The Promises and Potential Pitfalls of the Hydrogen Economy

Courtesy of IDTechEx

By Justin Choung  

The future of energy, specifically renewable energy, may hinge on the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen is an  efficient and powerful fuel that could potentially be used in industries where renewable energies have failed to  take hold; it is thought of by many in the energy sector as a potential “silver bullet” solution. The hydrogen  economy is centered on green hydrogen, the cleanest form of hydrogen fuel that is produced through renewable energy. The potential benefits of the hydrogen economy are enormous; industries that have struggled to convert  to less efficient renewable energies in the past could finally become environmentally sustainable. Widespread implementation of green hydrogen would be crucial to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are  significant concerns surrounding hydrogen due to both technical and environmental barriers.  

Hydrogen is produced by using electricity for electrolysis, the process of splitting water to isolate the hydrogen  particles. The hydrogen currently used today is typically produced with fossil fuels. Green hydrogen, the most  coveted form of hydrogen, is produced when that electricity comes from renewable energy sources. While  hydrogen is a powerful, efficient fuel, much of the hydrogen used today is detrimental to the environment. As a  result, the future of the hydrogen economy hinges on the development of green hydrogen, which is a zero emission energy source.  

Green hydrogen is seen as a crucial development for industries that have historically struggled to transition to  renewable energy. The shipping and aviation industries in particular have looked to hydrogen as a solution; this  is due to hydrogen’s high concentration of energy per unit of mass, especially when compared to jet fuel and  lithium-ion batteries. As a result, numerous automobile and aircraft manufacturers have been developing fuel  cells that can utilize hydrogen for their vehicles. In 2020, Nikola, Toyota, and Hyundai announced plans for  zero-emission hydrogen semi-trucks. That same year, aircraft manufacturer ZeroAvia completed the world’s  first commercial-grade aircraft flight powered entirely by hydrogen. Hydrogen is even considered by some to be  the potential savior of the fossil fuel industry; coal, oil, and natural gas companies are well positioned to convert  their current pipeline infrastructure for hydrogen production. And on a more basic level, green hydrogen is a  way for other renewable sources to store excess energy for transport and future use.  

There are however significant barriers that must be overcome for green hydrogen to see widespread  implementation. Green hydrogen prices would need to fall by 85% to compete with regular hydrogen, much less fossil fuels; the cost of producing green hydrogen is between $2.50/kg to $4.50/kg, compared to $0.31/kg for crude oil. Unless the costs of green hydrogen are drastically reduced, it will not serve as an economically sensible alternative.  

Hydrogen also poses environmental concerns of its own. When it is leaked into the atmosphere, hydroxyl  radicals are removed from the air. This article helps remove greenhouse gases, which has caused some scientists to question the viability of hydrogen as a solution to the energy industry’s greenhouse gas emissions problem. The possibility of a hydrogen leak is also alarming; hydrogen that leaks into an enclosed space such as a tunnel or factory is susceptible to igniting and causing explosions.  

Despite these significant economic and environmental concerns, governments, companies, and investors have  become increasingly bullish on hydrogen. Bank of America analysts have predicted that green hydrogen will  make up 24% of the world’s energy consumption by 2050. The promise of hydrogen is simply too great, as  hydrogen contains one of the highest energy density values among all energy sources. Gasoline, for example, is  three times less dense in terms of energy compared to hydrogen. The pure power and efficiency of hydrogen  currently outmatches any economic or environmental issues it faces. Furthermore, hydrogen is seen as a  promising solution for industries that are high emitters of greenhouse gases. In a world where climate change is  becoming an increasingly high-profile issue, hydrogen will only become more relevant.

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