that the IEA’s NZE scenario also requires 53 million tonnes of hydrogen to be blended into gas grids by 2030 — even though, as the new report states: “Blending hydrogen at 20% [the maximum allowed without massive gas grid upgrades] would reduce carbon intensity by 7% at most.”

As independent analyst Michael Liebreich recently told Recharge, if a country aimed to reduce emissions from the heating sector by 7%, it would be easier to do so — and a hell of a lot cheaper — to simply send gas engineers into every home to ensure that existing boilers aren’t operating at too-high temperatures, as they often are.

Nevertheless, the IEA’s NZE states that about 17 million tonnes of hydrogen would be needed for “grid injection” by 2050, despite not making any arguments in favour of doing so.

And while the IEA does not seem to believe that hydrogen should be used to heat buildings — unlike the Hydrogen Council — it curiously adds that the notion is “worth exploring”.

“Prospects for deploying hydrogen in this sector remain limited, reflecting the high efficiency of electricity-based solutions and the energy losses that result from converting and transporting hydrogen,” the new report states.

“PV-powered heat pumps require 5-6 times less electricity than a boiler running on electrolytic hydrogen to provide the same amount of heating. Ensuring safe operations and converting gas infrastructure are both capital-intensive and socially challenging.”

Nevertheless, the NZE scenario still says that about 17 million tonnes of hydrogen would be required for use in buildings by 2050, “limited to certain situations in which other clean and more efficient technologies cannot be adopted and/or it is needed to increase electricity grid flexibility”. Note that this is a separate 17 million tonnes of hydrogen to the amount required for gas grid blending.

And on top of all this, a further 75 million tonnes of hydrogen would be needed in the power sector by 2050, “to balance increasing generation from variable renewables; integrate larger shares of solar PV and wind; and provide seasonal energy storage”.

Senior executives in the power industry are not convinced this will be necessary, pointing to other long-duration energy storage technologies that may well have higher round-trip efficiencies, such as liquid- and compressed-air, pumped hydro, gravity-based solutions and new long-duration batteries such as zinc-air and iron-air.

As Francesco Starace, CEO of Europe’s largest utility, Enel, recently told Recharge: “Let’s remember, [hydrogen] is a very valuable and difficult-to-handle commodity. So you can store energy in the form of hydrogen [but] it's not easy to retrieve that energy… there are a lot of [other] solutions out there.”

We will need hydrogen

Let’s be clear, it is likely that hydrogen will play an important role in the race to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, particular by decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors such as long-distance trucking, shipping and steel.

But it will definitely be needed to replace the grey hydrogen being produced globally today, which emits a total of 900 million tonnes of CO2 every year — as much as the UK and Indonesia combined — as the Global Hydrogen Review points out.

And, as the report also shows, even this is a long way off, with not one single government yet providing any incentives to swap grey for low-carbon hydrogen, whether that be blue or green or anything else — let alone supply millions of tonnes of the stuff for use in sectors where electric options are already available.

So the IEA’s call to massively expand hydrogen demand should be questioned — along with many of the usage assumptions it is making.

The last thing we should be doing right now is increasing short-term demand for grey hydrogen — which emits nine to 12 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of H2 produced.

For the IEA to even suggest such a thing makes one wonder. Is it still too focused on helping the fossil-fuel industry, or has it totally lost the plot?