Below, 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.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Hydrogen Energy
Hydrogen is already produced and used in several countries worldwide
May be responsible for zero greenhouse gas emissions when used
Demand for hydrogen has been steadily growing the last few decades
Hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources is being developed
May have better fuel economy than gasoline, & more energy density/output
May have cheaper pipeline (per mile) costs compared to crude oil pipeline costs
May not have significant transmission degradation issues if produced locally and used soon after production
Can be used flexibly, and in complement to other energy sources
Fuel cells may have low maintenance, and low energy drop off (compared to other energy sources)
Size of fuel cells can be an advantage
May offer an opportunity to reduce external or foreign dependence on an energy source for some countries
Might be used as a way to store and use surplus renewable energy at a later time, and reduce energy going to waste
Might have a low toxicity exposure risk
Can be used remotely in places without access to the electricity grid
Leakage from some types of distribution pipes may not 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 main energy sources used to make hydrogen)
Is a costly way to actually make energy – cost is perhaps the biggest barrier for hydrogen energy right now
Liquid hydrogen is less energy dense than some other types of fuels
May have some uncertainties and unknowns
Non locally made hydrogen can have energy loss issues
Current infrastructure in many cities around the world may not be compatible with hydrogen fuel
Hydrogen may not perform well in certain temperatures and conditions
May have limited availability, and also access issues
Can have some negative environmental impacts
Needs a constant fuel source
Range (distance of travel) may be limited in hydrogen fuel vehicles right now
Potential safety issues (freeze burns, flammability, and in some cases, the risk of a hydrogen station exploding)
Potential issues related to hydrogen inside gas pipes
Individual countries may face individual challenges in producing more hydrogen, or using more hydrogen energy
Main Challenges For Hydrogen Energy Going Forward
At the bottom of this guide, we list what might be the top challenges for hydrogen energy going forward, and identify the reports that provide more information on these challenges.
Right now, most hydrogen fuel might be produced with fossil fuels – one of the main fossil fuels being natural gas/methane
Fossil fuels are finite resources, and may produce emissions and air pollution when combusted
Only when technology allows for hydrogen energy to be generated from renewable and clean energy sources at scale might it possibly become a more renewable energy carrier from an environmental or sustainability perspective
One of the more well known uses for hydrogen energy right now might be in fuel cell vehicles.
Practically, further developments and advancements might be needed for hydrogen energy to be used on larger worldwide scales, and for it to be used for a wider range of applications.
Some of these practical considerations for hydrogen energy in the future might include cost, safety and efficiency
The pros and cons mentioned in this guide are broad generalisations.
Obviously there are different variables to each specific energy sources 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 sources in different countries and cities ultimately should be analysed individually.
What Is Hydrogen Energy?
There’s various different ways to use hydrogen energy
Hydrogen energy functions with hydrogen as the main element in the hydrogen fuel
It can be used directly as a gas or liquid, but can also be used 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 in recent years, and has been used in fuel cell buses for many years.
Read more about what hydrogen energy is and it’s uses in this guide
Hydrogen Energy Pros
Hydrogen Is Already Produced In Different Countries Worldwide
The United States and Japan are examples of countries currently producing hydrogen.
As of the end of October 2020, there were about 161 operating fuel cells at 108 facilities in the United States with a total of about 250 megawatts (MW) of electric generation capacity.
[The largest is in Delaware]
wikipedia.org mentions that (paraphrased) the world’s largest facility for producing hydrogen fuel is in Japan
Zero Greenhouse Emissions When Used
Multiple reports indicate that hydrogen is a clean burning fuel while in use
Hydrogen emits only water vapor and warm air when used.
This is in comparison to say petroleum based fuels that emit greenhouse gases (and air pollutants) when combusted.
From vittana.org: ‘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.’
There’s only one by-product of burning hydrogen: water.
Hydrogen is one of the cleanest fuels that can be used to produce energy, and it has the potential to be zero-carbon if the energy source used to produce it was a clean, renewable energy source, like solar or wind
Demand For Hydrogen Has Steadily Been Growing
Demand may have seen a steady increase in the last few decades
Increased demand might be a positive for various reasons.
Not only might it illustrate that more hydrogen is being used in total, but, it might also mean that there is a better chance for the energy source to develop, and also to reach economies of scale in the future.
Since 1975, through to 2018, figures show hydrogen demand has been consistently increasing (iea.org)
Hydrogen Produced From Renewable Energy Is Being Developed
The production of hydrogen with renewable energy such as solar and wind may make hydrogen energy more sustainable and renewable in the future.
Having said this, it’s not clear when or if this hydrogen production method will be able to be used at scale.
May Have Better Fuel Economy Than Gasoline, & More Energy Density/Output
According to some reports, hydrogen may have better fuel economy than gasoline, and better energy density than methane or gasoline.
This may make it more effective as a fuel or energy source across some performance indicators
If used in vehicles, a driver can achieve a 100% better fuel economy with hydrogen when compared to gasoline (vittana.org)
… hydrogen itself has three times the energy density per mass as methane or gasoline (wikipedia.org)
Better energy density might be another way of saying better energy output.
May Have Cheaper Pipeline (Per Mile) Costs Compared To Crude Oil Pipeline Costs
One report indicates that hydrogen pipelines are now cheaper per mile than crude oil pipelines -they may potentially save millions per mile
… hydrogen transportation networks [have reached costs as low as] $210,000 per mile [which is down from about] $2 million per mile [when hydrogen pipelines were first installed]
[In contrast, crude oil pipeline costs might average] $6.5 million per installed mile [and reach as high as $17 million in some states in the US]
May Not Have Significant Energy Transmission Degradation Issues If Produced Locally
Different energy sources keep/maintain or lose a % of their original energy when being transmitted or transported from the place at which they are produced, to the place at which they are used.
Hydrogen might not be as efficient at keeping it’s energy as natural gas in this regard, but it might be more slightly more efficient than coal, nuclear, and oil.
The exception to this might be hydrogen that is transported long distances, stored for longer periods, or that experiences boil off energy losses – it might lose more of it’s original energy value in these instances.
vittana.org provides some energy transmission efficiency figures:
[When transmitting different energy sources to new locations, natural gas only loses 45% of it’s original energy, hydrogen is at 60% or greater, and coal, nuclear and oil are at 65%]
Can Be Used Flexibly & In Complement To Other Energy Sources
It might be a flexible energy source that can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Read more about the range of uses of hydrogen energy in this guide.
Additionally, as long as there is a compatible receptor to accept the energy, fuel cells can even work with other power sources to supplement available power.
Fuel Cells Might Be Low Maintenance, & Might Not Have An Energy Drop Off
Hydrogen fuel cells might require less maintenance than other fuel sources.
Additionally, there might be less of an energy drop-off that occurs as the fuel cell reaches the end of its life cycle.
The Size Of Fuel Cells Is An Advantage
Hydrogen energy can be stored in fuel cells that are extremely small (about the size of an average laptop battery)
This sizing advantage allows a fuel cell to be installed almost anywhere, assuming that the energy can be transmitted in some way.
The only exception to this might be that hydrogen energy cannot be stored in extremely hot environments.
May Offer An Opportunity To Lessen Dependence On Other Countries For Energy
Much of the world’s oil might currently be produced in a small number of countries – about 20 countries in total.
Hydrogen energy might allow countries to reduce their dependence on foreign imports of oil, and produce more of their own energy from locally sourced energy.
But obviously, this depends on the energy source the hydrogen is made from.
Might Be Used To Store Excess/Surplus Renewable Energy, & Reduce Energy Going To Waste
Hydrogen can be made from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
The benefit of this might be that instead of having to store excess renewable energy in batteries or have a another backup energy source, there may be an option to store the energy as hydrogen instead.
Hydrogen can also be produced from surplus renewable energy
… the fuel cell could be a key future technology – especially when surplus electricity from wind power and solar energy is stored temporarily in the form of hydrogen and thus becomes accessible for household heating or mobility.
Currently, wind farms are simply switched off when there is too much electricity on the market and the eco-energy goes to waste.
May Have A Low Exposure To Toxicity Risks
There are over 100 chemicals in gasoline
Hydrogen energy does not have the same chemical profile
Can Be Used In Remote Locations
Hydrogen fuel cells can be used almost anywhere, including rural locations.
This is a benefit when a power grid or energy in general is not immediately available.
Leakage From Some Types Of Distribution Pipes May Not Be A Significant Problem
There are certain types of distribution pipes that may significantly reduce the chance of hydrogen leakage.
One is example is some types of plastic pipes.
… leakage from plastic (polyethylene PE100) pipes is expected to be very low at about 0.001% (wikipedia.org)
Can Be Transported & Exported As An Energy Commodity
[Hydrogen can be transported on] trucks and ships, and [also] exported overseas between countries, making it a tradable energy commodity (arena.gov.au)
This ability to be transported and exported may add to it’s commercial and economic value or utility.
Hydrogen Energy Cons
Hydrogen Is Dependent On Primary Energy Sources For Production
To use hydrogen energy, hydrogen first needs to be produced from primary energy sources
Hydrogen energy is therefore dependent on primary energy sources
However, some may point out that other secondary energy sources are dependent on primary energy sources too
Not A Completely Clean Form Of Energy
The usage stage of hydrogen is relatively clean, but the production of hydrogen might not be
To illustrate this, one of the leading processes for producing hydrogen is steam methane reforming, where hydrogen is made from natural gas/methane.
There is an emissions and fossil fuel footprint for this process
Electrolysis might have less of an environmental footprint, but this method of producing hydrogen isn’t used at scale yet.
It Can Be A Costly Way To Make Energy – This Is Perhaps The Biggest Challenge
Costs can include the capital costs to build plants.
But, it can also include the production process itself.
Most hydrogen is made from natural gas (using steam methane reforming), but a cleaner production process using renewable energy is expensive right now.
[In the US, a 10 year project] to create hydrogen energy from a coal-fired power plant [cost almost a billion dollars] (vittana.org)
Producing Hydrogen From Cleaner Energy (Cleaner Than Natural Gas)
Right now, producing hydrogen from low carbon energy is costly, but that could change in the future with lower renewable energy electricity costs, and economies of scale in the scaling up or mass manufacturing of hydrogen energy technology (iea.org)
Liquid Hydrogen Might Be Less Energy Dense Than Some Other Types Of Fuels
Liquid hydrogen contains less energy per unit volume than kerosene (sciencedirect.com)
What this may mean is that more liquid hydrogen might be required for the same total power output as kerosene.
May Have Some Uncertainties & Unknowns
Storing carbon underground from hydrogen energy 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
There can be energy losses associated with movement, storage, and also boil off losses.
Hydrogen might need to be produced locally to minimize energy loss, otherwise production costs will always be higher than other energy types.
Current Infrastructure In Many Locations Might Not Be Compatible With Hydrogen
Hydrogen requires the manufacture of fuel cells to store the energy, and it’s likely that the current infrastructure in many places wouldn’t be compatible.
Might Not Perform Well In Certain Temperatures & Conditions
Hydrogen energy might be difficult to use, or even ineffective to use, in certain temperatures and environments
Examples might include temperatures where the water begins to boil, and also high temperatures.
May Have Limited Availability & Access
The availability of, and access to hydrogen energy might be limited.
This might be because although it’s produced industrially, it’s not produced at scale commercially or residentially yet.
There may also be issues relating to the number of hydrogen fuel stations that limit availability or access.
There’s also limited public hydrogen fuel stations – less than 40 in the US as of January 2018 (vittana.org)
Restrictions on who can access public hydrogen fuel stations may also be an issue.
Can Have A Negative Environmental Impact, & Also A Negative Health Impact
Some reports indicate that:
Too much hydrogen might lead to inadequate ozone in our atmosphere.
This could lead to more UVA and UVB exposure which transmitted by the sun, change to our environment, endangerment of our health, and other uncertainties.
Needs A Constant Fuel Source
One of the primary benefits of hydrogen energy is that it can run continuously.
But, this means that a primary energy source must be available first, and it also means that a fuel source must be provided at an extra cost or the hydrogen fuel cells must be continually replaced.
The Driving Range Of Hydrogen Vehicles May Be Limited Right Now
This may be due to various reasons, such as fuel cell energy capacity, access to refuelling stations, and durability queries.
[Currently, the] average hydrogen fuel cell provides about 300 miles of energy support
[A lack of refuelling stations may limit how far hydrogen fuel cell cars can travel]
[There may also be durability issues as] contamination from the outside can also limit it’s 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 risk of explosions at hydrogen stations, just as one example.
Hydrogen energy may also be more of a hazard or risk when stored or placed in extremely hot environments.
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)
There May Be Potential Issues Inside Gas Pipes
There might be several reasons for this – primarily potential damage issues, and leakage issues.
The first is that the amount of hydrogen used inside natural gas pipes might have to be managed so it doesn’t damage or create problems inside the pipes.
[The second is that …] 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
This may limit hydrogen’s growth and use case in the future either globally, or in specific countries.
According to arena.gov.au, in Australia, those challenges might be:
‘… [the] 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’
According to originenergy.com.au, the challenges in some other countries might be:
[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]
The IEA resource listed in the resources list outlines some more potential challenges for hydrogen energy around the world
What Might Be The Main Challenges For Hydrogen Energy Going Forward
There’s three reports – the energy.gov, eia.gov, and iea.org reports listed below – that do a good job of outlining some major challenges with hydrogen energy going forward into the future
– energy.gov may indicate 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’
And ‘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’
The cost of fuel cells compared to other energy sources when considering capital costs seems to put it on the more expensive end of the spectrum
– eia.gov may indicate 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.’
– The IEA report listed below mentions 7 key ways hydrogen energy can scale up and improve