Regional stakeholders in Zuid-Holland have worked on the so-called Roadmap Next Economy over the last few years, advised by Jeremy Rifkin. Mr. Rifkin published a book “The Hydrogen Economy” in 2002 and predicted at the time that a critical watershed for the fossil era was fast approaching.

The Guardian science writer Larry Elliott titled his review of the book “H is for Hot air”. In April 1972 J. Bockris of Flinders university South Australia published an article in Science titled “A hydrogen economy”. The concept envisages “atomic reactors floating on deep enough (for heat dissipation) water to produce hydrogen on site by electrolysis. The hydrogen would be piped to distribution stations and send to factory and home. Re conversion to electricity would take place in on site fuel cells”. Mr. Bockris went on to write that: “a considerable increase of our energy supply will be needed the coming decades and we must avoid air and heat pollution in its creation. The hydrogen economy would produce about 14 litres of pure fresh water a day and drink water would become a by-product of its electrical energy source”. “Energy needs are cyclical, atomic reactors work continuously and cryogenic storage of hydrogen would be possible”, he wrote. According to Mr. Bockris, the main obstacles to implementation of the hydrogen economy are conservatism, a lack of training in electrochemical engineering, and public fear of hydrogen.

On July 9th 2020 the European commission unfolded its hydrogen strategy. The strategy talks about a “versatile energy source” as feedstock, storage, and transport medium and fuel. Hydrogen must become 14% of energy mix by 2050 and billions will be deployed to scale up electrolyser capacity. It aims to develop the entire value chain: cost competitive production, strong demand creation and transportation infrastructure. The closer to home institute Drift published a Rotterdam related report, commissioned by the Port of Rotterdam. The report states that Rotterdam is uniquely positioned to benefit from the hydrogen economy because of its existing energy hub function, the presence of an energy and chemicals cluster, and the “blue hydrogen bridging” opportunity. It does caution however, that this hub function is not certain, and that different transport modes, routes and hubs are still possible. The report calls for leadership, by reinforcing hub functionality, pro-actively developing trade and hydrogen production and supply chain and developing an iconic first supply chain, for example the so-called Green Spider Project.

This begs the question: what is different now? The EU strategy aims to combine energy system integration with widespread green hydrogen deployment to meet its energy and climate goals and to drive a systemic shift away from fossil fuels.

Decarbonizing the energy sector, responsible for 75% of GHG emissions, is crucial to achieve the EU’s goal of climate neutrality. The only way this can be achieved is through a system change: a “Green Transition”. Electrification will be necessary to transform the type of energy consumed by the industry. Hydrogen is also a key energy vector, and an emissions free energy carrier with non-energy uses, as well as industry feedstocks. In sectors where electrification is difficult, the EU plans to promote clean fuels, including renewable hydrogen and sustainable biofuels and biogas. Hydrogen is an enabler for sectoral integration. It is not limited to specific sectors and it can be made be available for mobility and heat and cooling applications.

1972, 2002 and now 2020 where Mr. Timmermans, leading the charge of the Green Deal, said at the launch of the hydrogen strategy: “The strategies adopted today will bolster the European Green Deal and the green recovery, and put us firmly on the path of decarbonizing our economy by 2050. The new hydrogen economy can be a growth engine to help overcome the economic damage caused by Covid-19. In developing and deploying a clean hydrogen value chain, Europe will become a global front runner and retain its leadership in clean tech”. It illustrates what is different today:

  • Strong political support
  • A system view of the energy transition
  • Broad societal support for decoupling economic growth from GHG emissions
  • Cost reduction of renewable energy sources
  • Large industrial companies setting carbon neutrality targets
  • An innovation ecosystem driving down the cost of hydrogen production

It could well be that there is less Hot Air is the H of hydrogen this time.

Fred van Beuningen