Vast promise, huge challenges

30 June 2015

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.

But not only is hydrogen technology’s economic success uncertain, its necessary components are also less advanced than those of many other low-carbon alternatives. So a new IEA report, Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells, 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. Technology Roadmap: Hydrogen and Fuel Cells finds that developing that infrastructure would entail investment of USD 900 to 1 900 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 fueling 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 to 1 000 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.

As it examines every step from production through storage, transmission and distribution to use by FCEVs and other possible technologies, 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.

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.

To download the technology roadmap for free, please click here

To download an accompanying foldout, please click ‌here

To download a technology annex related to the roadmap, please click here.

To read Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven's speech at the launch, please click here

To view the presentation given at the launch, please click here

Photo by Maurizio Pesce, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license