By Naomi Kitur

Clean hydrogen could play significant role in an accelerated transition to a low carbon economy, particularly for hard- to- abate sectors. It could also offer a path towards meeting national and international climate and pollution goals while avoiding reliance on imported fuels, according to a report by Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

Hard –to- abate sectors like heavy industry and heavy transport account for around 40% of total carbon emissions. The report finds that in the mobility sector hydrogen can complement existing efforts to electrify road and rail transportation, especially in long-distance and heavy-duty sectors, and provide a scalable option for decarbonizing shipping and aviation. To speed up global transition to a low carbon economy, all energy systems must be actively decarbonized.

While hydrogen has been a main element in the energy and chemical industries for decades, clean hydrogen- defined as hydrogen produced from water electrolysis with zero-carbon electricity- has captured increasing political and business momentum as a versatile and sustainable energy carrier in the future carbon-free energy puzzle, says the report.

However, taking full advantage of this potential will require a coordinated effort between the public and private sectors focused on scaling technologies, reducing costs, deploying enabling infrastructure, and defining appropriate policies and market structures.

The report notes that clean hydrogen adoption and use at scale faces two key challenges, cost and limited infrastructure availability. Aside from these, there are public concerns around its safety that present additional challenges to deployment.

The report reveals that a country’s role in clean hydrogen markets will depend not only on its ability to produce and distribute renewable hydrogen cost-competitively and at scale, but also on its policy choices. For example, analysis done on China suggests that Beijing has a long way to go before a hydrogen society could reach fruition, but if the country were to replicate the success it has had with other clean technologies (like solar PV) China could significantly lower production costs and accelerate adoption around the world, while emerging as a renewable hydrogen superpower.

“One of hydrogen’s key attractions is that it can provide carbon-free energy in multiple sectors,” said Nicola De Blasio, Belfer Center Senior Fellow and editor of the report. “But this versatility also creates significant uncertainties. In Mission Hydrogen, we analyze hydrogen’s potential by critically looking at all the pieces of the carbon-free energy puzzle. Only by understanding how all the pieces fit together can we hope to draw a complete picture and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Paolo Magri, Executive Vice President of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), said, “I am honored to launch this Belfer Center-ISPI joint publication on hydrogen – an energy vector that will be crucial to fight climate change and ensure that the carbon neutrality targets that many countries are setting as national priority policies will turn into reality. It is imperative to avoid the geopolitical tensions and market deficiencies of the fossil era and foster a global cooperative approach also through international fora such as the G20.”

Clean hydrogen can help address renewable energy intermittency and curtailment issues and open new avenues for developing clean technology manufactured goods for both domestic and export markets, thus providing substantial additional benefits to local economies.

Block chain can greatly accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy as technology and policy pathways to DE carbonization will need to rely on processes that accurately measure and record emissions and green molecules across global markets characterized by limited transparency, uneven standards, different regulatory regimes, and trust issues. Addressing these challenges will require managing large volumes of multi-party transactions, which need to be settled quickly, securely, and inexpensively, says the report.

The report had the following recommendations that they agreed on.

The G20 should institute a “Technology 20” official engagement group that brings together leading global stakeholders from the private and public sectors across entire value chains to serve as a technology sandbox and provide technology and policy recommendations to accelerate innovation cycles. The case of hydrogen highlights how adopting new clean technologies can offer unique opportunities to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Still, deployment at scale faces significant challenges that neither the private nor public sector can address alone.

Governments pursuing clean hydrogen should increase investments in innovation, convene stakeholders across value chains, and foster collaboration in addressing first-mover risks, strategic barriers, and opportunities.

Nations and regions that wish to adopt clean hydrogen at scale should prioritize detailed analysis and planning now since the effects of policy choices made today will be felt decades in the future. As our research highlights, nations will need to carefully consider their role in future clean hydrogen markets from a geopolitical and market perspective. It will also be critical to identify infrastructure bottlenecks and address financial gaps in specific markets and applications. For example, building a pipeline network to deliver hydrogen to homeowners who have yet to install hydrogen-fueled stoves and heating systems would be financially disastrous. Hence, synchronizing infrastructure investments with growth in supply and demand will be essential but challenging.

Addressing the price gap between clean and fossil-based hydrogen will require active policy interventions. Such policies could include measures to incentivize the value and use of clean hydrogen, such as implementing clean hydrogen standards and carbon pricing.

Stakeholders must be appropriately credited for investing in the current premium required to produce carbon-free hydrogen. This will require concerted efforts to identify design principles, best practices, and standards for robust block chain platforms that achieve shared agreement among key stakeholders (including mandating clean block chains) and to educate stakeholders about block chain technology and its value proposition.

Nations and regions should implement market-aligning policies, together with production and safety standards, to accelerate clean hydrogen adoption and enable transnational trade.