What happened to the Hydrogen Economy?

In January 2003, in U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, he announced $1.2B for research so that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free”.

After almost 20 years since that prediction at that State of the Union address, this car is now available on the market. However, it seems that fuel cells (hydrogen fueled) have lost the race to light vehicle transportation. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) account for only a small percentage of vehicles sold in 2021 (for example, in California, 1.3%). Most sales are attributed to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

Given the consensus regarding the need to significantly and immediately reduce CO2 emissions for transportation and other commercial vehicles, various solutions will be more plausible. A combination of battery-electric and fuel cells would be more viable for lighter vehicles and heavier transport, as would biofuel for aircraft and ships. (further details available here).

“Hydrogen Economy” is a term that began in the 1970s, most probably coined by the Australian electrochemist John O’M. Bockris. Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The Hydrogen Economy (2002), states that General Motors was the first to use the term hydrogen economy while searching for futuristic fuel replacements back in the 1970s. According to one definition, the hydrogen economy is “an industrial system in which the dominant role of the energy carrier and fuel is performed by hydrogen together with electricity.”

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In a 2019 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) identified the following reasons for the delay in the hydrogen economy: (1) the cost of producing clean hydrogen (i.e., hydrogen produced from renewable sources); (2) the slow development of hydrogen infrastructure; (3) the fact that today, hydrogen is almost entirely supplied by fossil fuels; (4) regulations have been a barrier to investments.

EU President Ursula von der Leyer said in a recent speech: “Some tell you that hydrogen is for the future. I disagree. Europe’s hydrogen economy is being built today,” adding that the EU is investing over 9B euros in hydrogen projects and expecting that industry-driven investments will be “well over 50B euros.” The emphasis is on “clean” or “green” hydrogen, as opposed to “gray” hydrogen, produced mainly by methane reforming.

The U.S. has been much less committed than Europe to the hydrogen vision in the last decade. The use of the phrase “Hydrogen Economy” has all but disappeared from U.S. government websites. However, a shift back seems to be in the works since the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $9.5B in clean hydrogen initiatives, as published by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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In Israel, there was never much enthusiasm surrounding a hydrogen economy with the view that it does not fit well into Israel’s energy priorities. This is because travel distances are relatively short, and Israel does not have a huge industrial sector.

The Ministry of Energy’s view is that Israel should continue investing in hydrogen related R&D. Israel should strive to be a technology leader, like in other sectors. There are outstanding academic researchers and innovative start-up companies, such as GenCell (fuel cells) and H2PRO (green hydrogen). Moreover, Israel should introduce all the necessary standards and regulations to implement hydrogen technologies, initially on a small scale, emphasizing heavy transport. Israel should also invest in “blue” hydrogen (gray hydrogen from natural gas with COcapture).

This author believes that Israel should be much more involved in the expanding world of hydrogen-related activities, especially in the U.S. and Europe. For example, Israel is still not a member of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (IPHE). There is no need to believe in a full hydrogen economy. However, it is important to be closely connected to the international community which is dealing with new and existing challenges. This will create more opportunities for Israel and support the goal of being a technology leader in this sector.

About the Author
Dr. Eitan Yudilevich completed his doctoral studies in computers and systems engineering in the field of medical imaging in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He earned his Master's Degree in mathematics at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in electrical engineering at Haifa's Technion. Dr. Yudilevich assumed the Executive Director position at the BIRD Foundation on January 1, 2006.
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