Shift to Hydrogen Could Meet 20% of World Energy Needs by 2050

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  • Shell, Statoil and BMW among companies urging support for fuel
  • Transition requires investment of up to $25 billion a year

A driver places a hydrogen fuel pump into a Mirai hydrogen fuel powered automobile, manufactured by Toyota Motor Corp.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The most abundant element may supply almost a fifth of global energy by 2050 and eliminate enough emissions to cancel out all the pollution in the U.S., according to a group of industrial companies from Royal Dutch Shell Plc to Toyota Motor Corp.

Fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen, extracted from water using wind and solar power, may be used to power everything from cars to factories, according to the Hydrogen Council, a group that also includes the German automaker BMW AG, the mining giant Anglo American Plc and the French energy company Engie SA. The group estimated hydrogen has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 6 gigatons a year, more than the 5.5 gigatons the U.S. released in 2016.

The group is in Bonn this week for the United Nations’ annual climate meeting to promote hydrogen infrastructure. Fossil-fuel producers led by Shell are boosting their investments in the fuel, anticipating wider use in vehicle as environmental laws tighten worldwide. Investments of as much as $25 billion a year would be needed to support as many as 15 million cars and 500,000 trucks on the road by 2030, according to the study compiled with McKinsey & Co.

“The world in the 21st century must transition to widespread, low-carbon energy use,” Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s chairman and a co-chair of the Hydrogen Council, said in a statement. “The sooner we get the hydrogen economy going, the better.”

Hydrogen may have the potential to eliminate the need for about 20 million barrels of oil per day, radically reducing the need to transport fossil fuels around the world, according to the group. It would also require significant investment in pipelines, storage facilities and manufacturing plants needed to make it on a giant scale -- not to mention the cost of perfecting cars that run on fuel cells using hydrogen.

Most commercial hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas. Electrolysis is emerging as a carbon-free alternative method to extract hydrogen from water molecules. Generating the fuel to use as a source of electricity is increasingly seen as a way to store excess wind and solar power. And since it can be stored and handled similarly to gasoline and diesel, oil companies find using it more closely aligned with their current businesses than with making wind turbines and solar panels.

“Policy makers should avoid picking winners in the race to decarbonize our transportation systems,” Mark Cutifani, chief executive officer of Anglo American, said in the statement. “We support and I will continue to urge the government to support, hydrogen refueling infrastructure to unlock the potential of this technology and reduce the likelihood of problems such as strain to national grids, that may be caused by an overreliance on one technology.”

French rail-equipment maker Alstom SA signed a contract last week to deliver 14 hydrogen-powered regional trains to Lower Saxony, Germany, starting in 2021.

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