IRENA Report: Hydrogen from Renewables May Hold the Key to a Low-Carbon Future
Solar Farm, US. Credit: American Public Power Association
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Hydrogen could become a key element in enabling a 100% renewable energy future.

Hydrogen is not a source of energy itself, but an energy carrier that can be produced from fossil as well as renewable sources.

Hydrogen can make the biggest difference in the power, transport, and industry sectors, where currently no economically viable alternatives to using fossil fuels exist.

7 September 2018: The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report on the potential of hydrogen to enable a deeper energy transition. Titled ‘Hydrogen from Renewable Power: Technology Outlook for the Energy Transition,’ the publication outlines the state of hydrogen technology, the potential of renewable-based hydrogen uptake in the industry, buildings and power, and transport sectors; and policies needed to realize this potential.

To achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement, substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions are required across all sectors. The share of renewable energy in global final energy consumption needs to increase from 18% today to 65% in 2050. Yet, one-third of global energy-related emissions come from economic sectors, where currently no viable economic alternative to fossil fuels exists. IRENA’s report shows how hydrogen from renewable sources could be a critical element of a strategy to fill this gap.

The publication provides an overview of the areas in which renewables-based hydrogen could enable a deeper energy transition. The first section outlines the challenges of the energy transition and areas in which hydrogen is already used as energy source and what role it could play in other areas. The subsequent sections address: current technology status and developments; hydrogen applications in end-use sectors; and the creation of hydrogen supply chains. The final section develops recommendations for policy makers.

According to the analysis, renewables-based hydrogen could be critical for deeper energy transition for the following reasons:

  • Hydrogen can provide the missing link in the transformation of sectors, such as aviation or refining, where electrification is not suitable to replace combustible fuel.
  • Hydrogen can support higher shares of wind and solar energy in power sectors all over the world by serving as temporary storage of renewable electricity to balance the grid and even out variable power production.
  • Hydrogen offers possibilities to tap high quality renewable energy resources, such as remote desserts, since it is easier to transported than electricity and unconstrained by grid connections.
  • Hydrogen can take advantage of existing energy infrastructure, including injection into natural gas grids reducing emissions of existing gas infrastructure such as gas turbines for the power sector.
  • Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen can offer consumers a low-emissions driving performance similar to conventional vehicles using internal combustion engines.

The technical sections explain the advantages of hydrogen as a fuel, including: providing high-grade heat; addressing a range of energy needs that direct electrification cannot meet; and replacing fossil fuel-based feedstocks, such as natural gas, in high-emission applications of the industry sector.

The report then outlines the most established technology options for producing hydrogen from renewable energy sources, including water electrolysis and steam reforming of biomethane with or without carbon capture and storage. This is followed by a detailed discussion how the hydrogen generated can be used to decarbonize the transport and industry sectors or as a replacement for natural gas for energy storage and distribution using existing infrastructure.

Renewable hydrogen should be viewed as part of the broader global energy transition.

On hydrogen supply chains, the study discusses several options, ranging from on-site production to centralized production and long-distance delivery, using tankers, trucks, or existing pipelines for natural gas as well as new dedicated hydrogen infrastructure.

The report finds that while hydrogen technologies are maturing, changes in policy frameworks are needed to encourage the appropriate private investments required and reduce costs, such as: support for injecting hydrogen into the gas grid to create sufficient demand to trigger cost reductions through economies of scale; de-risking initial investments in large-scale electrolyzers to scale-up supply for transport or industry uses; or certification schemes to register hydrogen renewable energy use. The authors conclude that even though more investment and research are needed, renewable hydrogen should be viewed as part of the broader global energy transition. [IRENA Press Release] [Publication: Hydrogen from Renewable Power: Technology Outlook for the Energy Transition] [Report Abstract]

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