What are the realistic prospects for hydrogen?

Over the last few weeks I’ve looked at some of the possibilities for hydrogen in the new economy, and some of the problems too. I’ll come back to the topic from time to time, but to sum up, it’s worth asking how likely all these various applications actually are. Yes, it’s possible that we’ll have hydrogen heating. Hydrogen planes are theoretically possible, eventually.

There’s a lot of theory and potential in hydrogen, and not so many visible examples. Earlier hype hasn’t delivered. Predictions for the rise of hydrogen have been off the mark before, and not all of the many applications of hydrogen will ultimately be useful.

One attempt to sort the economically practical ideas from the rest is this ‘ladder’ from Liebriech Associates, usefully made available on a Creative Commons basis. “Just because you can technically do something with clean hydrogen doesn’t mean you will” says Michael Liebreich, and the ladder grades the various uses according to how competitive they will be.

You can read the full analysis on LinkedIn, but a few highlights: the industrial uses are the most immediate. On energy, it’s long term storage that seems most likely – hopefully seasonal heat storage that could really make a difference in colder countries. Domestic heating gets an F rating here, and the idea of importing energy through hydrogen (explored here) are unproven at this point.

Transport fares worst for big advocates of hydrogen, with only off-road vehicles and shipping looking like certainties at this point. Trains are a maybe, depending on where they are, and cars are probably not going to happen.

This is one take on the subject, and even this is subject to change – this is the 4th iteration of Liebreich’s ladder. But this kind of exercise is important when you hear anyone talking up hydrogen. It will play a role in the clean energy revolution? Absolutely. But is it ‘the new oil’? Highly unlikely.

And that’s fine. There are no silver bullets for climate change, no single strategy that solves the problem – whether that’s tree-planting, or a circular economy, or renewable energy. We need all of those things and more besides, a broad suite of tools for a complex problem.

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