Climate Action

Mechthild Wörsdörfer on the important role of hydrogen as part of the green recovery

Ahead of the Hydrogen Transition Summit, taking place on the 23 & 25 February, Climate Action caught up with Mechthild Wörsdörfer, Director, Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks at the International Energy Agency, to discuss the important role of hydrogen as part of the green recovery.

  • 12 February 2021
  • Rachel Cooper

Ahead of the Hydrogen Transition Summit, taking place on the 23 & 25 February, Climate Action caught up with Mechthild Wörsdörfer, Director, Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks at the International Energy Agency, to discuss the important role of hydrogen as part of the green recovery.

In what sectors do you think hydrogen has the biggest potential do decarbonise?

We see two main areas where hydrogen has a significant potential to contribute in the decarbonisation of our energy systems. The first big opportunity is in these sectors that already use hydrogen, and which always will need hydrogen to operate, such as refining or certain chemical industries like ammonia or methanol production. Currently, practically all the hydrogen used in these sectors is produced from unabated fossil fuels. This results in more than 800 million tonnes of CO2 emitted every year, equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. Replacing this hydrogen with low-carbon hydrogen produced from electrolysers powered by renewable electricity or the use of fossil fuels coupled with carbon capture and utilisation or storage can deliver significant reductions of CO2 emissions.

On the other side, hydrogen (and hydrogen derived fuels, such as ammonia or synthetic hydrocarbons) can play a key role in the decarbonisation of certain hard-to-abate sectors. Hydrogen can be an opportunity in these sectors because other low-carbon alternatives, such as the direct electrification or bioenergy, are very challenging or limited. Some example of these opportunities are the production of steel, heavy road transport, shipping or aviation.

What are some ways to facilitate the scale up of low carbon technology to ensure balanced supply chains are developed?

In our report ”The Future of Hydrogen” in 2019 we identified four key opportunities that can help hydrogen achieve the necessary scale to bring down costs and reduce risks. We reviewed these recommendations under the Covid-19 pandemic context. Our conclusion is that these priorities remain critical opportunities for the efficient adoption of hydrogen but also they are opportunities to create near-term economic benefits, contributing to a sustainable recovery from the pandemic. These opportunities are:

Make industrial ports the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen, since they concentrate much today’s hydrogen and are particularly well suited to deploy water electrolysis at scale and CCUS infrastructure.
Build on existing infrastructure, such as millions of kilometres of natural gas pipelines. Introducing clean hydrogen to replace small volumes of countries’ natural gas supplies would significantly boost demand for hydrogen.
Expand hydrogen in transport through fleets, freight and corridors. Powering high-mileage cars, trucks and buses to carry passengers and goods along popular routes can make fuel-cell vehicles more competitive.
Promote international shipping routes for hydrogen trade. International hydrogen trade needs to start soon if it is to make an impact on the global energy system.

In addition, we think that it is critically important to look at all stages of the supply chain when developing policies to support the adoption of hydrogen technologies. This will help us to identify soon potential weaknesses that could become bottlenecks. It is important to support the creation of demand and the deployment of low-carbon production capacities, but we cannot forget that the manufacturing capacities of technologies like electrolysers or fuel cells may need to be expanded to achieve the deployment targets.

What are some key initiatives or ways of helping different nations to work together to move forward on achieving the low carbon hydrogen economy?

Meeting the global climate and energy goals will require an unprecedented roll-out of low-carbon hydrogen technologies. The required scale up in electrolysis capacity can be a good example to illustrate this challenge. Today, we have around 200MW of installed capacity of water electrolysis. To stay on track with our Sustainable Development Scenario, we will need to reach more than 3000GW of installed capacity by 2070. This will mean to install the equivalent of the largest electrolysis project in the world (20MW, in Canada) every couple of hours from now till 2070. The challenge is huge and no one can do it alone. We need strong international cooperation to identify and unlock opportunities while sharing risks among different stakeholders. Several governments are already aware of this and are working together in several initiatives. Some examples could be the Global Action Agenda agreed in the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial 2019 as a principle to guide expanded RD&D on hydrogen, the collaboration between Australia and Japan to develop a large scale hydrogen supply chain between the two countries or the dialogue between the countries around the North Sea aiming to develop a regional hydrogen market. The IEA itself has strongly advocated for international cooperation and is highly engaged to support many of this initiates. I would like to highlight the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative, led by Canada, Japan, The Netherlands, USA and the European Commission of the Clean Energy Ministerial and where the EA is the coordinator. The success of these initiatives will improve our understanding on what is needed to move forward in the adopting of hydrogen technologies and will facilitate the replication of these experiences in other regions of the world.

Can you tell us some methods the IEA would propose to unlock new demand from new sectors that may adopt low carbon hydrogen? What actions will unlock demand?

Innovation should be a priority for hydrogen technologies. Last year, in our Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation we found that three quarters of the emissions reductions necessary for achieving net-zero emissions should come from technologies that are not mature yet. Hydrogen technologies are not different in this sense. The generation of demand from new applications is critical to tap into the full potential of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier. However, the value chain for low-carbon hydrogen is not completely developed at commercial scale today. Large portions of the full potential demand for hydrogen will remain locked until technologies are developed to use hydrogen in applications like iron and steel and heavy-duty transport, and until fuels derived from low-carbon hydrogen (for example synthetic hydrocarbon fuels and ammonia), are demonstrated at commercial scale and then deployed.

Another barrier that needs to be overcome is the cost of low-carbon hydrogen for end-users. Currently, this cost is still high to facilitate its adoption in new applications. Innovation can also play a role here, but other actions such as the scale up of technologies for low-carbon hydrogen production and the development of infrastructure for its distribution to end users are needed to decrease its cost for final users.

As countries are developing recovery strategies after the COVID-19 outbreak, how do you view the role of hydrogen technologies as part of these green recoveries?

Hydrogen is an expanding industry and a strategic opportunity for governments to ensure that their industries come out of the Covid-19 crisis stronger than before, ready to supply future domestic and international growth markets and able to anticipate potential bottlenecks in technologies. Supporting the scale up of manufacturing of technologies that are ready to be deployed at large scale (electrolysers or fuel cells, for example); support the development of key infrastructures (such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen-specific gas networks or hydrogen refuelling stations) and the demonstrations of key end-use applications (such as in the maritime sector or in iron and steel manufacturing), are excellent opportunities for hydrogen technologies to boost economic growth and job creation. We have already several examples of governments that are using their recovery packages to support the adoption of low-carbon hydrogen technologies. For example, Germany and France have put hydrogen at the heart of their recovery plans, allocating 9 and 7 billion euros respectively in their new hydrogen strategies.

Mechthild Wörsdörfer will be speaking at the Hydrogen Transition Summit, taking place on the 23 & 25 February. Learn how we can make the hydrogen hype a reality by registering for free today.