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Tuesday, June 05, 2018, 09:28
Hydrogen on track to drive China's development
By Wang Keju
Tuesday, June 05, 2018, 09:28 By Wang Keju

A bus that runs on hydrogen fuel cells is charged by technicians in Rugao city, Jiangsu. (LI CUNGEN / XINHUA)

The concept of the hydrogen energy economy has been around since the 1970s, thanks to its status as a clean source of fuel and energy that does not release carbon dioxide at the point of use. As such, many scientists believed that hydrogen power could play an important role in the global transition to a clean, low-carbon energy system.

However, despite the early optimism, the concept has remained a Utopian dream, stuck in a chicken-and-egg dilemma, with demand for hydrogen hampered by a lack of required infrastructure and vice versa.

Now, though, things may be about to change.

According to a 2017 road map produced by the Hydrogen Council, a grouping of 39 energy-related companies, the gas could account for almost one-fifth of the energy consumed globally by 2050

The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference saw 195 countries sign the Paris Agreement, an initiative designed to restrict global warming this century to "well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius".

The target is highly ambitious, according to some observers. "The agreement requires the world to limit cumulative energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide to less than 900 Gt (gigatons) by 2100 - an amount the world will exceed before 2050 if it continues on its current path. Achieving such deep decarbonization will require a radical transformation of the energy system," said Zhou Dadi, a senior researcher at the China Energy Research Society.

According to a 2017 road map produced by the Hydrogen Council, a grouping of 39 energy-related companies, the gas could account for almost one-fifth of the energy consumed globally by 2050, reducing annual emissions of carbon dioxide by about 6 Gt and contribute about 20 percent of the additional reduction required to limit global warming to 2 C.

Significant progress

In recent years, hydrogen technologies and products, especially hydrogen fuel cell vehicles - an important technology in decarbonized transportation systems - have made significant progress in many countries and regions such as Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe.

At the same time, China has been developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to make the nation's automobile industry cleaner and more efficient.

Since 2003, China has worked with the UN Development Program and Global Environment Facility to establish five pilot demonstration zones, including Beijing, Shanghai and Zhengzhou, Henan province, to promote the development and commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, according to Zhang Weidong, a project manager at the UNDP.

"Three fuel cell buses and 20 fuel cell cars were used at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while 196 fuel cell vehicles were demonstrated during the 2010 Shanghai Expo," he said.

Li Jianqiu, deputy director of the Department of Automotive Engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the country is a world leader in the new energy sector.

Students at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province try out cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The vehicles were developed by the Kunshan Innovation Institute at the college. (SUN CAN / XINHUA)

"Despite a late start, China has made rapid progress in hydrogen development, mastering the core technologies of the hydrogen fuel cell. Last year, we produced more than 1,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; the most made by any country in a single year," he said.

Statistics published by the Society of Automotive Engineers of China last year suggest that there will be about 1 million fuel cell vehicles on the nation's roads by 2030. Meanwhile, the Hydrogen Council estimates that by 2030 the number of hydrogen-powered cars in the world will be between 10 and 15 million, while there will be 500,000 new energy trucks.

To support the rise of such vehicles, China has 12 hydrogen fueling stations in operation, and 19 more are under construction across the country. Eventually, the number will exceed 100, according to Li.

Han Xiaoping, chief information officer at China Energy Net Consulting, expressed high hopes about the development of hydrogen technologies.

"With its rapid industrialization, urbanization and economic growth since the 1990s, China has become the world's largest producer and consumer of energy, and also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. We see hydrogen as a promising alternative fuel," he said.

That optimism is reflected in a development plan published in January by the government of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, which outlined plans to become a "hydrogen city" via the development of the new energy sector.

A hydrogen energy industrial park will be built in the city to provide a home for more than 100 automakers whose vehicles run on hydrogen fuel cells, and related businesses.

In addition, the city will build up to 20 hydrogen fueling stations by 2020 to support the use of about 3,000 vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel-cells, the plan said.


However, despite the push to promote hydrogen energy and fuel cell vehicles, a number of obstacles could hinder their development and wholesale adoption.

"The government has outlined plans to encourage the development of hydrogen energy and fuel cell vehicles, but the national and local policies aren't specific or strong enough to give the industry clear guidance and greater confidence," said Liu Jihong, director of the Foton AUV Bus Research Institute, one of China's largest manufacturers of buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Two years ago, the National Energy Administration and National Development and Reform Commission released The Revolutionary Innovation Plan on Energy Technology from 2016 to 2030, which lists the development of hydrogen energy and fuel cell vehicles as one of 15 tasks designed to facilitate the energy transition. Despite that, the government has not released any detailed plans or guidelines to coordinate and manage resources in the industry, according to Liu.

"The lack of government coordination leads to companies fighting their own corner, but every company may stumble over the same stone. It's a waste of time and resources and, of course, it will delay progress in the research and development of the core technology of fuel cell vehicles," he said.

Liu added that China has spared no effort to develop green energy and is a world leader in its production, but while large sums have been invested in solar, wind and other alternative power sources, very little money has been spent on hydrogen energy.

According to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report published in April by the UN Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China was the world's leading investor in renewable energy last year - solar energy alone received more than 555 billion yuan (US$86.6 billion). The 812.5 billion yuan in funding represented the largest sum the nation had spent on the sector in a single year and accounted for 45 percent of the global total.

Noting that carmakers and clean energy generators have spent heavily on the sector, Liu urged the government to increase investment in areas such as the supply of hydrogen energy and the evolution of fuel cell vehicles as a way of driving the development of the entire industrial chain and tackling common technological bottlenecks.

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Lack of experts

In addition to shortcomings at the macro level, such as policy and investment, many companies and research institutes face a critical problem; a lack of experts and researchers.

Li, from Tsinghua University, said the development of hydrogen energy and fuel cell vehicles has resulted in strong demand for people who are well-versed in the technology. However, few universities offer related courses, and that has resulted in a disparity between demand and supply of talent in the sector.

"My doctoral student, who is now in his third year and still two years from graduation, has already been reserved by a fuel cell vehicle company. This is very common in our department," he said.

Liu said that while it's not unusual for electric vehicle companies to employ more than 100 experts and researchers with doctorates, it would be difficult to find 10 equally qualified people in a fuel cell vehicle company.

Despite the obstacles ahead, observers believe the government's endorsement of the development of the hydrogen energy economy is a cause for optimism.

"China has a rapidly growing hydrogen scene, which allows us to have a broader vision. We not only want to accelerate the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but also revive the concept of the hydrogen energy economy," said Zhang from the UNDP.

In 2016, the programme helped to establish a hydrogen economy demonstration city in Rugao, Jiangsu province.

The project will use hydrogen as the main source of power to meet the energy demands of industry, especially sectors such as transportation and power, in addition to attaining sustainable development and mitigating climate change.

"I believe the hydrogen economy with Chinese characteristics will not be just a Utopian dream this time round," Zhang said.

Hou Liqiang contributed to this story

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