Hydrogen has been discussed as a future energy carrier for decades, though infrastructure challenges and high cost seem to always keep broad adoption in the hypothetical realm. However, as the cost of electrolyzers and renewable energy continue to tumble and climate policies tighten, hydrogen is again experiencing renewed global interest.
Versatility and Disruptive Potential
Hydrogen’s versatility boosts its appeal as an energy carrier. It is the only energy carrier that has significant disruptive potential across the world’s energy-consuming segments: power, transport, industry, and heating. Electrolytic hydrogen—which comes from splitting water molecules by electrolysis, often with renewable electricity—is broadly seen as the key to clean hydrogen.
As seen in in the following chart, electrolysis remains expensive today. This is because electrolyzer capital costs have not fallen much below $1,000/kW. Renewable electricity costs, while falling dramatically, remain relatively high compared to a very high penetration future. But as those two costs fall, as is projected through 2025 and beyond, the cost of clean hydrogen falls substantially.
Hydrogen Cost Comparison with Other Energy Carriers, World Markets: 2017, 2025, and Beyond
Notes: Commodity costs include representative data from California, Germany, and Japan. Electrolytic hydrogen (2017) based on DOE data and actual filling station costs, while future prices presume large-scale (100 MW) systems with continued declines in both cost of renewable electricity and electrolyzer capital costs. SMR is steam methane reformation.
(Sources: Navigant Research, US Department of Energy, International Monetary Fund, International Energy Agency, California Energy Commission)
Hydrogen Use in Transportation
Transportation, which favors expensive energy-dense fuels, is among the more attractive uses for hydrogen. Indeed, electrolysis is providing a growing share of hydrogen to rollouts of both passenger vehicles and heavy duty vehicles like buses—in places such as China, California, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The success of battery EVs (BEVs) represents a major hurdle for hydrogen, though there is growing reason to believe that both energy carriers will be embraced. For example, the range-extending capabilities of hydrogen on battery vehicles are continuing to improve.
Other Hydrogen Uses
Hydrogen is also highly valued by industry as an important process input to production of ammonia, glass, and metals. Industrial uses represent an existing hydrogen economy that can be decarbonized and made more efficient by renewable hydrogen. Finally, hydrogen could revolutionize power generation and heating through fuel cells or other thermal generators, though it is expensive compared to natural gas, especially in the United States with its ongoing shale gas boom. Still, if the aggressive cost decline targets are met, even these two heavily polluting segments could be disrupted by hydrogen energy.
Hydrogen detractors correctly point to the infrastructure challenges of hydrogen storage, compression, and transport and the steep cost declines needed. If those hurdles can be cleared, this chart may hold two additional reasons for optimism: carbon pricing and hydrogen’s efficiency bonus. Carbon pricing, which is on the rise, makes hydrogen more attractive, as it displaces fossil fuels. Finally, comparing by units of energy hides a key efficiency bonus of hydrogen: it is often twice as efficient as the fossil fuels it replaces. This is because both stationary and vehicular fuel cells can be around 60% efficient, which is roughly twice the efficiency of combustion-based technologies after losses.
A Roadmap to Future Energy
This chart can be considered a roadmap to an eventual hydrogen economy. Electrolytic hydrogen is already competing with fossil fuels in the transport and industrial segments, and will continue to grow its market share. Provided the favorable carbon policies and cost declines continue, hydrogen has the potential to be the best and most versatile energy carrier of the future.