The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel as a decarbonization instrument | Experts’ Opinions

By Catalina Russu

The pros and cons of hydrogen fuel as a decarbonization instrument | Experts’ Opinions

Decarbonization is one of the humanity’s biggest goals to be achieved by 2050. In order to prevent the planet from warming up by more than 1.5°C, everyone should seek to a) reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and b) absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In this article, we explore the potential and drawbacks of hydrogen as a fuel that could lead to fewer carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Currently, hydrogen makes a minor contribution to the global energy supply because it is currently less cost effective compared to other fuel types, the scale of production and the required infrastructure involved, and the perception of safety. However, as a fuel, hydrogen can be used sustainably to heat homes, power vehicles, and produce electricity. Many experts argue that only hydrogen produced from renewable sources can contribute to long-term climate neutrality. Could that be true? And, if so, what are the pros and cons? Let’s delve into the topic with DevelopmentAid Experts’ Opinions.

Key Takeaways:

  • As of 2021, ‘green’ hydrogen constituted less than 0.04% of overall hydrogen production, as it has a higher cost of production compared to hydrogen derived from fossil fuels.
  • The cost of production of green hydrogen ranges from $4.10 to $7 per kg.
  • Green hydrogen does not emit polluting gasses, either during combustion or during production and it is easy to store.
  • Overcoming challenges in production methods, storage, infrastructure, and cost is crucial for hydrogen to play a more significant role in the global energy landscape.
  • Regarding the perspectives on the current state and future potential of hydrogen energy, experts highlight the need for technological progress, infrastructure development, and global collaboration.

DevelopmentAid:  What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen energy in your opinion?

Lauren Burnhill, Managing Director, One Planet Ventures

“What are some of the challenges facing hydrogen energy? First, hydrogen itself isn’t actually an energy source. It’s considered a secondary energy source, rather than a primary source of energy like solar power. Hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels (which we want to phase out), water (which is increasingly scarce), and a variety of renewable sources including solar and wind. Hydrogen energy is a clean-burning fuel with water vapor (which can be recaptured) as the only by-product. With climate innovation increasingly front of mind for investors, investment in technologies for cost-effective production and storage (as in fuel cells) has been booming. That brings us to a second major challenge, transportation and distribution. Fuel cells seem like good solutions for vehicles and homes, but how do we achieve utility-scale distribution? Whether in telecoms or energy, the “last mile” of the value chain is always hard to finance and scale. Yet without it, how can increased production reach potential end-users? The Netherlands has embarked on an ambitious program to convert part of its natural gas distribution network to hydrogen infrastructure. Dutch progress will have a positive influence on global transportation and distribution investments so here’s wishing them “veel success”.”

Dr. Kare Helge Karstensen, Chief Scientist and Programme Manager
Dr. Kare Helge Karstensen, Chief Scientist and Programme Manager

“Hydrogen energy has both advantages and disadvantages.

Among the advantages are:

  • When used in fuel cells, hydrogen produces electricity with water and heat as the only by-products, making it a clean and environmentally friendly energy source.
  • Hydrogen can be used in a variety of applications, including transportation, electricity generation, and industrial processes.
  • Hydrogen has a high energy content per unit of mass, making it a potentially efficient energy carrier.
  • Hydrogen produced through electrolysis using renewable energy sources can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially if it replaces fossil fuels in various sectors.
  • Hydrogen can serve as an effective means of storing excess energy generated from intermittent renewable sources, helping to address the issue of energy storage.

The disadvantages entail:

  • Most hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas in a process called steam methane reforming, which emits carbon dioxide.
  • Hydrogen has low energy density by volume, which makes storage and transportation challenging. It requires specialized infrastructure and technologies to handle and transport it efficiently.
  • Hydrogen production, especially from renewable sources, can be expensive.
  • The process of converting hydrogen back into electricity in fuel cells involves energy losses, and the overall efficiency of hydrogen energy systems may be lower than that of some other energy sources.
  • Hydrogen is highly flammable and has a wide flammability range. Special safety measures and technologies are required for handling, storage, and transportation to minimize the risks.
  • While hydrogen is abundant in the universe, it is rarely found in its elemental form on Earth. It is typically bound to other elements and extracting it can be energy intensive.”
Joyce Ainabe, Energy Policies Expert
Joyce Ainabe, Energy Policies Expert

“Hydrogen energy holds promise as a clean and versatile energy carrier but faces challenges related to production, storage, infrastructure, and efficiency that need to be addressed for its widespread adoption and effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen energy is the use of hydrogen or chemicals containing hydrogen to produce energy with great energy efficiency, significantly positive environmental and social effects, and competitive economic rewards. Hydrogen is a naturally occurring gas and is one of the most predominant elements in the universe. It is continuously replenished and can’t be destroyed (only recombined with other elements), meaning that the world’s supply will never be exhausted, as with fossil fuels. Hydrogen has enormous potential as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. It could play a central role in helping the world to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Hydrogen energy is an alternative to fossil fuels that may represent a cleaner way to power our world. As a complement to other technologies, including renewable power and biofuels, hydrogen has the potential to decarbonize industries including petrochemicals, fertilizers, steel, heavy-duty mobility (on and off-road), maritime shipping, and aviation, as well as to support flexible power generation (among other applications). On the other hand, while hydrogen energy has many admirable benefits, it’s not really the outright preferable, clean, and cheap energy source for most governments and companies. It is quite volatile, expensive, highly flammable, explosive, and not easily compatible with existing infrastructure. Also, there is great difficulty in storing and transporting hydrogen. It requires energy to produce and store, which may not be renewable or sustainable. While its volatility gives it an edge over other energy sources in accomplishing numerous tasks, it equally renders it risky to use and work around. Meeting the world’s energy needs using hydrogen is a fantastic potential option, however, it may not be a silver bullet for the energy crisis. For hydrogen to contribute to the energy transition, a scale-up is critical.”

Dr. Kane Rabe, environment expert
Dr. Kane Rabe, environment expert

“Hydrogen energy offers significant advantages as a clean energy source, including zero emissions at the point of use, high energy density by weight, and the possibility of renewable production through electrolysis. Its versatility spans multiple applications, from transportation to power generation, significantly aiding in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, it can store surplus renewable energy and potentially utilize existing gas infrastructure for cost savings. However, hydrogen energy faces several challenges. Production, particularly from natural gas, is costly and less efficient. Storage and transportation are complex and expensive due to its low volumetric energy density, requiring specialized containment. The development of new infrastructure, like hydrogen fueling stations, demands considerable investment. Throughout its cycle, hydrogen energy experiences efficiency losses. Safety concerns due to its flammability, the high embodied energy in creating infrastructure and vehicles, and the resource-heavy nature of electrolysis are notable drawbacks. Moreover, hydrogen’s limited current application in transportation, especially in comparison to battery electric vehicles, limits its immediate utility. The advancement and adoption of hydrogen energy as a key energy source will largely depend on technological progress in improving production efficiency, solving storage and transportation issues, and developing effective infrastructure.”

Reza Pramudita, Digital Transformation and Advanced Analytics Expert
Reza Pramudita, Digital Supply Chain Expert

“Hydrogen is environmentally friendly as it only emits water vapor, and thus is pivotal in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its adaptability in transportation, power generation, and energy storage has addressed the aspect of intermittent renewable energy. Hydrogen energy is crucial in developed economies that focus on decarbonization and developing economies seeking sustainable energy solutions. On the flip side, the production of green hydrogen is expensive and energy-intensive due to the current reliance on fossil fuels. Due to economic limitations, strategically shifting from low-carbon to green hydrogen is a challenge for developing nations. In contrast, developed countries are taking the lead in policy and infrastructure initiatives, highlighting the difference in implementation speed and infrastructure gaps between developed and developing nations. Also, the challenges posed by hydrogen storage and transportation are universal and, therefore, require alternatives such as high-pressure or cryogenic solutions. In bridging these gaps, it is necessary to have a global collaborative effort for the integration of technology advances, supply chain, and strategic investments.”

See also: Green hydrogen may pave the way towards energy transformation

Gokhan Turker, Environmental and Energy Expert
Gokhan Turker, Environmental and Energy Expert

“Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and there is plenty on Earth too. It can be easily produced from a very common raw material, H2O via electrolysis. An easy production method and usage as a raw material to produce other compounds increases the versatility of hydrogen as a fuel source. In short, hydrogen can replace natural gas both in thermal energy and electricity generation. But unlike natural gas, it is available and achievable for all people. Although there are many advantages of hydrogen use, there are also some difficulties in its handling. Unfortunately, hydrogen requires specialized high-pressure tanks (350–700 bars) to store due to its small molecule size. The gas’s ignition energy is 20 times smaller than that of natural gas or gasoline which make it highly flammable. Production of hydrogen is still expensive for common usage. These features of hydrogen create difficulties in operation and the required investment period.”

Azad Mohammadi, Professional Engineer “PE – USA”
Dr. Azad Mohammadi, Energy and Water Resources Expert

“In addition to being widely available, renewable, and highly efficient compared to other energy sources, hydrogen is also abundant and can be produced from renewable energy. It is the best energy alternative to support zero-carbon energy initiatives. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the energy efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells is typically between 40% and 60%, compared to a normal car’s internal combustion engine which has an efficiency of roughly 25%. However, transportation and the widespread use of hydrogen are challenging since it is not easily carried and needs to be always stored and transported under high pressure. Water is hydrolyzed to produce hydrogen, but this is a costly procedure. Only until green hydrogen prices fall – which they are expected to do dramatically as renewable electricity becomes more plentiful and costs drop with economic scale – will hydrogen be used more widely. The global hydrogen market has much room to grow and is expected to play a major role in the energy transition away from fossil fuels in all sectors of the economy, including those that require a lot of energy. Nonetheless, the need for hydrogen energy will be cyclical and will be impacted by the push from society to reduce carbon emissions.”

Joseph Hwani, Sustainable Energy Strategist
Joseph Hwani, Sustainable Energy Strategist

“Green and blue hydrogen formation, storage, transportation, and use don’t contribute much to anthropogenic climate change and its application includes replacing and/or blending fossil fuels thereby complementing intermittent renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, blending fossil fuel gas with hydrogen would be uneconomical, and, from an opportunity cost point of view, it would reduce carbon emissions by a far lower amount than other uses such as fertilizer, or for shipping and aviation where electrification is likely to be impossible. The main cost component of green hydrogen is the electricity input. Again, there is a significant cost involved in converting hydrogen into something that is easy to transport (and then un-converting it at the destination). Hydrogen leaked into the atmosphere can act as an indirect greenhouse gas, reacting with pollutants like methane to extend their lifetime in the atmosphere. It can also impact ozone concentrations, potentially harming air quality and the recovery of the ozone layer, and it can create water vapor in the atmosphere, deepening the greenhouse gas effect. A recent study shows that harnessing Africa’s solar energy to produce 50 million tons of green hydrogen a year could help to secure a sustainable global energy supply, create jobs, decarbonize heavy industry and improve global competitiveness.”

Diego de la Merced, Biochemical Engineer
Diego de la Merced, Master’s in Energy Engineering

“Firstly, hydrogen can be produced from a variety of sources, including coal, biomass, natural gas, solar, wind, water, among others. This versatility can greatly enhance energy security and aid in the transition to sustainable energy sources. Secondly, hydrogen is a clean source of energy that does not emit GHG emissions. This has the potential to greatly improve public health and air quality. Thirdly, hydrogen is highly efficient and can deliver a greater amount of energy per unit of mass compared to gasoline or diesel. Lastly, hydrogen can be used for various purposes such as generating electricity, heating houses, powering vehicles, and storing energy.

The main disadvantages of hydrogen energy include:

  • The need for a large infrastructure of production facilities, pipelines, and refueling stations. Additionally, it is highly flammable and it is therefore necessary to consider safety risks (explosion and leaks).
  •  Storing and transporting hydrogen requires high pressure, low temperature, or chemical carriers.
  • Hydrogen is expensive and difficult to produce in large quantities, especially from renewable sources.
  • The current business model for hydrogen production is not convenient.”

See also: The future of energy and its impact on sustainable development

Awa Simone Marcos, Energy Consultant
Awa Simone Marcos, Energy Consultant

“Hydrogen energy is an abundant resource with advantages: it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide when burnt and doesn’t produce harmful emissions. It’s a non-toxic substance, renewable, fuel-efficient, and powerful. However, hydrogen has its disadvantages too. It’s highly flammable, with serious difficulties in storage and transporting. Hydrogen is expensive because it takes time to separate its constituents. If those problems can be solved, hydrogen will be an affordable and efficient choice to protect the climate around the world. For now, hydrogen’s disadvantages make the solution hard to use, especially for low-income countries. However, the need for infrastructure for production, transport, and storage may be solved by public-private partnerships (PPPs). Benin, part of sub-Saharan Africa, has opened its laws to that possibility. PPP seems to be the answer for competitive projects like hydrogen as sustainable energy. However, in that part of Africa, renewable energy has become a subject of geopolitical influence between China, Europe, and America. The choice of hydrogen as the best resource for energy depends on two questions: a general one related to scientific progress to solve the expensive cost of production and the challenges of transport and storage, and specific ones that concern low-income countries, especially in Africa.”

Enver Halimi, Mechanical Engineer
Enver Halimi, Mechanical Engineer

Advantages of Hydrogen Energy:

  • Clean Energy Source: Hydrogen combustion or utilization in fuel cells produces water as the only by-product, making it a clean energy source with zero greenhouse gas emissions at the point of use.
  • Versatility: Hydrogen can be used in various sectors, including transportation, industry, and power generation. It can be a versatile energy carrier and can be stored and transported for use in different applications.
  • High Energy Density: Hydrogen has a high energy-to-mass ratio which makes it an efficient energy carrier, especially for applications where weight and space are critical factors.
  • Renewable Production Potential: Hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, or hydropower, making it a potential part of a sustainable energy system.

Disadvantages of Hydrogen Energy:

  • Production Challenges: The majority of hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas through a process called steam methane reforming, which emits carbon dioxide. Developing cost-effective and environmentally friendly methods for hydrogen production remains a challenge.
  • Storage and Transportation: Hydrogen has a low energy density by volume, and it is challenging to store and transport efficiently. Current storage methods, such as high-pressure tanks or cryogenic storage, can be expensive and have safety concerns.
  • Infrastructure Development: The infrastructure for hydrogen production, distribution, and utilization is limited compared to other energy sources. Developing a widespread and efficient hydrogen infrastructure requires substantial investment and time.
  • Energy Conversion Efficiency: The process of converting energy into hydrogen, storing it, and then converting it back to electricity can result in energy losses at each stage. Improving the overall efficiency of the hydrogen energy system is a consideration.
  • Cost: Hydrogen production, especially from renewable sources, can be expensive compared to other energy sources. As technology advances and economies of scale are achieved, costs may decrease but currently, it is a significant factor limiting widespread adoption.

In summary, while hydrogen energy holds promise as a clean and versatile energy carrier, there are challenges, particularly in terms of production, storage, infrastructure, and cost, that need to be addressed for it to play a more significant role in the global energy landscape. Ongoing research and technological advances aim to overcome these challenges and make hydrogen a more viable and sustainable energy option.”

Reigo Lehtla, environment expert
Reigo Lehtla, environment expert

“Hydrogen energy offers a clean, versatile solution with high energy density, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. It excels in powering fuel cells for transportation and industrial applications. However, challenges include environmentally impactful production methods, energy-intensive processes, storage difficulties, and infrastructure costs. Hydrogen’s potential is hindered by safety concerns, energy losses, and the need for substantial investment in development. Overcoming these challenges is crucial for realizing hydrogen’s potential as a sustainable energy source with minimal environmental impact and broad applicability.”

Salvatore Consentino, renewable energies expert
Salvatore Consentino, renewable energies expert

“Certainly, hydrogen energy stands out for its pivotal role in steering us away from a fossil fuel-dominated economy towards a sustainable, renewable future. Yet, the real impact on emission reduction hinges on the widespread adoption of “green hydrogen”. This variant is exclusively derived through water electrolysis, tapping into surplus renewable energy. The crucial hurdle lies in achieving a positive economic balance, a feat accomplished by only a select few, myself included, who have devised economical solutions through the integration of hybrid technologies and by exploiting distinctive material properties. As for storage, the effective resolution comes in the form of utilizing metallic hydrides. Confronting current infrastructural challenges necessitates not just a practical but a visionary political outlook. By doing so, we can pave the way for the seamless integration and proliferation of hydrogen energy, overcoming obstacles and reshaping the energy landscape.”

See also: How resource nationalism can impact the transition to green energy? | Experts’ Opinions

In comparison to other industries, the energy sector requires a higher number of skilled workers, with certain levels of education, ranging from university degrees to vocational qualifications. On the DevelopmentAid platform, you can access more than 700 job openings in Energy, and Environment & NRM sectors. By becoming an Individual Professional Member, you can access all of these along with tenders and grants for individuals. You also become visible to over 3,000 member organizations and will be featured at the top of the search.