Will Our Children Be Driving a Hydrogen Fuelled Car? The Role of Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Future Energy System

(Paris) — 1 December 2005

“Urgent action is needed to diversify the energy supply and to curb CO2 emissions. Hydrogen and fuel cells are part of a broad range of emerging technologies that may help achieve this goal”, said Claude Mandil, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) today in Paris, at the launch of a new study: Prospects for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. “To enter the market however, Hydrogen and fuel cells need significant technical breakthroughs, cost reduction and appropriate policies. Huge public and private investment and R&D efforts are required to meet the expectation of a new generation of vehicles with nearly zero emissions and to reduce oil dependence in transport”, Mandil added.

The IEA book, by Dolf Gielen and Giorgio Simbolotti, explores the potential of hydrogen and fuel cells in future energy markets, where emerging fuels and technologies compete for providing energy services at low costs and with reduced emissions. Hydrogen - like electricity - is an energy carrier that can be obtained from all the primary energy sources. At the same time, hydrogen can help diversify the energy supply and reduce emissions, if produced from renewable and nuclear energy or from coal with capture and storage of CO2. To compensate for the energy loss in production and distribution, hydrogen must be used in highly-efficient end-use devices such as fuel cells. Notably, hydrogen and fuel cells could substitute or complement oil fuels and internal combustion engines in the transport sector.

The IEA study suggests that hydrogen and fuel cells may have a significant role in the energy system if current targets for reducing their costs can be met and if Governments give high priority to policies for reducing CO2 emissions and oil dependence. In the next few decades, hydrogen costs need to be reduced three to ten fold and fuel cell costs by ten to fifty fold. Substantial improvements are also needed in hydrogen transportation and storage, and fuel cell performance. At same time, Governments need to implement decisive policies and incentives to promote emission savings and diversify the energy supply.

In most favourable conditions, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would enter the market around 2025 and power 30% of the global stock of vehicles by 2050 – the equivalent of about 700 million vehicles. The oil saving would then be equivalent to some 13% of global oil demand (or 5% of the global energy demand). Because the fuel cell efficiency is more than twice that of combustion engines, the energy needed to fuel these hydrogen vehicles would be less than 3% of the global energy demand. Fuel cell performance and costs, hydrogen distribution, and on-board storage systems are critical to this achievement. Under these conditions, the collective impact of hydrogen and other emerging technologies could halve global CO2 emissions by 2050. However, in less favourable circumstances, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are unlikely to reach the critical mass for market uptake and other low carbon technologies such as biofuels might gain additional market share.

Stationary fuel cells applications are less sensitive to energy policies and competing technology options. Mostly fuelled by natural gas, stationary fuel cells can contribute to meeting the demand for combined heat and power with 200-300 GW, equal to 2-3% of global generating capacity in 2050.

Natural gas and coal are likely to remain the lowest cost sources of hydrogen for many years to come, with hydrogen from renewable and nuclear energy to enter the market in the longer term. Therefore, large scale CO2 capture and storage - of the highest importance to mitigate emission in the power sector - is also vital for wider use of hydrogen. However, at this point, the choice of hydrogen infrastructure (production, distribution, storage) would be premature as technical issues with major impact on the choice, such as hydrogen storage and fuel cell concepts, are still being worked out.

Governments and industry should therefore continue to sustain current research effort with a focus on fuel cell costs and performance, and new concepts for hydrogen transportation, distribution, and on-board storage for vehicles. Sufficient attention should also be paid to some high-risk/high-potential technologies such as photo-electrolysis and biological production of hydrogen that are presently in their early stage.

Because of the global nature of the energy market and the transport industry, international co-operation and harmonisation of codes and standards for hydrogen and fuel cells remain of vital importance. Deploying fuel cell vehicles in niche markets where the economics are more attractive could start reducing costs through larger scale production and familiarise the public with these technologies.

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