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IEA: Critical steps to advance hydrogen and fuel cells

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

With flexibility and energy density somewhat close to that of fossil fuels, hydrogen offers a way to integrate variable renewable electricity into the energy system that could resolve key emissions reduction challenges in sectors such as transport, industry and buildings, as well as the electricity network.

However, hydrogen technology’s economic success is uncertain and its necessary components are also less advanced than those of many other low carbon alternatives. IEA has published a new report, Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells, which details the steps governments, industry and researchers need to take to foster and track deployment of the technology if hydrogen is to become a significant energy carrier by 2050.

Hydrogen generated from water can store electricity from variable renewables in large quantities for long periods without some of the volume and weight concerns of other forms of electricity storage. One potential application is to power fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), emissions free.

The first FCEVs were built in the 1960s, but an entire infrastructure for producing, transporting and distributing the hydrogen must emerge for widespread adoption of the vehicles. IEA’s Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells finds that developing that infrastructure would entail investment of US$900 - 1900 for each of the FCEVs sold by 2050. Critical steps include large scale demonstration projects to prove the economic feasibility of the electrolysers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen to produce the fuel; hydrogen fuelling stations; and the FCEVs themselves, which would have far greater ranges than battery powered vehicles.

The IEA roadmap addresses the challenge of taking these steps in harmony to bolster the confidence of hydrogen users and suppliers. It shows how a fast ramp up of FCEV sales plus basic installation of hydrogen generation, transmission, distribution and refuelling infrastructure, including at least 500 - 1000 stations, could within 15 to 20 years create a self sustainable market for such vehicles.

The first steps are already underway, with Toyota selling its Mirai (Future) FCEV in Japan and Hyundai of South Korea planning to market thousands of similar vehicles soon.

Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells details not just hydrogen’s potential but also obstacles, including safety issues. It lists the most important short and long term actions for development and adoption, outlining effective policy supports necessary to stimulate investment and early market deployment.

However, even with successful adoption of those steps, hydrogen’s future is anything but assured. The roadmap features a variant of the 2 Degree Scenario presented in the IEA flagship technology publication Energy Technology Perspectives that is predicated on high adoption of hydrogen as an energy carrier. But the roadmap makes clear that appropriate policy is critical for the technological and infrastructural advances necessary if hydrogen is to become a significant element of a low carbon energy system.

Adapted from press release by Rosalie Starling

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