As the world seeks to rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, support is pouring in for hydrogen energy to cut carbon emissions and create jobs.
Why it matters: The obscure energy source could help tackle climate change in the thorniest parts of the global energy system, like shipping and power storage. But it’s prohibitively expensive and would need lots of government support to get off the ground.
Where it stands: Of the $54 billion in economic stimulus funding approved in countries around the world (mostly in Europe) that’s going toward clean energy, 19% of that is for hydrogen. That’s second only to electrified transportation, according to BloombergNEF.
“I have rarely seen, if ever, any technology that enjoys so much political backing around the world. Countries who have completely different views on energy and climate all [jointly] saying that hydrogen is a key clean energy technology.” — Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Agency
The intrigue: Everyone from Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, is ostensibly on board with hydrogen.
- Biden’s recently expanded climate and energy plan supports using renewable energy to make “carbon-free hydrogen” at the same cost it does from making it with natural gas.
- The Hydrogen Council, a consortium launched at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, started with 13 members and now has more than 80 members. They include Saudi Aramco and a hodgepodge of auto, oil and gas, and other industrial companies.
But, but, but: Environmental scrutiny awaits, and the jobs benefit is not coming anytime soon.
What they're saying: Although the Sierra Club doesn't have an official position on hydrogen yet, its director of global climate policy, John Coequyt, says the group would likely only support hydrogen made purely with renewable energy, not natural gas with captured CO2, which is where a lot of support from industry lies.
- Experts in this area use different colors to describe how clean hydrogen is. (Green is cleanest to denote that it’s coming from renewable energy, gray is dirtiest, etc.)
- “People don’t understand hydrogen, let alone the … colors we are using to describe it,” Coequyt said. “It would be very possible to see a situation where people think they’re getting one thing, but for a very long time they get a different thing even if eventually it gets transitioned.”
Plus, jobs won’t immediately be created with hydrogen, according to Esben Hegnsholt, global energy transition team leader at the Boston Consulting Group.
- It’s a longer term economic strategy, which is generally good, but not particularly helpful today with jobs lost in the pandemic, he points out.