Hydrogen Infrastructure Market Domination: China is the Elephant in the Room

  • Hydrogen gas is a massively important industrial chemical for making fuel and fertilizer, among other things.
  • What is at stake for the United States are the jobs and economic benefits of manufacturing the more than 400 million cars, 15 to 20 million trucks, and 5 million buses by 2050, as well as the supporting hydrogen infrastructure.
  • China is a proverbial “elephant in the room.”

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering announced on October 14th their intend to form the Midwest Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Coalition to raise awareness of the potential for hydrogen and fuel cells to provide energy resilience and security, reduce emissions and foster economic growth.

Additionally, on the same day, Air Liquide announced plans to produce renewable liquid hydrogen at an upcoming plant near Las Vegas. Air Liquide S.A., is a French multinational company which supplies industrial gases and services to various industries including medical, chemical and electronic manufacturers. Founded in 1902, it is the world’s largest supplier of industrial gases by revenues and has operations in over 80 countries.

Hydrogen is the chemical element with the symbol H and atomic number 1. With a standard atomic weight of 1.008, hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table. Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, constituting roughly 75% of all baryonic mass. Also, hydrogen gas is a massively important industrial chemical for making fuel and fertilizer, among other things.

The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee (HTAC) report outlines China’s threat to the US. HTAC was established to provide technical and programmatic advice to the  US Energy Secretary on DOE’s hydrogen research, development, and demonstration efforts.

The report’s main points:

What is at stake for the United States are the jobs and economic benefits of manufacturing the more than 400 million cars, 15 to 20 million trucks, and 5 million buses by 2050, as well as the supporting hydrogen infrastructure, envisioned by the Hydrogen Council study. It would be a tragedy for the US to have made earlier-stage investments in the industry only to see the bulk of the 30 million jobs and $2.5 trillion per year of revenues forecasted by the Hydrogen Council shift offshore to countries such as China. [The People’s Republic of] China is a proverbial “elephant in the room,” in that it is the only country with both the means and the motivation to pursue fuel cells and electrolysis at a top national level, and it is leveraging these capabilities to rapidly absorb the best technologies and commercial capabilities in the hydrogen and fuel cell industry.

China starts from a relatively rudimentary technical basis. However, while it has taken the rest of the world decades to develop the current technological base in fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure, China, through its concerted efforts, could acquire or control the bulk of this know-how in a few years.

Further, using its home markets, China can build the volume to drive manufacturing costs lower than any other country. Ballard Power Systems is an industry pioneer and has leading-edge fuel cell technology. The recent large-scale investment by Weichai and Broad-Ocean Motors in Ballard Power Systems makes possible the wholesale transfer of Ballard’s capabilities to China and eventual control of the company.

While most visible, Ballard is not the only fuel cell company to have already taken advantage of Chinese investments into their companies. The year 2020, months from now, represents an important convergence of events in Japan and China. Japanese car companies will be making production component decisions for their fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), catalyzed by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile, China will be concluding their 13th Five Year Plan mandating thousands of FCEVs, and initiating their 14th Five Year Plan, which will likely include a massive increase in FCEVs.

The countries that developed the bulk of this technology are at an inflection point. They can either take urgent action to moderate this process and secure long-term competitive advantage or allow it to follow a similar path to that of the photovoltaic and lithium ion battery industries. The subcommittee recommends specific focus on the fiscal year (FY) 2019 and FY 2020 budgets of DOE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) to emphasize addressing the competitive threat.

Full Report here.

China is the threat to the global environment as well as an economic and security threat to the US.

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Christina Kitova

I spent most of my professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation.

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