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EcoGeneration have published an article by Josh Floyd and myself titled ‘How should we think about a hydrogen economy?’ We were asked to write a piece setting out the possibilities and hurdles of hydrogen, and to link it in with our recent book. The full April edition of EcoGeneration is available in hard copy and a free pdf.

Here’s the first few paragraphs –

The hype cycle, introduced by the research firm Gartner in 1995, is used to describe the progression of an emerging technology from its initial “innovation trigger” to its eventual influence in a market or a domain. Central to the cycle is the initial enthusiasm of proponents and the media. Enthusiasm contagion drives research and deployment funding. A race for commercial leadership ensues, drawing in positive reporting from consultancies and other actors seeking to capitalise on the bandwagon effect, creating a positive feedback loop.

Eventually commercial reality kicks in, leading to a waning of interest and a refocusing by firms on core activities. Ideally, the knowledge captured and the infrastructure built provides a foundation for a sustainable and profitable industry.

The dot-com bubble from 1994 to 2000 is a case study of hype then fortunes lost, but which left behind the physical networks and software architecture of the internet that we have today. Similarly, the 19th century British and American railway manias funded physical rail networks that were to survive financial speculation and crash.

It is not hard to imagine the current wave of enthusiasm for hydrogen conforming to the hype cycle. The development of a “hydrogen network” could be compared with the mid-19th century development of Britain’s railway network. The railway network operated in parallel, but also linked in with, the road, inland canal and sea-based transport networks that preceded it. It therefore both substituted for and complemented the existing transport networks. Similarly, we would expect hydrogen to link in with, and complement, value chains that are currently serviced by the petroleum, natural gas and electricity networks.

The overall effect of rail transport was to significantly improve the efficiency and availability of freight and people movements. The comparative advantages of fixed networks for heavy transport persist today – inland bulk commodity haulage and inner urban rapid passenger movement.

With respect to hydrogen, we can expect the comparative advantages relative to other energy carriers to be strongly associated with its versatility and storability. But unlike early rail, hydrogen-based solutions are competing with economically entrenched, incumbent fossil-based solutions.