China has already accelerated the adoption of solar power around the world, and now there is hope that it could do the same for hydrogen. Already the world’s largest producer of hydrogen power, much of this production is tied to fossil fuels, raising the question of whether China can ever fully embrace green hydrogen.
While wind and solar power dominate much of the discussion around renewable energy, hydrogen is quietly emerging as a key component of the world’s renewable energy mix. Figures from the International Energy Agency reveal that global low-carbon hydrogen production has increased from just 0.04 million tonnes in 2010 to 0.36 million tonnes in 2019, and is expected to reach 1.45 million tonnes in 2023 based on new hydrogen plants opening around the world.
Most encouragingly, the cost of producing hydrogen power is falling at a dramatic rate, with figures from the US Department of Energy predicting that the cost of producing hydrogen could fall from $6kg-1 in 2015 to as low as $2kg-1 by 2025. This significant decline falls neatly within the timeframe of environmental benchmarks such as the Paris Climate Targets, and there is hope within the hydrogen industry that the energy source will be integral to meeting these goals.
With this potential in mind, China has entered the hydrogen industry as it looks to clean up its coal-dependent energy mix. China leads the world in hydrogen production, with its annual output of 20 million tons accounting for around one-third of global production, enough to cover one-tenth of its massive energy needs. However, with much of China’s production tied to fossil fuel-reliant “grey hydrogen”, it remains to be seen if this massive energy potential can be turned to significant clean energy results.
Clean power, green transport and efficient storage
While the majority of Chinese hydrogen is used for industrial and chemical processes, there are a range of new initiatives and projects that are diversifying the sector, bringing a new range of uses for an industry that China is already dominating. In a report published in the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center (GBRI), authors Mengdi Yue and Christoph Nedopil Wang noted that between 2017 and 2020, China had established 61 hydrogen refuelling stations, developed the first fuel cell-powered tram, and successfully tested a manned aircraft powered by hydrogen.
“China is accelerating the research and development and application of hydrogen, as can be seen with the increasing national and local support for hydrogen production, fuel cell vehicles, re-fuelling stations and, in Guangdong province, trams,” explains Yue, a researcher at the GBRI.
These new projects have been supported by significant government interest and investment in hydrogen. Documents such as the 2019 Green Industry Guiding Catalogue, published by the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, target a number of reforms for China’s energy mix and hydrogen could be well positioned to make a difference in these areas.
Targets such as “new energy vehicles and green ships” outlined by the catalogue are ideal uses for hydrogen, which has already emerged as a key player in the future of clean transport. In addition, plans for the “green upgrading of infrastructure”, could take advantage of hydrogen’s unique position as an energy source that can alternate between a reliance on fossil fuels and being completely carbon neutral, raising the potential for hydrogen power to be used as a bridge between traditional and clean energy production.
Hydrogen also has significant potential for use in energy storage. According to the Hydrogen Council, Germany alone has the potential to store 37 billion cubic metres of hydrogen, and the development of efficient and effective storage solutions will be a key factor in making a hydrogen-powered transport industry feasible.