Today, we should have been celebrating the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Following their postponement to 2021, the Games will make history for being the first Olympiad to take place outside of the four year cycle since the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896.
They will also make history for another reason: it will be the first time in the history of the Games that the Olympic Flame will be fuelled by hydrogen.
Dubbed “the hydrogen games”, Japan has stated it hopes that the Tokyo Olympics would “leave a hydrogen society as its legacy”. Hydrogen buses will transport people around the sites, and the Olympic village will run on H2.
When it comes to Japan’s hydrogen trend, South Korea is right behind. It has just announced a bold $95bn green investment, which included infrastructure investment to support 200,000 hydrogen vehicles on its roads by 2025.
Hydrogen is not new and has been used in industry for a century. However, its re-emergence as a serious investment proposition for nation states is as sudden as it is overdue.
As wind and solar projects have blossomed in recent decades, plans to fund new hydrogen production have withered on the vine. Deemed too expensive and too complex, hydrogen technologies lost out in the race for clean energy funding.
But even under the bluest and blusteriest skies, solar and wind alone will not be enough to achieve a zero carbon future. So today, as developed economies scrabble to meet their zero carbon commitments, hydrogen is back in vogue.
This month, the European Union joined the party — although you might have missed it. The EU hydrogen strategy was unveiled to too little fanfare for the scale of the ambition: at least 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolysers by 2030, the equivalent of 40 nuclear reactors.
The new prioritisation of hydrogen investment recognises that the fuel has a critical role in the decarbonisation of European — and global — economies. It underscores that there is no one silver bullet when it comes to addressing the climate challenge.
The appeal of hydrogen is that, like a good gas, it fills the gaps that other renewable based technologies have been unable to reach.
Green mobility is the popular example. Covid-19 lockdowns have given us a glimpse of a world stripped of transport emissions — which, lest we forget, represent around 25 per cent of CO2 emissions worldwide. They have also reminded us of the scale of the emissions challenge as transport has resumed.
The influx of investment in electric cars will be transformational, and the infrastructure is being built. Batteries are a simple, effective and affordable solution for personal travel. But what of the 50 per cent of transport revenues from freight? The batteries required to propel a ship across the English channel would leave no space on board for cargo or crew.
In an age of renewed supply chain awareness, nations are also wary of overreliance on lithium reserves that are concentrated in only a handful of countries. And let’s not forget that battery production is carbon intensive in the extreme.
Burned for transport, hydrogen releases only tiny pools of water. It should become the clean fuel of choice for ships, trucks, trains and buses around the world, replacing heavy diesel.
Our company, ENGIE, is designing and building dozens of hydrogen refuelling stations in France and the UK. These are among over 20 clean hydrogen projects we are working on worldwide.
The possibilities go far beyond transport. As an energy store, hydrogen will provide the clean counterweight to intermittent renewables production that has traditionally been fulfilled by coal or gas power generation. This is why, as it pivots away from nuclear, Germany is leading the way again and investing €9bn in hydrogen production to help balance its grid.
The naysayers point out that 90 per cent of today’s hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, while “green hydrogen”, produced from renewables, is expensive to produce. All of this is true — today.
Tomorrow. it won’t be. The multi-billions of investment announced in green hydrogen projects in the last fortnight mark a watershed moment. Technology will accelerate, and costs will come down.
The world has woken up to the importance of hydrogen to making zero carbon happen. The UK and others should be careful not to fall behind. The clock is ticking.
When we all finally sit down to watch the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2021, all developed nations must have their hydrogen strategy in motion if they are serious about achieving a zero carbon future.
Main image credit: Getty