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Towards a Sustainable Hydrogen Economy: A Multi-Criteria Sustainability Appraisal of Competing Hydrogen Futures


The “hydrogen economy” has the potential to provide a sustainable and
secure energy system, and there is a wide and growing literature
promoting and exploring different possible hydrogen futures. However,
despite broad agreement that hydrogen could make a significant
contribution to energy policy goals, the literature exhibits strong
disagreements about the form that a future hydrogen economy should take.
Visions of the future select, combine and reconfigure individual
hydrogen generation, storage, transport and end-use technologies into
more or less mutually compatible energy and transportation systems,
which embody deeply contested and conflicting views of sustainability.
This paper describes the application of a novel foresight methodology,
which combined participatory scenario development, using a backcasting
approach, with an expert-stakeholder multi-criteria mapping (MCM)
process, in order to provide an integrated, transparent assessment of
the environmental, social and economic sustainability of six possible
future hydrogen energy systems for the UK. The findings suggest that:
hydrogen has the potential to deliver substantial sustainability
benefits over the status quo, or, business as usual, futures, but that
hydrogen is not automatically a sustainable option; carbon emissions are
the single most important dimension of sustainability, but that issues
other than carbon and cost need to be considered if hydrogen is truly to
deliver greater sustainability. Furthermore, there was significant
disagreement about which visions were considered more or less
sustainable. These findings reflect two important sources of divergence
in the final sustainability rankings: uncertainties and contested views
of sustainability.