The International Energy Agency has become the latest organization to call for further research and development into using hydrogen as an energy source.

In a new report, the IEA states that hydrogen “has the opportunity to become a critical part of a more sustainable and secure energy future”.

IEA Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol said: Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum, driven by governments that both import and export energy, as well as the renewables industry, electricity and gas utilities, automakers, oil and gas companies, major technology firms and big cities.

“The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future.”

The report was produced for the Japanese government and it was unveiled on Friday by Dr Birol and Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, at a meeting of the G20 energy and environment ministers in Karuizawa, Japan.

The study states that hydrogen “can help to tackle various critical energy challenges, including helping to store the variable output from renewables like solar PV and wind to better match demand”.

“It offers ways to decarbonise a range of sectors – including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel – where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions. It can also help to improve air quality and strengthen energy security.”

The IEA points out that a variety of fuels can produce hydrogen, including renewables, nuclear, natural gas, coal and oil, and hydrogen can be transported as a gas via pipelines or in liquid form by ships, much like liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The IEA report highlights four areas where it says that action today can help to lay the foundations for the growth of a global clean hydrogen industry in the years ahead. These four are: Making industrial ports the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen; Building on existing infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines; Expanding the use of hydrogen in transport by using it to power cars, trucks and buses that run on key routes; and launching the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.

The report notes that hydrogen still faces significant challenges, not least because producing hydrogen from low-carbon energy is expensive at the moment. Also, the development of hydrogen infrastructure is slow and holding back widespread adoption, and some regulations currently limit the development of a clean hydrogen industry.IEA Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol

Today, hydrogen is already being used on an industrial scale, but it is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal. Its production, mainly for chemical and refining industries, is responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of the UK and Indonesia combined.

The IEA says that reducing emissions from existing hydrogen production is a challenge “but also represents an opportunity to increase the scale of clean hydrogen worldwide. One approach is to capture and store or utilise the CO2 from hydrogen production from fossil fuels”.

There are currently several industrial facilities around the world that use this process, and more are in the pipeline, but the IEA says that a much greater number is required to make a significant impact.

Another approach is for industries to secure greater supplies of hydrogen from clean electricity. In the past two decades, more than 200 projects have started operation to convert electricity and water into hydrogen to reduce emissions – from transport, natural gas use and industrial sectors – or to support the integration of renewables into the energy system.

Expanding the use of clean hydrogen in other sectors – such as cars, trucks, steel and heating buildings – is another important challenge. The IEA estimates that there are currently around 11,200 hydrogen-powered cars on the road worldwide – and existing government targets call for that number to increase dramatically to 2.5 million by 2030.

“Policymakers need to make sure market conditions are well adapted for reaching such ambitious goals,” said Dr Birol. “The recent successes of solar PV, wind, batteries and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries.”

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The role of hydrogen in the energy transition will be explored in detail at European Utility Week, which is co-located with POWERGEN Europe in Paris in November.