In this guide, we list the pros and cons of hydrogen energy.
This guide forms part of a series of guides we have put together outlining the benefits and disadvantages of different energy sources and energy generation methods.
Let’s take a look.
Summary – Hydrogen Energy Pros & Cons
We go into each one of these pros and cons in detail in the guide below:
Demand for hydrogen has been steadily growing the last few decades
Hydrogen produced from renewable energy is being developed
More effective and efficient than gasoline
Good energy output
Hydrogen fuel infrastructure can be cheaper than crude oil pipes and infrastructure
Local production usually means no degradation or transmission issues (and hydrogen fuel can be more efficient than other fuel sources)
Can be used flexibly, and in complement to other energy sources
Fewer installation, maintenance and drop off issues
Fewer spatial issues
Opportunities to reduce external or foreign dependence on an energy source for some countries
Has other benefits other than being used just as energy
Can be used as a way to store and use surplus renewable energy at a later time
Low toxicity exposure risks
Can be used remotely in places without access to the electricity grid
Leakage from some types of pipes isn’t expected to be a significant problem
Can be transported and exported – making it a tradable energy commodity
Dependent on primary energy sources to produce hydrogen
Not a completely clean/green energy source right now (natural gas and coal are some of the leading energy sources used to make hydrogen)
Is a costly way to actually make energy – cost is perhaps the biggest barrier
Liquid hydrogen is less energy dense than some other types of fuels
Has some uncertainties and unknowns
Non locally made hydrogen can have energy loss issues
Current infrastructure we have in many cities around the world is not compatible with hydrogen fuel
Hydrogen doesn’t perform well in certain temperatures and conditions
Limited availability and access issues
Can have negative environmental impacts
Needs a constant fuel source
Not yet good for long distance travel
Potential safety issues (freeze burns, flammability, and in some cases, the risk of a hydrogen station exploding)
Potential issues of hydrogen inside gas pipes
Individual countries may face individual challenges in producing more hydrogen, or using more hydrogen energy
Hydrogen energy has it’s specific uses at the moment, such as in fuel cell cell vehicles.
Right now, most of the hydrogen fuel being produced is done with fossil fuels – finite resources that generally produce emissions and air pollution.
Only when technologies allow for hydrogen energy to be generated from renewable and clean energy sources will it become a more renewable energy carrier from an environmental sustainability point of view.
Practically, further developments and advancements are needed for hydrogen energy to be used on a larger scale worldwide, and for use to be scaled up, and out to a wider range of applications. Some of these practical considerations might include but aren’t limited to cost, safety and efficiency
There’s three resources, the energy.gov, eia.gov, and iea.org resources listed below, that do a good job of outlining some major challenges with hydrogen energy going forward into the future:
– Energy.gov – indicates that cost is the biggest challenge for hydrogen energy … ‘The greatest challenge for hydrogen production, particularly from renewable resources, is providing hydrogen at lower cost’
– Eia.gov – indicates that cost, availability/accessibility of hydrogen energy technology, and supply of hydrogen energy technology and infrastructure are all related, and that one can’t move and scale up without the others … ‘Production of hydrogen-fueled vehicles is limited because people won’t buy those vehicles if hydrogen refueling stations are not easily accessible, and companies won’t build refueling stations if they don’t have customers with hydrogen-fueled vehicles.’
– IEA.gov – the IEA resource listed below mentions 7 key ways hydrogen energy can scale up and improve
*Note – the above pros and cons are broad generalisations.
Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy project that impact the final pros and cons (like new technology that reduces emissions for coal power plants just as one of many examples).
Each energy project and situation (in different countries and cities) should be analysed individually.
Having said that, some broad principles and patterns about the pros and cons of different energy sources tend to stay consistent too.
What Is Hydrogen Energy?
Hydrogen energy can be used in several ways, but it functions with hydrogen as the main element in the hydrogen fuel
It can be used directly as a gas or liquid, but also in electrochemical cells when it combines and reacts with oxygen to produce electricity, water and also some heat
It has been used in commercial fuel cell vehicles such as passenger cars recently, and has been used in fuel cell buses for many years.
Read more about what hydrogen energy is and it’s used in this guide
Hydrogen Energy Pros
Zero Emissions While In Use
A clean burning fuel while in use.
Once produced, hydrogen gas cells emit only water vapor and warm air when used.
If one vehicle were converted from a standard combustion engine to one powered by hydrogen, it would eliminate almost 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide being introduced to the atmosphere.
Demand for hydrogen has steadily been growing
Since 1975, through to 2018, figures show hydrogen demand has been consistently increasing (iea.org)
Hydrogen Produced From Renewable Energy Is Being Developed
More Effective & Efficient As A Fuel Compared To Gasoline
Hydrogen energy is more effective as a fuel than some other fuels.
If used in vehicles, a driver can achieve a 100% better fuel economy with hydrogen when compared to gasoline.
… hydrogen itself has three times the energy density per mass as methane or gasoline (wikipedia.org)
Good Energy Output
More than 10 million tons of hydrogen are created each year for industrial use because of the energy output that it offers.
Cheaper Transport & Infrastructure Costs Compared To Some Energy Sources Like Oil
The cheapest installation of hydrogen transportation networks to-date has been over $210,000 per mile.
When the first hydrogen pipelines were installed, it came at a cost of $2 million per mile.
In 2014, estimated pipeline costs for crude oil in the United States were much higher, averaging $6.5 million per installed mile.
In Massachusetts, installed crude oil pipelines in 2014 were installed at a cost of $17 million per mile.
No Degradation Or Transmission Issues When Produced Locally
Once the energy is created from hydrogen, the reliability of that energy remains constant.
Other energy resources struggle to maintain transmission levels.
The most efficient energy resources come from natural gas, and even then, the fuel is only about 45% efficient.
For coal, oil, and nuclear energy, about 65% of the energy produced at the plant is lost in transmission.
Hydrogen energy has an efficiency rate of 60% or greater when transmitting energy to a new location.
*The exception to this is in transported, stored or non locally generated hydrogen – read more about this below in the cons
Can Be Used Flexibly & In Complement To Other Energy Sources
It is a flexible energy resource that can be used in a wide variety of ways.
As long as the items being used have a compatible receptor to accept the energy, the fuel cells can even work with other power resources to supplement available power.
Fewer Installation, Maintenance & Drop Off Issues
Hydrogen fuel cells require less maintenance than other fuel sources and there is less of an energy drop-off that occurs as the fuel cell reaches the end of its life cycle.
Fewer Spatial Issues
Hydrogen energy can be stored in fuel cells that are extremely small.
Think about the size of the average laptop battery and you’ve got a fuel cell that could power almost anything.
This sizing advantage allows a fuel cell to be installed almost anywhere, assuming that the energy can be transmitted in some way.
There are fewer worries about placing it next to a wall or storing it in a specific environment.
The only exception here is that hydrogen energy cannot be stored in extremely hot environments.
Opportunities To Lessen Foreign Dependence On Energy Sources
Much of the world’s oil is produced in about 20 countries.
The nations without oil access rely heavily on imports to meet their domestic needs.
By developing hydrogen energy, these countries can stop putting money towards energy.
Has Other Uses & Added Benefits
Other uses of hydrogen include it being used as an energy resource to help refine petroleum.
As an added benefit, the vapor from hydrogen energy can even be condensed into water that is safe to drink.
Can Be Used As A Way To Store Excess/Surplus Renewable Energy
When hydrogen is produced using renewable energy sources, it is a way of storing renewable energy for later use (arena.gov.au)
Low Exposure To Toxicity Risks
There are 150+ chemicals in gasoline as one example.
Compared to other energy sources, freeze burns and flammability are really the only concerns with hydrogen.
Can Be Used In Remote Locations
Hydrogen energy, when incorporated into a fuel cell, can be used at virtually any geographic location.
Fuel cells mean that hydrogen can be used in rural places without access to a power grid.
Leakage From Some Pipes May Not Be A Significant Problem
… leakage from plastic (polyethylene PE100) pipes is expected to be very low at about 0.001% (wikipedia.org)
Can Be Transported & Exported
On trucks and ships, and exported overseas between countries, making it a tradable energy commodity (arena.gov.au)
– renewableresourcescoalition.org, vittana.org
Hydrogen Energy Cons
Dependent On Primary Energy Sources To Make Hydrogen
To use hydrogen energy, hydrogen first needs to be produced
Hydrogen energy is therefore dependent on other primary energy sources
Not Completely Clean Energy
Steam-methane reforming (from natural gas), the current leading technology for producing hydrogen in large quantities, extracts hydrogen from methane.
However, this reaction releases fossil carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere which are greenhouse gases (and air pollution), and thus contribute to global warming which is rapidly heating the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere.
The process of electrolysis, which is essential for the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen, makes this less of an issue.
However, electrolysis still ranks below the previously mentioned method for obtaining hydrogen, though research continues to make it more efficient and cost-effective.
It Can Be A Costly Way To Make Energy – This Is Perhaps The Biggest Challenge
The U.S. Department of Energy funded a 10-year, $950 million product to create hydrogen energy from a coal-fired power plant.
The greatest challenge for hydrogen production, particularly from renewable resources, is providing hydrogen at lower cost [compared to conventional fuels and energy sources, such as on a per mile gasoline cost in cars, just as one example]. To reduce overall hydrogen cost, research is focused on improving the efficiency and lifetime of hydrogen production technologies as well as reducing the cost of capital equipment, operations, and maintenance (energy.gov)
Liquid Hydrogen Is Less Energy Dense Than Some Other Types Of Fuels
Liquid hydrogen contains less energy per unit volume than does kerosene (sciencedirect.com)
Has Uncertainties & Unknowns
Storing carbon underground from hydrogen energy also creates unknowns, such as how the planet may react with the higher levels of carbon dioxide storage under the surface.
Non Locally Made Hydrogen Can Have Energy Loss Issues
When transporting hydrogen, there is an expected 20% energy loss associated with its movement.
Hydrogen energy loses an average of 1% of its viability for every day that it is kept in storage for transportation.
There are also boil-off losses associated with hydrogen energy that can be as high as 50%.
For this technology to be effective, it must be produced locally to minimize energy loss.
Otherwise, the actual costs of production for this energy resource will always be higher than other energy types.
Current Infrastructure In Many Locations Is Not Compatible With Hydrogen
Hydrogen requires the manufacture of fuel cells to store the energy.
Although new resources could be developed simultaneously with these fuel cells, the current infrastructure would likely find the energy to be incompatible with what currently exists.
Other sources of energy like wind and solar can use the current infrastructure and power grids.
Doesn’t Perform Well In Certain Temperatures & Conditions
Hydrogen energy is difficult to use in certain temperatures and environments.
With our current technology, this energy resource is ineffective at temperatures where water begins to boil.
We currently use polymer exchange membranes to generate the hydrogen energy we use, and these membranes do not perform in high temperature environments.
Because of this limitation, it becomes difficult to use hydrogen energy in multiple platforms, including vehicles, because of the heat present in that environment.
Limited Availability & Access
Hydrogen energy is not available with easy access.
It may be produced on an industrial scale to meet specific needs right now, but it is not produced on a commercial scale, or a residential scale, much at all.
In the United States, as of January 2018, there were 39 publicly available hydrogen fuel stations. 35 of those stations were located in California, with most in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles metroplex.
The other four stations are located in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and South Carolina.
That makes it difficult to use this energy for anything but local use.
7 of the stations with publicly available hydrogen energy require permission from the original equipment manufacturer to access the fuel, along with a pre-authorization from the fuel provider.
Can Have Environmental Impacts
Too much hydrogen is known to interfere with the ozone that is present in our atmosphere.
Without adequate ozone, we are subjected to more of the UVA and UVB transmitted by the sun, which could change our environment, endanger our health, and create other concerns of which we do not know of yet.
Needs A Constant Fuel Source
One of the primary benefits of hydrogen energy is that it can run continuously.
The provision for this benefit is that a fuel source must be available to it for energy to be continually produced.
Without that fuel source, the hydrogen fuel cell would run out, just like every other type of energy would.
That means a fuel source must be provided at an extra cost or the hydrogen fuel cells must be continually replaced.
Not Great For Long Distance Travel
With our current technologies, the average hydrogen fuel cell provides about 300 miles of energy support.
Because of the limited availability of retail stations which sell this energy resource, someone using hydrogen fuel cells will find that their mobility is minimal.
That issue is further influenced by its overall lack of durability, as contamination from the outside can limit its overall effectiveness to provide energy on-demand.
Potential Safety Issues
Freeze burns and flammability are some potential concerns with some uses involving hydrogen.
There’s also the potential for a hydrogen station to explode just as one example.
Hydrogen fuel is hazardous because of the low ignition energy and high combustion energy of hydrogen, and because it tends to leak easily from tanks. Explosions at hydrogen filling stations have been reported (wikipedia.org)
Potential Issues Inside Gas Pipes
The amount of hydrogen used inside natural gas pipes has to be managed so it doesn’t damage or create problems inside the pipes.
Additionally, … hydrogen is the smallest element and thus has a slightly higher propensity to leak from venerable natural gas pipes such as those made from iron (wikipedia.org)
Individual Countries May Face Specific Challenges To Increased Hydrogen Production & Hydrogen Energy Use
For example, in Australia, those challenges might be: ‘high cost of producing renewable hydrogen, limited regulatory frameworks for applications such as use in the natural gas network, under-developed end-use markets and insufficient demand to attract investment in projects’ (arena.gov.au)
[Some countries may also not have the land space or weather conditions to produce hydrogen from renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and may have to rely on importing it from other countries] (originenergy.com.au)
The IEA resource listed in the resources list outlines some more challenges for hydrogen energy around the world
– wikipedia.org, renewableresourcescoalition.org, vittana.org