Japan Summit highlights countries’ investments in hydrogen

Hydrogen could power the next wave of decarbonization in many countries now that a recent virtual summit on green recovery has revealed a growing number of countries using their economic recovery efforts to ramp up investment.

The Sept. 3 summit, organized by the government of Japan, marked the launch of the Platform for Redesign 2020, an online hub where countries share information on steps they’re taking toward a sustainable and resilient recovery from the global pandemic. Co-hosted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, the platform is also intended to help build momentum toward COP 26 next year. Nearly 100 countries participated in the summit, highlighting efforts ranging from advancing electric mobility to exploring nature-based solutions to investing in energy-efficient and resilient buildings.

For a number of major countries –including Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany – a key theme was ramping up investment in “green” hydrogen technologies. Seen as a potential game-changer on the path to decarbonization – particularly for heavy industry and transport – hydrogen is a growing focus of international competition and cooperation.

Combusting hydrogen creates only heat and water–no air or greenhouse gas emissions. The universe’s most abundant element can be extracted from fossil fuels, biomass, and water.

Typically, hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, a process that creates significant carbon dioxide emissions. When carbon-capture technology is applied to the process, the product is referred to as “blue” hydrogen. When renewable electricity is used, the product is known as “green,” or electrolytic, hydrogen. Hydrogen produced using other emission-free sources, such as nuclear power, can be considered emission-free hydrogen.

To date, hydrogen demand has almost entirely been met with fossil fuels. But declining renewable electricity costs, particularly solar PV and wind, have spurred interest in “green” hydrogen.

Hydrogen plays a large role in Japan’s vision for decarbonizing its economy. With the aim of achieving the world’s first “hydrogen-based society,” Japan’s 2017 Basic Hydrogen Strategy lays out an action plan up to 2030 in the context of a broader 2050 outlook and a goal to reduce hydrogen costs to be competitive with fossil fuels.

Germany outlined its own national hydrogen strategy in June. It earmarks €7 billion for ramping up hydrogen technology in its domestic market and €2 billion toward international cooperation on hydrogen markets. The strategy’s aims include establishing hydrogen as an alternative energy source and making it sustainable for industrial processes.

France plans to cooperate with Germany in the development of hydrogen technologies. It recently committed €2 billion of its €100 billion stimulus plan to developing a green hydrogen economy and plans to invest €7 billion in hydrogen technology in the long term. Its strategy builds on a 2018 Hydrogen Deployment Plan, which aspires to put 5,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road by 2023 and sets a goal of 10 percent emission-free hydrogen by 2023.

The EU has also presented a bloc-wide, phased hydrogen strategy, prioritizing renewable hydrogen produced using mainly wind and solar energy. But it will need other forms of low-carbon hydrogen to rapidly reduce emissions and support a viable market in the short- and medium-term, so it launched a European Clean Hydrogen Alliance with industry leaders, civil society, national and regional ministers, and the European Investment Bank to build an investment pipeline for scaled-up production.

As countries increasingly look to decarbonize their economies, electrolytic hydrogen is a promising clean energy source that can help reduce emissions in the power sector and other subsectors like heavy-duty trucking, aviation, chemicals, iron and steel, which are challenging to decarbonize. Additionally, it can provide storage to balance variable renewable electricity over long time horizons, improve air quality, and strengthen energy security. A recent Energy Transitions Commission report from a coalition of energy companies notes that the use of green hydrogen in sectors where full electrification is not possible could help make reaching net-zero emissions technically and economically feasible.

Numerous obstacles have hindered hydrogen’s widespread adoption: the slow development of hydrogen infrastructure, higher cost of hydrogen relative to other fuels, production and handling challenges, and regulations that currently limit the development of a clean hydrogen industry. Also, constructing hydrogen refueling stations, storage facilities, and pipelines will require significant time and support from national agencies.

Expanding hydrogen technologies will likely play a significant role in the broader effort to decarbonize each nation’s economy. C2ES’s Getting to Zero sets out a roadmap for how it would tie into efforts to bring U.S. economy to carbon neutrality by midcentury.

For governments planning a “green” recovery, a price on fossil fuel emissions would help make hydrogen more competitive. Coordinated government efforts can also scale up hydrogen and spur investments in factories and infrastructure that will bring down costs and enable the sharing of knowledge and best practices. Carbon capture and storage technology can significantly mitigate carbon emissions from today’s prevailing production methods. Also, building hydrogen electrolyzers at locations with excellent renewable resources can provide a near-zero electricity cost and lower hydrogen production costs, though there will be costs incurred in transporting it to where it will be consumed.

As the world works to recover from the novel coronavirus pandemic, countries leading the way towards more affordable, clean hydrogen energy can help accelerate the green “redesign” of development pathways envisioned at Japan’s recent summit.