The Hydrogen Economy

We’ve been hearing about the “hydrogen economy” for a long time.  NASA was developing fuel cells in the 1960s and United Technologies started commercializing stationary power plants in the 70s.  Jeremy Rifkin wrote about it in 2002.  The Bloom Box got a lot of attention in 2010.  In 2013, several US states agreed to pursue a mandate for a percentage of zero-emission vehicles, including fuel cell electric vehicles, to be sold in their jurisdictions.  The Hydrogen Initiative was launched in Europe in 2018, building on the work of the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a robust public-private partnership begun in 2008.  An even broader international consortium was launched only last month.  Companies, governments, and research institutes around the world have been pursuing the vision of a hydrogen economy at an increasing pace and with more tangible breakthroughs every year.  I was struck early this year, for instance, by the fact of South Korea’s enthusiastic embrace of hydrogen.

Now there’s a new, comprehensive report just out from the International Energy Agency:  The Future of Hydrogen.  You’ll find it at the IEA’s web page for hydrogen.  

I sat in on the launch of a new and pretty exciting enterprise the other evening:  The H2 Refuel Accelerator.  It’s a partnership of several heavy-hitting clean tech players:  Fraunhofer TechBridge, Greentown Labs, and the Urban Future Lab with the support of Shell, Toyota, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

The launch featured a panel of experts in the vanguard of the development of renewable hydrogen production and fuel cell development.  These were Matthew Blieske, the Global Hydrogen Product Manager for Shell; James Kast, a Fuel Cell Business Analyst for Toyota; Adam Ruder, the Clean Transportation Program Manager for NYSERDA; and Michael Peters, a Hydrogen Technologies Engineer for NREL; all moderated by Nick Rancis, Program Lead for Fraunhofer TechBridge.

Some highlights for me included the consensus that we are truly – and finally – at the launch point for a broad commercialization of fuel cell and other hydrogen-driven technologies; that the best – and really the only way – to advance is to create partnerships and build on them; that hydrogen needs to be “green” – that we need to be using renewable power to produce it; and that these technologies have applications across a range of different end uses:  not only for light-duty vehicles, but also aviation, marine shipping, trucks and buses, and even trains; for heating and cooling, and power production.  Here’s a menu of key technologies from Hydrogen Europe.

The evening culminated with the announcement of the first cohort of the H2 Refuel Accelerator companies, all doing some pretty exciting advanced engineering and chemistry.  They are Celadyne, electro-active technologies, Ecolectro, HyGen, pH Matter, Protium Innovations, and Skyre.

During the program, I was thinking of the six main criteria to gauge the success of energy systems from the book I use in my clean tech classes, Reinventing Fire from the Rocky Mountain Institute:

  • affordability,
  • technical feasibility,
  • security,
  • reliability,
  • environmental responsibility and public health,
  • public acceptability

The hydrogen tech that is here for us to develop and to use meets all of these criteria, or will in a relatively short time particularly if we can continue to focus as these companies and their expert partners are doing so well.

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