Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could help facilitate the decarbonisation of a range of sectors where the pathway for achieving meaningful emission reductions is currently uncertain or difficult, a new global study argues.
Released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at a meeting of G20 energy and environment ministers in Karuizawa, Japan, the report says that hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could help facilitate emission reductions in sectors such as long-haul transportation, aviation, shipping and buildings, as well as in chemicals and steel manufacturing.
The IEA is encouraging policymakers to support the wider use and adoption of hydrogen as an alternative to current fuels and industrial inputs, or as a complement to the greater use of clean electricity in hard-to-abate emission sectors.
As a low-carbon chemical energy carrier, hydrogen is viewed as a good solution for reducing hard-to-abate emissions, because it can be stored, combusted and combined in chemical reactions in ways that are similar to natural gas, oil and coal.
“Hydrogen can also technically be converted to ‘drop-in’ low-carbon replacements for today’s fuels, which is particularly attractive for sectors with hard-to-abate emissions, especially if there are limits to the direct use of biomass and carbon capture, use and storage.”
Hydrogen production itself would have to become cleaner, however, with natural gas and coal currently accounting for the lion’s share of hydrogen production globally. Natural gas accounts for about 76% of the 70-million tonnes of dedicated hydrogen produced yearly, followed by coal, which accounts for 23%.
In South Africa, Sasol produces hydrogen from coal using gasification. Sasol also deploys a Fischer-Tropsch synthesis process to combine the hydrogen with carbon monoxide to produce fuels and chemicals, with the world’s largest coal-to-liquid plant located in the Mpumalanga town of Secunda.
Hydrogen production using coal is emissions intensive, producing about 19 t of carbon dioxide emissions for every ton of hydrogen produced, which is twice as much as natural gas.
Titled ‘The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities’, the IEA report explores various clean-hydrogen solutions, including using renewable energy to produce hydrogen from water, in a process known as electrolysis.
Producing hydrogen from renewable energy is expensive currently, but the report says that the cost could fall by 30% by 2030, owing to the declining costs of renewables, as well as the scaling up of hydrogen production.
RENEWABLES & HYDROGEN
In addition, the IEA argues that hydrogen could enable renewables to provide an even greater contribution to the energy system, as it has the potential to complement the variable output of solar photovoltaic and wind plants, whose availability is not always matched with demand.
“Hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables and looks promising to be a lowest-cost option for storing electricity over days, weeks or even months.”
Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could also transport energy from regions with abundant solar and wind resources – such as Australia, Latin America or South Africa – to energy-hungry cities thousands of kilometres away.
“Without hydrogen, a decarbonised energy system based on electricity would be much more flow-based. Flow-based energy systems must match demand and supply in real time, across wide distances, and can be vulnerable to disruptions of supply. Chemical energy can add a stock-based element to an energy economy and thus contribute significantly to energy system resilience,” the report notes.
IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol acknowledges that there have been “false starts for hydrogen in the past”, but he argues that it is enjoying unprecedented momentum, with the versatility of hydrogen attracting strong interest from governments and corporates.
To further boost hydrogen’s role in the transition to a cleaner energy system, the IEA has identified four near-term priorities, including: making industrial ports the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen; building on existing infrastructure, such as millions of kilometres of natural gas pipelines; expanding hydrogen in transport through fleets, freight and corridors; and launching the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.
Importantly for South Africa, which is a key supporter of the platinum-bearing fuel cell, the IEA is urging government to support transport fleets, freight and corridors to make fuel-cell vehicles more competitive.
“The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future,” Birol argues.