Hydrogen faces uphill climb to decarbonize heavy industry

Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Hydrogen has long been touted as a potential solution, but significant hurdles remain before this clean fuel can achieve widespread adoption and make a meaningful dent in emissions.

While renewable energy sources like wind and solar have made major strides in decarbonizing power generation, heavy industries like steel, cement, and transportation still rely heavily on fossil fuels. At the recent Net Zero Transformation Forum, experts weighed in on the opportunities and challenges facing hydrogen in the energy transition.

From Taiwan to Chile to Europe, a common theme emerged. Hydrogen is no longer just theoretical, but real projects are taking shape on the ground.

Claire Stevenson, representing Scotland, emphasized the need for continued government support, noting that while progress is being made, private investors are still hesitant due to the lack of immediate commercial viability. She also underscored the necessity for collaboration, highlighting the need for synchronized technological advancements and regulatory frameworks across nations.

Dr. Meg J.C. Lin from the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research echoed this sentiment, noting that the recent surge in interest in hydrogen stems from the global commitment to zero-emission targets. Lin emphasized the importance of integrating hydrogen into existing energy systems, citing its potential as a clean energy storage solution.

"Companies, governments, institutions have defined that they have assets to put in value for this new hydrogen industry," said Vicente Pinto, an investment counselor at the Chilean Embassy in Japan. He pointed to Chile's abundant ports, existing ammonia import terminals, and push by mining companies to decarbonize as drivers for the country's hydrogen ambitions, including recent contracts for ammonia-fueled vessels.

For France, hydrogen is critical for decarbonizing hard-to-abate industrial sectors like steel and fertilizers that cannot be easily electrified. The government has dedicated EUR7 billion through 2030 focused on these areas, with an emphasis on cost-effective electrolyzers to produce "green" hydrogen from renewable power.

"Most of the time you use low-carbon electricity to produce your hydrogen. One of the main challenges is developing efficient and cost-efficient electrolyzers," said Jonathan Drubay, an innovation expert with the French organization Expertise France.

While the end-use cases are being mapped out, challenges remain around scaling up production, building out storage and distribution infrastructure, harmonizing regulations, and bringing down costs to be commercially competitive with fossil fuels. Technological breakthroughs are still needed in areas like high-temperature electrolysis and carbon capture.

"By 2030, we should see some new ways to produce hydrogen and cost reductions for electrolyzers," predicted Ming-Hsu Li, deputy director at Taiwan Science and Technology Office for Net-zero Emission(T-STONE). "By 2040, we might see the maturity of a hydrogen economy with significant global trade flows."

In the near term, the single most critical factor, according to Chile's Pinto, is to "step forward" by advancing tangible projects rather than over-studying hypotheticals. He urged companies to submit applications and navigate regulations in real-time rather than waiting for perfect policy frameworks, comparing it to the early days of solar development in Chile before standards existed.

The public sector also has a crucial enabling role through funding, infrastructure development, and establishing safety codes and standards. Li proposed the concept of a "hydrogen park" with a full supply chain to help test, pilot and de-risk emerging hydrogen technologies as Taiwan looks to position itself as a tech export hub.

From Europe to Asia to South America, hydrogen's promise as a pillar of decarbonization is being validated through concrete actions. Surmounting the technological, financial, and regulatory obstacles over the next decade will determine whether hydrogen truly rises as a transformative climate solution or an overblown distraction.