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Will hydrogen become the new oil?

Hydrogen produced in a climate-friendly way could help us to reduce CO2 emissions more quickly. Why is the gas so suitable?

Klaus Lüber, 04.03.2021
Model of a combined wind-power/hydrogen plant.
Model of a combined wind-power/hydrogen plant. © AquaVentus

Among other things, climate-change mitigation is a race against time. If we want to keep the average global temperature at a controllable level, we must act quickly and switch to renewable energies – i.e. green electricity – across the globe if possible. Unfortunately, this has not been easy to achieve in many important areas up to now: for example in air and maritime transport, road freight haulage and industrial production processes.

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The only 'exhaust' is pure water

Hydrogen could be the solution to these problems, because it can be used to convert sustainably produced electricity into a material carrier that can be used wherever the direct use of electrical energy is difficult. The gas is produced from water by electrolysis. This makes hydrogen the perfect storage medium for renewable energies, because no greenhouse gases develop either in its production or in its later use. In a fuel cell, which is used for example in hydrogen-powered cars, the gas burns to form pure water.

Faster to refuel than e-cars

In the transport sector, hydrogen's particular advantage as a propulsion system is that it considerably speeds up the refuelling process for green energy. It takes just three to five minutes to fill a tank – much faster than charging an electric car. The use of fuel-cell vehicles is especially interesting in local public transport (buses, trains), heavy-load road transport (trucks) and logistics (forklift trucks).

Fuel cell in a German hydrogen power plant.
Fuel cell in a German hydrogen power plant. © picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild

Solution on a global scale

However, hydrogen's main attraction as an energy carrier is its transport properties. They would make it possible to transport the green energy stored in this carrier relatively loss-free to the consumer from large offshore wind farms or solar power plants that are far away. This would work not only on a national scale, but also internationally or even globally. With hydrogen, so the idea goes, wind and sun could be imported – so to speak – from other regions of the Earth. This is why hydrogen is already being called the 'new oil'.

Can hydrogen really lead us quickly and easily into a climate-neutral future? It depends above all on how fast the expansion of renewable energies progresses. "Anyone who dreams of hydrogen must invest in renewable energies and expand them much faster than we have done up to now," says climate expert Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).


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