The following is a contributed article by Neva Espinoza, vice president, energy supply and low-carbon resources, at the Electric Power Research Institute.
More than 50 years ago, the United States made history as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon. A victorious moment for humankind, the Apollo 11 mission demonstrated American ingenuity and innovation by using hydrogen fuel systems to power and propel its rockets into outer space. And today, hydrogen has the potential to help enable "our generation's moonshot" — economy-wide decarbonization.
During April's Leaders Summit on Climate, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm spoke of the bold action and fearless innovation needed to mitigate climate change and meet our "moonshot" moment. And earlier this month, Granholm announced the Department of Energy's "Energy Earthshot" program, the first initiative which focuses on bringing down the costs of hydrogen to make the low-carbon technology cost competitive.
For years, hydrogen technologies have been said to be 10, 20 or even 50 years away. But tomorrow's hydrogen technologies are advancing rapidly to create a pathway to decarbonize some of the top-emitting sectors of the economy that lack other clear paths to significantly reduce emissions (think heavy industry, high-grade heating, and hard-to-electrify applications). Though once considered the energy of the future, hydrogen provides the step-change innovation needed to create a global low-carbon economy.
According to a 2019 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), improvements in the efficiency and cost of electrolyzer technologies, which use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, demonstrate progress toward large-scale hydrogen production and deployment. However, for hydrogen to serve mass markets as a low-carbon fuel and long-duration energy storage resource, it must become even more cost effective.
The Department of Energy estimates hydrogen production costs need to be at or below $2 per kilogram to be cost effective in the transportation sector. And according to our study, there are a number of routes that could achieve this cost target — but all require aggressive capital cost reductions, significant improvements in efficiency, and low-cost electricity.
The Biden administration is also focused on reducing the overall costs of hydrogen, and through its Earthshot program, it's seeking to bring down the cost of hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram.
Achieving this target will only be achieved with large-scale, focused innovation and collaboration, which will require close coordination between the public and private sectors to accelerate and enable investment in the technology and accompanying infrastructure. Creating a commercially viable hydrogen market must include the ability to affordably produce, easily move, efficiently store and competitively sell hydrogen for a wide range of uses and applications.
Sustaining a low-cost and reliable hydrogen energy system will not come easy but may be critical to various segments of our economy. In addition to supporting the economy-wide transition to a net-zero emissions future, there is potential to create new workforce opportunities, build resilient energy systems and bring affordable clean energy to everyone.
And governments are recognizing these challenges and starting to take bolder action. During President Biden's Climate Summit, policymakers around the world deepened their commitments to achieve global climate goals. Japan, for instance, pledged to decrease emissions 46% by 2030 — a 26% increase from previous targets. Likewise, Canada also committed to lowering emissions 40-45% by 2030 below 2005 levels.
As governments around the world take aggressive action to reduce emissions and dramatically transform their energy ecosystems, the U.S. has an opportunity to take an even greater leadership role. The scientific communities' R&D efforts will be critical. Universities, national labs and research organizations bring objectivity and credibility to evaluate and deploy the technologies needed to support international climate goals.
The Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI), led by EPRI and the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), brings together more than 45 companies across the global energy ecosystem to accelerate and demonstrate low-carbon resources, like hydrogen, essential to meet longer-term emissions reductions goals.
LCRI focuses on investigating the deployment of new and emerging technologies to enable a cleaner energy system, while maintaining safety, reliability and affordability. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, hydrogen is a low-carbon resource that, through collaboration across the scientific community, public and private sectors, can help us meet our generation's "moonshot" moment.