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.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Hydrogen Energy
Demand for hydrogen has been steadily growing the last few decades
Hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources is being developed
Better fuel economy than gasoline, & more energy density/output
Cheaper pipeline (per mile) costs compared to crude oil pipeline costs
Does 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 have low maintenance, and low energy drop off (compared to other energy sources)
Size of fuel cells is an advantage
Offers an opportunity to reduce external or foreign dependence on an energy source for some countries
Can be used as a way to store and use surplus renewable energy at a later time
Low toxicity exposure risk
Can be used remotely in places without access to the electricity grid
Leakage from some types of distribution pipes aren’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 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 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 right now, such as in fuel cell cell vehicles.
Right now, most hydrogen fuel is being produced with fossil fuels (fossil fuels are finite resources that generally produce emissions and air pollution) – one of the main ways being from natural gas/methane
Only when technology allows for hydrogen energy to be generated from renewable and clean energy sources will it possibly become a more renewable energy carrier from an environmental sustainability aspect.
Practically, further developments and advancements are needed for hydrogen energy to be used on larger worldwide scales, and for it to be used for a wider range of applications.
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’ 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’
– 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.’
– 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 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
Zero Greenhouse Emissions When Used
A clean burning fuel while in use, compared to say petroleum based fuels that emit greenhouse gases when combusted.
Hydrogen emits only water vapor and warm air when used.
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.’
Demand for hydrogen has steadily been growing
Since 1975, through to 2018, figures show hydrogen demand has been consistently increasing (iea.org)
Increased demand not only indicates that hydrogen might be meeting a need, but, it can also mean that there is a better chance for the energy source to develop and reach greater scales of use over time.
Hydrogen Produced From Renewable Energy Is Being Developed
Having said this, it’s not clear when or if this hydrogen production method will be able to be used at scale.
Better Fuel Economy Than Gasoline, & More Energy Density/Output
Hydrogen energy is more effective as a fuel than some other fuels like gasoline, and part of this might be to do with fuel economy, and also energy density …
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.
Cheaper Pipeline (Per Mile) Costs Compared To Crude Oil Pipeline Costs
Some reports indicate hydrogen pipelines are now cheaper per mile than crude oil pipelines:
… 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]
Does Not Have Significant Energy Transmission Degradation Issues If Produced Locally
Different types of energy will maintain or lose different %’s of energy when transmitting or transporting that energy from the place at which it is produced, to the place at which is it used.
Hydrogen might not be as efficient as natural gas in this regard, but it’s generally not as inefficient as coal, nuclear, and oil.
Hydrogen that is transported long distances, stored for longer periods, or that experiences boil off energy losses, might lose more of it’s original energy value.
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 is a flexible energy resource 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 resources to supplement available power.
Fuel Cells Are Low Maintenance, & Don’t Have An Energy Drop Off
Hydrogen fuel cells require less maintenance than other fuel sources.
Additionally, there is less of an energy drop-off that occurs as the fuel cell reaches the end of its life cycle.
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 here is that hydrogen energy cannot be stored in extremely hot environments.
Lessen Dependence On Other Countries For Energy
Much of the world’s oil is produced in about 20 countries.
Hydrogen energy might allow countries to reduce this dependence on foreign imports, and produce more of their own energy.
Can Be Used To Store Excess/Surplus Renewable Energy
Hydrogen can be made from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
The benefit of this is that instead of having to store excess renewable energy in batteries or have a another backup energy source, the energy can be stored as hydrogen instead.
Low Exposure To Toxicity Risks
There are over 100 chemicals in gasoline as one example.
Hydrogen energy does not have this issue.
Freeze burns and flammability are really the only concerns with hydrogen.
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 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.
… 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
On trucks and ships, and exported overseas between countries, making it a tradable energy commodity (arena.gov.au)
Hydrogen Energy Cons
Hydrogen Is Dependent On Other Primary Energy Sources For Production
To use hydrogen energy, hydrogen first needs to be produced from other primary energy sources
Hydrogen energy is therefore dependent on other primary energy sources
Not Completely Clean Energy
The usage stage of hydrogen is relatively clean, but the production of hydrogen is not.
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 here.
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
[In the US, a 10 year project] to create hydrogen energy from a coal-fired power plant [cost almost a billion dollars] (vittana.org)
Aside from capital costs, there are other costs to consider in making and scaling hydrogen energy.
Liquid Hydrogen Is Less Energy Dense Than Some Other Types Of Fuels
Liquid hydrogen contains less energy per unit volume than kerosene (sciencedirect.com)
So, more liquid hydrogen might be required for the same output.
Has 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
Hydrogen needs to be produced locally to minimize energy loss, otherwise production costs 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, and it’s likely that the current infrastructure in many places wouldn’t be compatible.
Doesn’t Perform Well In Certain Temperatures & Conditions
Hydrogen energy is difficult to use or ineffective in certain temperatures and environments, such as temperatures where the water begins to boil, and high temperatures.
Limited Availability & Access
The availability and access of hydrogen energy might be limited because it’s produced industrially, but not at scale commercially or residentially.
There’s also limited public hydrogen fuel stations – less than 40 in the US as of January 2018 (vittana.org)
There may also be restrictions on who can access public fuel stations.
Can Have Environmental & Indirect Health Impacts
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.
Range Of Hydrogen Vehicles May Be Limited Right Now
[Currently, the] average hydrogen fuel cell provides about 300 miles of energy support.
But, a lack of refuelling stations may limit how far hydrogen fuel cell cars can travel.
A lack of durability and contamination (from the outside environment) can also limit energy on-demand effectiveness, and range of a hydrogen vehicle.
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 energy should not be 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)
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