Looking back on National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day 2020, just one short year ago, it is truly amazing to see how much has been achieved in our goal to create a hydrogen economy. In fact, I would go so far as to say, we can pinpoint October 8, 2020 as the moment the industry hit the accelerator and drove us to where we are today. While the atomic weight of hydrogen that sets this date is small, the people who have come together to build the hydrogen future are mighty.
With lockdowns and concerns over Covid-19, many companies had already come to a complete standstill by October 8, 2020. Mass layoffs and supply chain shortages affected everyone in the hydrogen business. It was a moment when many decided to call it quits. Some discussions on social media even predicted that the hydrogen economy was going to take a hit so hard that it would take years to gain back the momentum.
In fact, quite the opposite happened.
Hype, Hope, and Promises Kept
It was clear by the last Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day that the titans of the industry were not going to slow down. In fact, looking back at news coverage at that time show growing enthusiasm in the sector. 2020 will be remembered as the first year that we could clearly foresee – in the words of the US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in 2002:
“A vision for America’s energy future—a more secure nation powered by clean, abundant hydrogen. This vision can be realized if the Nation works together to fully understand hydrogen’s potential, to develop and deploy hydrogen technologies, and to produce and deliver hydrogen energy in an affordable, safe, and convenient manner.”
While it is said that “necessity is the mother of invention,” with the rapid pace of technological change, sometimes the opposite rings truer: invention changes what we thought was necessary. Take data warehousing as one recent example. In the not-too-distant past, companies rushed to shred sensitive documents containing information that people wanted to permently destroy and eliminate the fact that they ever existed. Seemingly overnight, data warehousing technology rendered this practice obsolete, and a once common business practice disappeared. This has led to much more corporate accountability and higher ethical requirements from management teams.
We have seen the same level of exponential growth in the hydrogen industry in the past year, spurred by both brand new technology and those of us that are taking existing technology and modifying it for the future. It has been amazing to witness so many energy business leaders, technologists and researchers coming out of the woods and declaring that they are joining the hydrogen industry. Like the beginnings of data management, last year there may have been just two dozen or so companies committed to a hydrogen future, and now thousands are getting into this space.
It has been fascinating to see how the devastation caused by Covid could actually drive this growth. The most important catalyst was that the lockdown got people in front of their screens longer and prompted more in-depth exploration and analysis. Virtual conferences allowed people all over the globe to “attend,” promoting international sharing of concepts and information. Those of us who had been beating the drum for liquid hydrogen for years started to hear it echoed and amplified by others in every corner of the world.
While Covid tragically had a crippling effect on most markets, that did not happen in hydrogen, because we used the lockdown to our advantage. Covid offered an opportunity to take a timeout and analyze what works and what doesn’t in the hydrogen industry. For example, what doesn’t work is the one-off approach in California where half the stations are perpetually out of hydrogen. It is also becoming more and more clear that the only way forward is mass production of liquid hydrogen.
What has also become obvious in the last year is that the growth curve for hydrogen is exponential. At conferences today, there are hundreds of great speakers all pushing hydrogen, and indeed there is a huge hydrogen awareness campaign underway.
Take last year’s 2020 ACT (Advanced Clean Transportation) Expo where there were few hydrogen companies in attendance. That Expo was all about electric. At the 2021 ACT Expo, it was like flipping a switch from EV to hydrogen. This year there were numerous companies in the hydrogen industry, plus new entries in hydrogen trucks – not just Nicola, which made tipping-point news that got people talking about hydrogen and fueled the rise of Plug Power – but also Mercedes, Hyundai and others.
As growth continues, the inevitable question arises of when the promise of hydrogen will be fulfilled, and a “2030 timeline” is often cited. However, the source of that timeline is questionable; the first mention of the 2030 promise of hydrogen was in 2001, in this passage from U.S. Department of Energy documents:
“On November 15-16, 2001, 53 senior executives representing energy and transportation industries, universities, environmental organizations, Federal and State government agencies, and National Laboratories met to discuss the potential role for hydrogen systems in America’s energy future.”
Today, as the original handful of entrants in hydrogen realize that we are not alone anymore, the 2030 vision seems possible. Go to conferences and there are hundreds of seasoned speakers all pushing hydrogen. A global hydrogen awareness campaign is ramping up. All of the hype around hydrogen is giving the industry enormous hope.
Taking Politics Out of the Equation
And while the awareness campaign grows, it is critical that we don’t allow the hydrogen discussion to become a battle of politics.
According to a recent position paper by the Hydrogen Council:
“Governments are increasingly recognizing hydrogen’s ability to decarbonize sectors that are otherwise impossible or difficult to abate – such as intensive personal or collective transport, freight logistics, industrial heating and industry feedstock – and its role in improving energy security. Meanwhile, industry leaders across the automotive, chemicals, oil and gas, and heating sectors look to low-carbon hydrogen as a serious alternative to reach their increasingly ambitious sustainability objectives.”
This paper also acknowledges “that different countries have their own unique set of circumstances, priorities and approaches,” and as an industry we must be mindful not to fall into any traps set by politics – international, national or local. The hydrogen economy is simply not a political thing. While we need to see green energy take hold, we don’t want to be tied to any type of “green new deal.” We must help politicians and green-aware citizens realize their carbon emissions goals, without politicising the process.
As I like to say, we need to continue to create energy around green energy. And National Hydrogen Day is the perfect moment to commit to the future of hydrogen. Last year, at this time, small companies and large companies came together as one and saw that the hydrogen economy was under construction. On October 8, 2021, I ask you to join me as we will re-commit to moving full-speed ahead toward the hydrogen future.