Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Mission Hydrogen: Accelerating the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy

| Oct. 29, 2021

Executive Summary

To accelerate the global transition to a low-carbon economy, all energy systems must be actively decarbonized. While hydrogen has been a staple 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. But 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. Only in this way can we avoid replicating the system-wide inefficiencies of the past that have characterized regional approaches to deploying new energy infrastructure.

Key findings include:
  • Clean hydrogen could play a significant role in an accelerated transition to a low carbon economy, particularly for hard-to- abate sectors, and offers a path toward meeting national and international climate and pollution goals while avoiding reliance on imported fuels.

  • The two key challenges to clean hydrogen adoption and use at scale are currently its cost and limited infrastructure availability. Public concerns around safety might also present additional challenges to deployment.

  • From a market perspective, clean hydrogen, like natural gas, will initially flourish in regional markets with the corresponding potential for geopolitical conflicts.

  • 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. Nations will likely assume specific roles in future clean hydrogen markets, which can be classified into five groups: export champions, water constrained producers, major importers, self-sufficient producers or regional exporters, and infrastructure constrained producers. For example, our analysis on China (Section 4) suggests that Beijing still 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Blockchain can greatly accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy as technology and policy pathways to decarbonization 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. These processes can be aided greatly by blockchain.

Based on these findings, we recommend the following set of actions:
  • 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 blockchain platforms that achieve shared agreement among key stakeholders (including mandating clean blockchains) and to educate stakeholders about blockchain 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.

Clean hydrogen offers a unique opportunity to accelerate the global transition to a low-carbon economy, but deployment at scale faces important challenges. We believe that only a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics will allow policymakers, investors, and other stakeholders to better navigate the challenges and opportunities of a low-carbon economy without falling into the traps and inefficiencies of the past. Stakeholders need to thoroughly assess clean hydrogen’s economic, environmental, and geopolitical implications, develop strategies to address them, and define long-term implementation plans – and it is essential to do so now.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: De Blasio, Nicola, Fridolin Pflugmann, Henry Lee, Charles Hua, Alejandro Nuñez-Jimenez and Phoebe Fallon. “Mission Hydrogen: Accelerating the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy.” Edited by Nicola De Blasio. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 29, 2021.

The Authors

Henry Lee