General Motors built its first vehicle powered by hydrogen in 1966. But instead of revolutionising the auto industry, the GM Electrovan ended up in a museum. Half a century later, we’re still waiting for hydrogen to live up to its promise as a clean energy technology.

The industry joke is that hydrogen is the fuel of the future — and it always will be. But that could be wrong. The huge challenges of climate change as well as the rise of the wind and solar industries are giving it new momentum, attracting fresh interest from governments and businesses well beyond the auto ­industry.

Most hydrogen produced now is not clean, but the technology to change that already exists. To understand how hydrogen can go from hype to reality it’s important to grasp the situation our energy system faces.

Right now, the world is moving away from the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change that aim to reduce carbon emissions quickly. To reverse that trend, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will have to make up a far greater share of global supply, and fast. But they face difficulties, not least that the amount of electricity they produce can vary depending on the weather or the time of day or year, so it might not be flowing when people need it.

Hydrogen is one of the few ways of storing that variable energy. Other options include lithium-ion batteries — which power smartphones and electric cars — but they can’t compete with hydrogen in terms of scale. A big hydrogen storage facility in Texas, for instance, can hold about 1,000 times as much electricity as the world’s largest lithium-ion battery complex, in South Australia.

 Several countries have announced ambitious targets for FCEV deployment by 2030, which would raise the FCEV stock from 11 000 to 2.5 million.
Several countries have announced ambitious targets for FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) deployment by 2030, which would raise the FCEV stock from 11 000 to 2.5 million.
Image: IEA

Clean hydrogen can do a lot more than just fuel cars. It can power trucks and ships and be a key raw material for refineries, chemical plants and steel mills — all of which now have few alternatives to today’s polluting processes.

Fortunately, these sectors tend to cluster at major industrial ports, offering great opportunities to build combined infrastructure. And hydrogen is already produced at ports to feed local chemical factories and refineries.

So, hydrogen offers tantalising promises of cleaner industry and emissions-free power: turning it into energy produces only water, not greenhouse gases. It’s also the most abundant element in the universe. What’s not to like?

One of the biggest issues is that by far the most common way to produce hydrogen is from fossil fuels. The amount generated from coal and natural gas this year for industrial uses would be enough, in theory, to power roughly half the cars on the road worldwide. But hydrogen production releases about the same amount of carbon emissions as the UK and Indonesia economies combined, according to an IEA report to be released next week.

Cleaning up these industries by capturing and storing their carbon emissions or supplying them with hydrogen from renewable sources represents a considerable challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to start building a global clean hydrogen industry for the future.

Another big difficulty is cost. Hydrogen from renewable electricity is two to three times more expensive than that produced from natural gas. But solar and wind costs have plummeted in recent years, and if they continue to fall clean hydrogen will become more affordable. Still, the technology that turns water into hydrogen (without producing carbon emissions) needs to be developed on a much greater scale to cut costs.

Governments will be crucial in determining whether hydrogen succeeds or fails. Most of the more than 200 projects under way still rely heavily on direct government funding, according to International Energy Agency analysis. But smart policies should encourage the private sector to secure long-term supplies of clean hydrogen and give investors the incentives to back the best businesses.

We also need to kick-start the international hydrogen trade with the first shipping routes. There are encouraging signs: Japan has several important pilot projects to figure out the best way to ship hydrogen over long distances.

Meanwhile, the EU has backed an initiative to make hydrogen a significant part of Europe’s efforts to decarbonise its economies.

The IEA will help governments craft the right policies. At the request of the Japanese presidency of the G20, we have carried out an in-depth study on the state of play of clean hydrogen, recommending immediate practical steps to foster its development. The report will be released next week at the meeting of the G20 energy ministers.

The world should not miss this unprecedented chance to make hydrogen a serious part of our sustainable energy future, rather than leaving it parked in a museum.