HYDROGEN FACT SHEET
The Hydrogen Economy
Energy and Economy: The Parallels
The Nationʼs energy system is comprised of technologies and services that ensure depend- “The Stone Age did not
able production, distribution, and consumption of energy. Market forces continually
end because we ran out
adjust and correct as needed to maximize the efﬁcient use of energy resources through
of stones, and the Oil Age
technological innovation, resource supply diversiﬁcation, and resource substitution. The
current U.S. energy system, like those of industrialized nations around the world, employs
will not end because we
fossil energy resources (petroleum, coal, natural gas) and uranium to meet most energy run out of oil.”
demands. Yet, fossil and uranium energy resources are ﬁnite, meaning that one day they Don Huberts
will become scarce or depleted. They also produce environmentally harmful emissions, Shell Hydrogen
which represents an external cost borne by society, most measurably in health effects.
The U.S. Department of Energy currently funds the development of new energy tech-
nologies to meet long-term energy needs. The ultimate long-term goal is to achieve a
reliable and sustainable energy economy that will use domestically available, renew-
able resources to provide clean, reliable and secure energy services for all end-use
sectors—power, industrial, transportation, residential, and commercial.
Many believe that the future energy economy will feature hydrogen as an energy
carrier. In one possible scenario, hydrogen, produced from water using sunlight will
be distributed to an end user. The end user can then burn the hydrogen directly in an
engine or convert it to electricity in a fuel cell with the principal by-product of each
use being water. The cyclical process then can begin again using the water by-product
as the feedstock to re-extract the hydrogen.
Energy Transformations: A Look Back
The transition to a hydrogen economy—though it may sound implausible—isnʼt
unprecedented. Up until the last half of the 19th century, the United States had an
energy system that relied upon draft animals for transportation, and wood for heat-
ing and cooking. Today, energy in the form of transportation fuels and electricity has
become so ubiquitous it is difﬁcult to separate it from the function of modern society.
In the span of less than 150 years, the U.S., and much of the developed world, has
successfully transitioned from wood to coal, to increasing contributions from hydro,
natural gas, petroleum, nuclear energy and most recently renewables as primary sources
of energy (see Figure 1 on the following page).
HYDROGEN FACT SHEET
THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY
The later transitions are reﬂective of a diversiﬁcation of energy resources, while the
entry of new energy resources has been driven in large part by demand, economic
forces, environmental concerns, and technological advances.
Figure 1. Energy Consumption in the United States, 1775-1999
Source: U.S. Department of
Energy, Energy Information
Administration “Milestones in the
History of Energy & Its Uses.”
Until the end of the 20th century, the U.S. produced nearly all of the energy it needed.
In the 1980s, consumption of natural gas began to outpace domestic production. The
U.S. turned to Canadian imports to make up the difference. Starting in 1994, the U.S.
imported more petroleum than it produced, mostly to meet transportation demands.
Domestically abundant coal remains the dominant primary energy resource for elec-
Access to energy has had unparalleled consequences socially, economically, and
environmentally. The industrial revolution and indeed the technological revolution
would not have been possible without a reliable energy supply. But the principal
energy resources of the “hydrocarbon economy” are ﬁnite, and emissions that are
harmful to the environment are produced when these resources are used to provide
lighting, cooking, heating, and mobility. These factors will likely be among the main
drivers to bring about the next energy transition.
The Next Energy Transition
We may be standing on the brink of the next big energy transition. The international
community recognizes hydrogen as a key component in a clean, sustainable energy
system, or hydrogen economy. The future hydrogen economy features hydrogen as
an energy carrier in the stationary power, transportation, industrial, residential and
commercial sectors. It will be produced via water electrolysis using electricity from
solar, wind or other renewable resources and stored, transported by truck or pipeline,
and used in a fuel cell, turbine, or engine to generate an electric current with water as
the only by-product.
HYDROGEN FACT SHEET
THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY
But to reach that point, hydrogen will ﬁrst be introduced into small market segments,
as these technologies become market-ready. The chemical and reﬁning industries have
produced, stored and transported hydrogen for industrial purposes for decades. The
technologies used by those industries to produce hydrogen are a logical starting point
to catalyze more widespread use of hydrogen as an energy carrier (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Transition to the Hydrogen Economy
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Vision
Hydrogen Production Carbon
In the near- to mid-term, hydrogen will likely be produced by steam reforming natu- Sequestration
ral gas, a well-understood and time-tested technology, and by water electrolysis using The use of fossil resources
electricity from conventional energy resources. In the mid- to long-term, hydrogen (natural gas, coal, petro-
production technologies currently under development (renewables, high temperature leum) to produce hydrogen
nuclear chemical cycles, and clean coal and natural gas) will become more cost effec- emits some carbon dioxide
tive and contribute to a diversiﬁcation of domestic hydrogen production. (CO2), a greenhouse gas.
Technologies to capture and
Hydrogen Distribution sequester (store) CO2 are
under development. These
A reliable and low-cost hydrogen distribution network will not be built overnight. technologies will be needed
An existing hydrogen pipeline in the Louisiana-Texas region supplies hydrogen to before large-scale hydro-
the reﬁning industry. Gas production plants also transport hydrogen by tanker truck gen production from fossil
frequently to industrial users. As hydrogen demand grows, industry will respond by resources will contribute to
building or expanding the hydrogen delivery and distribution network using advanced the transition to a sustain-
technologies for pipeline construction, hydrogen storage and delivery. able hydrogen economy.
HYDROGEN FACT SHEET
THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY
Interested in Hydrogen Utilization
Learning More? Fuel cell is a word often used synonymously with hydrogen. A fuel cell is one of
several conversion technologies that will be fueled by hydrogen. Fuel cells operate
U.S. Department of Energy in the reverse of electrolysis: whereas in electrolysis, water is split into hydrogen and
www.eere.energy.gov oxygen, fuel cells take hydrogen gas and oxygen from the air and combine in a cata-
/hydrogenandfuelcells lyzed electrochemical reaction to produce an electric current and water or water vapor.
Aside from being pollution-free, fuel cells are quiet because they are non-mechanical,
National and can achieve efﬁciencies of 75% or greater of the energy potential of hydrogen. Size
Hydrogen Association ﬂexibility and corresponding electrical output make fuel cells ideal for a wide variety
www.hydrogenassociation.org of applications—from a few kilowatts to power a laptop computer to several megawatts
at a central power generation facility. Although fuel cells have the potential to serve all
U.S. Fuel Cell Council
sectors of the economy, from individual automobiles to industrial complexes, they are
expensive to build and need further technological advances to be fully practical.
International Reciprocating engines and combustion turbines are under development to combust
Partnership for the hydrogen in place of traditional fuels, to efﬁciently generate electricity and thermal
Hydrogen Economy (IPHE) power with near-zero emissions. Once mature, these technologies can also ﬁnd use in
on-site power applications at homes, ofﬁces, and industrial facilities.
As with all energy transitions, the transition to a hydrogen economy will take time
and will occur in phases. Technological advances and market acceptance are expected
to deﬁne the phases. In addition, a corresponding education effort in hydrogen safety
will ensure public readiness as hydrogen becomes increasingly available.
Governments, industry, and the public will all play vital roles. Government will be a
major supporter of technology research and development, and will develop codes and
standards for the safe use of hydrogen. Government can also use policy to stimulate the
marketplace and to encourage “early adoption” of hydrogen energy technologies. Indus-
tryʼs role is to determine when technologies are ready to transition to the marketplace and
New York State to establish the manufacturing base to supply the component technologies. Industry and
Energy Research and the public will deﬁne consumer requirements and market acceptance of the technologies.
Hydrogen also presents a signiﬁcant economic opportunity for U.S. industry. By
17 Columbia Circle taking an aggressive position in hydrogen energy technology development, the U.S.
Albany, NY 12203-6399 sits poised to be a major exporter of hydrogen technologies worldwide.
toll free: 1-866-NYSERDA
local: (518) 862-1090 The transition to a hydrogen energy economy will require signiﬁcant effort and
fax: (518) 862-1091 investment. But the outcome will be a reliable and sustainable economy that uses
domestically available, renewable resources to provide pollution-free electricity and
fuels to meet the demand of the economyʼs power, industrial, transportation, residen-
tial, and commercial sectors.