The many hydrogen economy initiatives around the world, including those focused on the development of hydrogen mobility, may give the impression that we have now reached an inflection point beyond which the economy- Hydrogen will quickly grow. However, the production and new applications of green hydrogen face significant obstacles:
- The infrastructure for the production, storage and distribution of green hydrogen remains largely to be built (1).
- The purchase price of PAC is high (especially because of the use of platinum) and makes the hydrogen applications uncompetitive.
- The price per kilometer traveled of green hydrogen is about eight times higher than that of electricity.
- Systemic objections based on energy efficiency can lead to reducing the role of hydrogen in the energy transition.
In what follows I will use Presans‘ Open Organization Analysis Key to understand how these obstacles can be overcome. This article complements our fact sheet on hydrogen-based technologies.
1. Platform strategy: everything has to be built
The hydrogen-economy infrastructure is the industrial platform that hydrogen applications need to develop. They can not be grafted on existing infrastructures, nor on those intended for electric batteries.
The development of this infrastructure represents heavy investments over a period of the order of ten years. In the current context of experimentation or start-up, the investments target mainly niches. This is the case for mobility, where hydrogen cars are deployed in captive fleets, that is to say subject to a professional routine within a small perimeter.
The hydrogen infrastructure strategy must also determine the right trade-off between centralization and decentralization of production. Large electrolysers are more efficient, but one of the interests of renewable energies lies in their decentralized character. In addition, centralized production leads to hydrogen transportation costs.
2. Inspirational mission: a story still unclear
The vision of the hydrogen economy (2), even of the hydrogen civilization, is today part of the multilateral political framework of the protection of the natural environment and the energy transition towards a low carbon system. This vision can contribute to the optimistic tone of the collective narrative associated with the industrial agenda of decarbonation.
However, hydrogen as an energy carrier is in competition with lithium-ion batteries. The argument of battery advocates is that of the insufficient energy efficiency of the hydrogen economy. The pro-hydrogen argument basically consists in saying that renewable energies are free, except investment and maintenance costs, and that it may be rational to integrate electrolysers judiciously into the electricity grid, even if their energy efficiency is lower than that of lithium-ion batteries. To this basic argument in favor of diversity and hybrid approaches of energy vectors are added circumstantial arguments. Hydrogen thus has practical advantages over electric batteries, particularly that of the rapid filling of the tank of a vehicle. The storage of hydrogen is not subject to the problem of discharging the batteries (the batteries are discharging themselves). The use of PAC favors heavy mobility applications, where the advantage of the high energy density of hydrogen can be fully expressed.
Overall, the passion underlying the vision of the hydrogen economy is real, but the collective narrative associated with this vision is still too vague to compensate for the lack of competitiveness of new applications of hydrogen. Everyone can immediately see that today lithium-ion batteries dominate the electric car market. It should also be noted that various local attempts to launch the hydrogen economy have failed, especially in California in the 2000s.
From an institutional point of view, supporters of the hydrogen economy, be they leaders or followers, are grouped together at the global level in the Hydrogen Council created on the sidelines of the 2017 Davos Summit. , it is AFHYPAC which brings together for twenty years the industrial and university actors of hydrogen: a period punctuated with reports, studies, debates and laws on the role of hydrogen in politics energy, and the energy transition in particular, crowned by the National Hydrogen Plan launched on June 1, 2018. The war of systemic narratives between hydrogen and the electric battery is far from over.
3. Talents on Demand & Ecosystem: An Industry Organized to Innovate
Innovation in the hydrogen field is the result of a long-term effort involving a multitude of research and industry players, distributed globally. As shown in the book Innovation Intelligence, one of the leaders in the field of hydrogen, Air Liquide, is also a pioneer in the organization of innovation.
It is the industrial agenda of reducing CO2 emissions that provides a focal point for the actors of this ecosystem to coordinate with each other and with the rest of the industrial system.
4. Data-driven: modeling the complexity
Data plays a key role in the development of the hydrogen economy, for two reasons:
- The industrialization of the applications relies on the usage data collected on the prototypes.
- New hydrogen applications are designed to be connected and smart. In particular, the management of the over-capacities of renewable energy generators implies a great sophistication in order to maximize the efficiency of the process.
- In general, calculations of energy efficiency, economic profitability, but also those associated with recycling, pollution generated by the entire hydrogen industrial chain and management of the safety of this chain require complex modeling capabilities increasingly advanced.
The war of systemic narratives between hydrogen mobility and electric battery mobility is also taking place in the field of data.
5. User-centric & Functional: hydrogen applications as a service
Industrial organizations are increasingly seeking to generalize economic models based on servicization and functionalization. The high cost of new hydrogen applications alone favors the use of this type of economic model. Thus, in the field of mobility, a plausible future scenario would be that Flixmobility will end up renting to line operators of hydrogen coaches, co-developed with the SME Freudenberg Sealing Technologies … enough to make the war with Blablacar even more interesting.
Hydrogen is known for the great ease with which it escapes through the smallest faults in a confining space. This suggests to me an analogy with the wide variety of contexts where he already plays, or may well play a key role in the future. Hydrogen thus creeps in all sorts of ways, and sometimes arises surprisingly, in the industrial agenda of our time. Not to play a subordinate role, but to provide the carbon-free energy system of the future with a universal vector.
(1) Legislation that would regulate the deployment of the hydrogen economy is also lacking at present. Current standards are only designed to frame industrial applications.
(2) This vision is evoked in the interview that François Darchis, Senior Vice President, Innovation & Development and member of the Air Liquide COMEX recently granted to Presans. It is developed in this document.