Opinion/Analysis

Over the last year, pro- and anti-hydrogen lobbies have been waging a proxy war in the media. For some, it’s a miraculous clean-energy solution appropriate for many sectors, and for others it’s an enormous hoax cooked up by the oil and gas industry to use more methane.

The losers in this debate are the environment, and the general public, who are desperately in need of a substitute for fossil fuels but can’t see through the smoke generated by the different parties. One side would have us believe that we can’t solve the energy-transition problem unless we focus exclusively on environmental protection, and the other holds that nothing can be achieved without taking into account the industrial, political and even the geostrategic dimensions.

Both of these arguments are inaccurate. Hydrogen is just an element, a simple combination of atoms. Hydrogen atoms do some things, but not others. Yet hydrogen has a unique capability—the potential to unify opposing factions because it offers advantages for everyone.

For traditionalists, hydrogen production represents both massive industrial potential and a range of economic opportunity, with the accompanying benefits of job creation and greater social stability. For those wanting less concentration of influence, hydrogen can assist in decentralization and distributed energy. For example, regionally produced hydrogen generated through renewable energy offers a strategic advantage by providing greater energy independence at a local and even an individual level—hydrogen can be produced at home with solar panels.

However, reconciling the two sides means bringing all the players to the table and understanding the benefits—and the limitations—of the technology, as well as where hydrogen is applicable.

Agreeing on Strategic Use of Hydrogen

The key advantage of hydrogen is that it stores renewable energy—it is, in effect, a battery that can solve the problem of the intermittent nature of cost-effective solar and wind power. Hydrogen can be produced when there is surplus electricity, say in California on a sunny day, and this power can be released later, whenever we need it. Hydrogen yield has not yet been optimized, but using any amount of hydrogen is still better than simply wasting the surplus solar or wind power.

The usefulness of hydrogen for industry is a given in sectors such as nitrogen production for fertilizer and in blast furnaces to produce steel. In fact, Germany and Sweden have opened wind-to-hydrogen facilities for smelting.

The debate has become bogged down when it comes to mobility. While the automotive and trucking industry both agree that we need to move away from gasoline and diesel, the battery and hydrogen factions are at odds. 

For some, the battery and its “nearly 100%” efficiency is much more suitable than the fuel cell, which is half as efficient. For hydrogen supporters, battery weight is a problem that limits range. The solution may lie in using battery-powered light vehicles for short trips and larger hydrogen-powered vehicles for long trips, where large electric batteries would be too carbon intensive to manufacture and too heavy a load to make a trip efficient. This approach would bring greater range and refueling speed, and the same model could be used for the maritime and aviation sectors, with batteries being used for electric air and marine “taxis” and hydrogen for longer-haul passenger and cargo trips.

Hydrogen Infrastructure and Distribution: Partnering for Success

The question of hydrogen distribution has been a sticking point, with hydrogen skeptics pointing out that it’s far easier to build an electric charging network than it is to establish hydrogen refueling centers and/or transport hydrogen. Yet a few years ago electric charging options were limited, and now hydrogen networks are gaining steam. Small-footprint hydrogen generation and dispensing “appliances” are already being deployed in key cities in the US and Japan for on-site fleet refueling.

Hydrogen distribution is not a chicken-and-egg dilemma, as some suggest – the challenge can be solved by building the entire “henhouse” at one stroke, without waiting for subsidies. Here in Switzerland, it was simply a matter of asking. Private partnerships have brought all involved sectors together. For example, Hyundai supplied 1,000 hydrogen trucks, the Migros and Coop supermarkets put them into service, and the Avia, Agrola and Tamoil service stations supply them with hydrogen. The hydrogen is produced cleanly using hydroelectricity at the same price per kilometer as diesel. A similar system has been deployed in Paris by Air Liquide, a hydrogen supplier, with the Hype taxi company.

Green Hydrogen is not a Threat to Oil & Gas

A final reason to view hydrogen as a unifier is that it can enable the oil and gas industry to diversify more easily by retaining much of its infrastructure for hydrogen distribution and ensuring the survival of millions of jobs. This is in contrast to the electric battery sector which oil and gas perceive as a threat that will fundamentally alter or harm their business.

With these thoughts in mind we created the World Hydrogen Council, to bring together political, business and environmental interests. We hope you will join us as we determine an economically beneficial way forward for green hydrogen.

Bertrand Piccard is a psychiatrist by profession, a pilot out of passion, and a pioneer by conviction. He was one of the first to advocate that environmental protection and economic prosperity go hand in hand. After making history by flying around the world in a solar airplane, he and his Solar Impulse Foundation support efficient tech solutions that protect the environment and improve our quality of life in a profitable way.