Will Hydrogen and Hydropower Run the World?

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Source: Popular Mechanics: Where Are All the Hydrogen Cars We Were Promised?


With all the talk about sustainable energy systems and developments, from hydrogen to solar power to geothermal energy, it is hard not to question how reliable these energy sources are and whether their benefits outweigh the costs. In fact, the notion of sustainable energy is relatively new and came to fruition in the early 2000s. This was primarily due to fears of the effects of climate change. From the first ideas of sustainable energy in the early 2000s to now, ideas have developed greatly. Currently, one of the latest trends in renewable energy is hydrogen power and energy. Before deciding on set views on hydrogen energy, it is important to understand what exactly it is, its costs and benefits analysis, real-world examples of hydrogen fuels, and input from a primary source. Through these analyses, it is clear that hydrogen power is a sustainable form of energy that will greatly assist us in mitigating the effects of climate change.

What is Hydrogen power and how does it work?

Hydrogen power is when water is converted into energy. It is created by using propeller-like devices, essentially turbines, which rotate as water goes through them. This, in turn, generates the electricity we use. Hydrogen power and its link to sustainable energy is recent, but hydrogen power was actually created in 1959 at Cambridge University, England. This initial model was the first working hydrogen-air fuel cell. Even though it was only 5 kilowatts, it powered a soldering machine. There have been great advances since then, and currently, hydropower accounts for about 7% of the USA’s electricity and approximately 40% of our renewable energy. It is used in almost every state. Its widespread popularity is not only because it is affordable but because it is also a clean and reliable energy source. Along with the United States, hydropower is widely used in China, Brazil, and Canada. In total, the US, China, Brazil, and Canada contribute to approximately 50% of the hydrogen energy usage, even though some 150 other countries use hydropower. In terms of its effect on greenhouse gas emissions and how it compares to other sources of energy, research from the International Atomic Energy Agency illustrates that the use of hydrogen power rather than fossil fuels has helped prevent the use of over 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the past 50 years. Not only this, but when contrasted with coal power, hydropower limits  greenhouse gas emissions of about 3 GT of CO2 each year, which is around 9% of global yearly CO2 emissions. Therefore, it is clear that hydropower is an energy form that has the power to transform our emissions for good.

Cost-benefit analysis

While hydrogen power has many positives, it is important to take a cost-benefit analysis into approach. Especially in states and countries that suffer from droughts, hydropower may not be the most suitable approach. If a country or state is in a drought for a long time, and if they were fully reliant on hydropower, then they would be unable to get any energy. Secondly, even though hydropower is sustainable, only a few locations are suitable for hydrogen power plant construction. Also, some of these limited locations are not near major cities that would be able to benefit from hydrogen energy. Thirdly, there are high initial costs associated with building hydrogen power plants. These power plants require a dam to be built to stop running water. Hence they cost more than similarly sized fossil fuel plants. However, in the long run, costs will be lower as they will not need to keep purchasing fossil fuels. A second positive of hydrogen power is that it is adaptable – hydrogen plants can change the levels of the flow of water. This is highly beneficial, as the power plant can make more energy when needed or lower energy production levels when it is not as necessary. Hydrogen power is the only renewable energy source that is able to do this. It also helps reduce wastage. Thirdly, hydrogen power is not toxic, and because hydrogen is lighter than air, it evaporates quickly. This is helpful because if there was a leak, there would be relatively fast disposal of the fuel, limiting any negative effects. Thus, whilst there are costs and drawbacks to using hydrogen power, it is clear that the positives and benefits outweigh them. Hydrogen power can be implemented as most of the energy we use, but the US government does not have to implement as much hydrogen power in places prone to droughts.

Real-life applications

Hydrogen energy is used almost everywhere in our daily lives, highlighting its practical applications. In Berkeley, the AC transit system actually has a zero-emission bus program. This program has a fleet of 36 40-foot-fuel-cell electric transit buses. They are fueled by hydrogen, which charges the on-board batteries that power the motor. Using hydrogen-powered fuel cells has meant that the AC transit system in California has been able to reduce about 135 tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly. There are even hydrogen planes, and the Universal Hydrogen Company is a pioneer in this field. Although their works are still in the testing phase, they tried a 15-minute flight of a modified Dash-8 plane that was run on hydrogen-powered engines. Furthermore, hydrogen cars have also started to come to fruition, with the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. These hydrogen-powered vehicles are marked as zero-emission vehicles. They work by having fuel cells that are powered by hydrogen gas. This hydrogen gas contributes to the fuel cell stack, changing the fuel’s chemical energy into electrical energy. This energy is then used to power the cars. Thus, it is evident that hydrogen power is an energy form that is likely to be widely adopted in the 21st century for a more clean and sustainable future.

Timothy Lipman, the Co-Director of the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, provides some insights into the future of hydrogen. He highlights how “although hydrogen-powered cars are slightly more expensive than electric vehicles, it is easier to refuel hydrogen-powered cars, and there is a great potential of opportunity.” There are also efforts by Lipman’s center to reduce the costs of hydrogen. However, Lipman argues how paying more for hydrogen may be better than paying less for electric cars if electric cars take longer to charge because of their downtime. In terms of the AC transit system, Lipman conveys how “fleets will have a mix of hydrogen and electric vehicles, where hydrogen will do the longer routes and electric vehicles will perform shorter routes.” Currently, his center is also working with a Korean company to get 30 hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and 10 to operate this summer in the port of Oakland. As a result, the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center has started to dispose of diesel trucks which have a lot of pollution. These trucks are also damaging to human health because of nitrous oxides and air pollution, and these substances have led to the fact that children near ports are more likely to have asthma. Thus, through battery and hydrogen fuel cells, the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center is helping to solve the two problems of carbon emissions and air pollution.


Therefore, whilst hydrogen power certainly has some negative effects and costs to be wary of, such as how it may not be suitable for drought-prone places, how hydrogen power plants have specific building requirements, and how short-run costs are high, the benefits of hydrogen power outweigh the costs. It is a remarkable form of sustainable, clean, reliable, safe energy and can transform climate change for the better. Furthermore, hydrogen power is adaptable, has lower long-run costs, and is able to reduce the negative effects of energy leaks in minimal time. It also has been implemented in fuel cells, powering planes, public transportation buses, and even private cars. The future of hydrogen is exciting, and there are likely to be many more developments to help make hydrogen even more widely available than it is right now.


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Luis Berga a b, et al. “The Role of Hydropower in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: A Review.” Engineering, 8 Nov. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S209580991631164X.

“Hydropower Basics.” NREL.Gov, www.nrel.gov/research/hydropower.html. Accessed 13 May 2023.

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“Where Are All the Hydrogen Cars We Were Promised?” Popular Mechanics, 2 Nov. 2021, www.popularmechanics.com/cars/hybrid-electric/a22688627/hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars/.

“Transportation.” Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, www.fchea.org/transportation. Accessed 18 May 2023.

More posts by Rhea Kundamal.
Will Hydrogen and Hydropower Run the World?
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