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Why should we care about hydrogen? – Hydrogen as an important vector towards decarbonisation

Updated: Oct 25

As the impacts of climate change intensify, there is an increasing focus on the sources and carriers of alternative, renewable, and sustainable energy. Next to a vast expansion of renewable energy sources, the storage of this volatile energy will be a major challenge but is crucial to the target of climate neutrality. To this end, hydrogen can and will play a major role, as it allows long-term storage next to a diverse range of applications, which enables the coupling of different sectors. These characteristics mean there will be an increasing need for this element in the future. According to the International Energy Agency, the global demand for hydrogen is expected to rise from ninety-four megatons (MT) per year in 2021 to approximately 180 MT in 2030 (IEA, 2022).

Figure: Expected global hydrogen demand, Source: IEA, 2022


In addition to processes that already use hydrogen, the expected amplitude of future demand mirrors the diversity of further application possibilities for hydrogen, which will drastically scale-up in the medium- and long-term. Currently, the largest share of hydrogen is still applied to producing ammonia and the refinery process. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), hydrogen is generated through emission-intensive steam methane reforming (SMR) and accounts for about 6 % of the global natural gas use (IEA, 2019). However, hydrogen can be generated without emissions, through for example, water electrolysis that relies on renewable energy as a source. Applications for this ‘green hydrogen’ include everything from fuel cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen and solely emit water steam, to heavy industry applications, such as heat production or iron direct reduction in the steel industry, to the generation of heat and electricity in the household sector. These diverse applications of green hydrogen in the transportation, heavy industry, and energy sectors will make a lasting contribution to the global decarbonisation effort in the coming years.


Hydrogen will not only play an important role in decarbonising many sectors of the economy, but also in compensating the volatility of renewable energy sources. Wind and solar energy do not generate a constant energy flow as they are dependent on the current weather conditions, nor does the supply of these energy sources always match the demand. With an increasing share of renewable energy sources in the power sector, balancing activities will become more crucial, and hydrogen has the potential to play a key role in these activities. Through electrolysis, storage, and re-electrification via fuel cells, hydrogen can be used as a buffer. This is extremely important to guarantee a secure and stable grid, and makes it possible to overcome seasonal, as well as geographical differences in energy supply and demand.


In conclusion, the technical applications of hydrogen are diverse and sustainable when producing green hydrogen. These diverse and sustainable applications will inevitably promote the development of technology around hydrogen, making it a leading element in our global effort towards decarbonisation.


Sources:

Hydrogen Council. 2017. How hydrogen empowers the energy transition, https://hydrogencouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Hydrogen-Council-Vision-Document.pdf.

Hydrogen Council. 2022. Hydrogen Insights, https://hydrogencouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Hydrogen-Insights-2022-2.pdf.

International Energy Agency. 2019. The Future of Hydrogen, https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-hydrogen.

International Energy Agency. 2022. Hydrogen, https://www.iea.org/reports/hydrogen.