Since launching our hydrogen strategy earlier this year, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about electrolysis, what place hydrogen has in our decarbonised future and, in particular, the work Ceres is doing in this space. One question that comes up repeatedly is where is hydrogen going to be important?

Is it in cars, or heating homes, or steel or ships or something else? This question is often framed as a competition, but I think this misses the point about hydrogen and it is worth stepping back a moment. To get to net-zero, there are some obvious things that have to happen and these start to look like what Energy System people call “Merit Order” – a way of ranking available sources of energy based on some attribute, often price but sometimes pollution or others. In the journey we take to get to net zero, that order probably looks like: directly electrify as much as possible; then use electricity storage; then use fuels and molecules. This is a huge simplification, but it is at the heart of almost every projection that you can find on this topic. So, if fuels, and molecules like hydrogen, are last in this list, where do they get used?

In my opinion, hydrogen is the second-best solution to a whole range of problems such as cars, and heating homes amongst others. In some ways, this is one of the reasons it is something of polarised topic. A great example of this polarisation is the range of views expressed around the Olympics this week, the first with a torch to burn on renewable hydrogen produced by electrolysis, and 500 cars and 100 buses running on Hydrogen to ferry the athletes between competitions.

Those views range from the birth of hydrogen society through to the cynical embodiment and fakery of everything that is wrong with hydrogen, eg hydrogen doesn’t even have a coloured flame so that’s been “doped” and “all of the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels” (it doesn’t by the way). My take is that people with such polarised views at both ends of the spectrum will see want they want to in that hydrogen flame.

A more objective assessment of hydrogen shows it is the only viable (or at least the “highest merit”) solution to some specific decarbonisation problems; challenges such as decarbonising steel (8% of global CO2 emissions), agriculture (1% of global CO2 emissions in fertiliser production), plastics, and it can be used to produce other molecules like ammonia or e-fuels in heavy transport like ships and planes. To put some numbers around the opportunity for hydrogen, one report from Energy Transitions Commission suggests that these four applications alone amount to around 400MT pa or 40-50% of the total demand for hydrogen in 2050.

To paraphrase the old Heineken advert, “Hydrogen decarbonises the parts other technologies cannot reach”. There is a lot of debate about hydrogen versus batteries because we gravitate to the familiar when we think about these new technologies. In practice, the biggest users of hydrogen won’t be consumers, it will be industry where batteries don’t provide any solution.  Looking at the energy system, zero carbon hydrogen will have to be produced in huge quantities to meet the needs where it is only the solution. If this is true, it is likely that some of that hydrogen will find its way to some of those other applications where it is only second best but it is convenient to solve problems like use in heating or running some vehicles. In these second best solution situations, my view is that these applications will vary regionally because some countries will decide it makes sense in their situation. For example, the UK considering it for domestic heating fits into this bucket because the alternative in the UK (heat pumps in very old housing stock) is also really challenging. Trying to balance these issues all together sounds vague and uncertain but there is a different perspective and this, to me, is the important point – whilst a perfect prediction of hydrogen adoption is not yet possible, there is a wide range of applications that need it and it creates options for a long list of other applications – this makes it a commercially robust technology choice for investors, technology developers and industrialists alike. What this means in practice is, maybe it won’t be cars but it will be ammonia, maybe it won’t be planes but it will be ships. Having looked at this long and hard, I’m personally convinced there are enough industrial users with an imperative to make hydrogen production a hugely exciting proposition.

At a conference recently, one of the speakers said that getting to 80% decarbonisation is like getting to the top of the Matterhorn (first climbed in 1865) and that getting to net-zero is like climbing Everest (first climbed in 1953). We don’t have 90 years. We must get to net zero in the next 30 years, and we can’t do that last 20% without hydrogen so let’s start now.

Mark Selby is Chief Technical Officer at Ceres Power

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