Hydrogen set for “large and varied role” in reaching net zero


Hydrogen will play a “large and varied” role when it comes to helping the world reach net zero emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

On 10 September, it published its Energy Technologies Perspective 2020 report, in which it said that achieving net zero will call for a radical transformation in the way we supply, transform and use energy. While wind, solar and electric cars have shown the potential that new clean energy technologies have in terms of bringing down emissions, reaching net zero will call for them to be deployed on a far greater scale, together with the development and massive rollout of many other clean energy solutions at an earlier stage of development. These include numerous applications of hydrogen and carbon capture.

It mapped out a Sustainable Development Scenario, offering a roadmap for meeting international climate and energy goals, which brings the global energy system to net zero emissions by 2070.

In this scenario, hydrogen is able to extend electricity’s reach. On top of surging demand for electricity across different parts of the economy, a large amount of additional generation will be needed for low carbon hydrogen, it said. The global capacity of electrolysers reaches 3,300GW in this scenario – rising from 0.2GW today – with these electrolysers consuming twice the amount of electricity that China generates today. The IEA explained that hydrogen is able to form a bridge between the power sector and industries where direct use of electricity would be challenging. These include steel and shipping.

Carbon capture and bioenergy, meanwhile, play multifaceted roles with CCUS key for producing some of the low carbon hydrogen needed to reach net zero in this scenario. This is mostly in regions with low cost natural gas resources and available CO2 storage.

Elsewhere, a secure and sustainable energy system with net zero emissions will also result in a new generation of major fuels – including hydrogen. The report outlined how today, the system is underpinned by mature global markets in three key fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. These account for around 70% of global final energy demand. Hydrogen, together with electricity, synthetic fuels and bioenergy, will account for a similar share of demand in the Sustainable Development Scenario as fossil fuels do today.

The IEA stressed that quicker progress towards net zero emissions will depend on faster innovation in electrification, hydrogen, bioenergy and CCUS. Power and heavy industry together account for around 60% of emissions today from existing energy infrastructure, climbing to almost 100% in 2050 if no action is taken. In the Sustainable Development Scenario, just over a third of the cumulative emissions reductions stem from technologies not commercially available today, while in the Faster Innovation Case – which targets net zero by 2050 – this share rises to half. Hydrogen and CCUS, for example, account for half of cumulative emissions reductions in the steel, cement and chemical sectors – among the sectors that are hardest to decarbonise.

Governments have an outsized role to play in supporting transitions towards net zero, the report said, with long-term visions needing to be backed up by detailed clean energy strategies that involve measures tailored to local infrastructure and technology needs. With this in mind, it said that effective policy toolkits must address five core areas: tackling emissions from existing assets; strengthening markets for technologies at an early stage of adoption; developing and upgrading infrastructure that enables technology development; boosting support for research, development and demonstration; and expanding international technology collaboration.

It further stressed that economic stimulus measures in response to COVID-19 offer the opportunity to take urgent action that could boost the economy, while supporting clean energy and climate goals, including the five core areas identified.