Hydrogen influential on path to net zero and 1.5°C future


Hydrogen from renewables and fossil fuels, combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) will set to support a net zero energy system in 2050 a report has mapped out.

On 27 October, DNV published Pathway to Net Zero Emissions (PNZ), setting out a “technically and politically feasible” path to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. As it stands, halving global CO2 emissions by 2030 relative to 2017 is almost out of reach, with leading regions and sectors facing having to go further and faster for the world to reach net zero by 2050 and secure that 1.5°C future. Europe and North America, in particular, have to reach net zero by 2042 under the pathway, with Greater China cutting emissions by 98% by 2050.

In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Subcontinent will only achieve a 23% and 64% reduction respectively. A similar trend is seen in sectors, with those harder-to-abate ones having to cut emissions by 80%-95%, leaving easy-to-electrify demand subsectors having to go beyond zero. 

Hydrogen is among the key technologies on this pathway, alongside renewable electricity and bioenergy. However, maximising non-fossil sources in the energy mix will only achieve 80% of the emissions reductions needed for net zero in 2050, leaving the remaining 20% relying on carbon capture applied to fossil CO2 and carbon removal, delivered through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, direct air capture and nature-based solutions.

Hydrogen is set to make up 13% of demand by 2050, with more than half of this supply coming from dedicated renewable energy production from wind and solar plants. It is the most viable option for decarbonisation in many hard-to-abate sectors, such as aviation, long-haul trucking, iron and steel production, or high heat processes.

Hydrogen production as energy carrier by production type
Source: DNV

It outlined how technologies to supply electrolysers with either renewable power or fossil fuels, along with the conversion to hydrogen via electrolysis or steam methane reforming and gasification are mature and in commercial use. Alkaline electrolysers are more mature than polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolysers, dominating the market at present, but PEM’s advantage when it comes to operating more flexibly will increase its share.

Under the PNZ, there are two main production routes for electrolyser-based hydrogen – grid-based electrolysers and standalone renewables-based electrolysers. To prevent future fluctuations of electricity prices, it tipped investors to gravitate to dedicated off-grid renewable generation for hydrogen production, though grid-based hydrogen production will exploit these to make use of cheap electricity available for long hours, avoiding curtailment of solar and wind.

Hydrogen produced from CCS-treated natural gas through steam methane reforming will continue alongside electrolysis-based hydrogen production, though growing renewable power installations will see fossil-fuel based hydrogen for energy purposes experience a large reduction in market share.

It further mapped out how under the PNZ, significantly growing hydrogen production based on demand will likely result in inter-regional hydrogen trade. It foresees pipeline and shipping as important means for hydrogen trade, as well as hydrogen transformed to larger molecules. Depending on the end use, it foresees hydrogen blended with natural gas in existing grids for the likes of buildings gas supply, or dedicated hydrogen pipelines in transport. What’s key is the basic technologies to realise global hydrogen trade exist today, with ongoing R&D effort needing to aim at improving PEM fuel cells and electrolysers, alongside storage and transport options through improved tank design and metal hydrides.

The main policies needed to channel hydrogen use to where its best suited will involve sectoral hydrogen support and incentives to create hydrogen demand.

In manufacturing, hydrogen consumption will see energy taxation favouring hydrogen, boosting the likes of carbon neutral steel or zero emission process heat, while mandates or fuel-mix shifts and emission trajectories in aviation and maritime transport will result in a significant demand market for hydrogen. Further policies include refineries being required to increase their hydrogen share for energy provision, advancing their own global emission reduction contribution in the process, with explicit CAPEX reducing measures needed on the production side to boost cost learning curve-based cost reductions for hydrogen.

Elsewhere, CAPEX support to integrated renewable electricity and electrolyser projects, along with subsidies to grid-powered, renewables-based electrolysis are needed, with both support mechanisms strongest in OECD regions and lower in developing regions. It also noted that steel production will be supported to shift to a hydrogen supply chain.