The Invisible Grid: Making Hydrogen Available

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on April 11, 2017
Traver Kennedy
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Last week, right at the NASDAQ closing bell, 13-year-old Tesla overtook 113-year-old Ford in market value. You may dismiss this as one more sign of a new bubble. After all, Ford delivered 6.7 million cars in 2016 (including electric cars) versus Tesla’s 75,000. But this is not a valuation based on cars sold; it is one based on infrastructure. In this case, the power infrastructure Tesla is building to support its cars and solar-powered homes. Ben Kallo, energy technology analyst at Robert W. Baird, framed the point succinctly when he told the BBC, “Tesla has more going on in those four walls than we know about.” Silently, Tesla has been building the critical mass of available electricity through charging stations and better batteries, signaling to the market that it is worth more than the company who brought you the first car—in any color “as long as it was black,” as Henry Ford famously put it.


We’re finally arriving at the hydrogen economy

Another energy infrastructure is quietly being built around you: one that supports hydrogen energy. Let’s examine another car company for perspective, Toyota. Not everyone knows that hydrogen cars are now commonplace in California. Toyota, which launched the hydrogen-powered Mirai in California in 2015, invited drivers to “become one of the first trailblazers to take the wheel of a Toyota Mirai and drive the hydrogen movement forward.” Supporting this vision is a 25 fueling station infrastructure that enables drivers to replenish the hydrogen along the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor in California and a partnership with Shell to build the infrastructure further.

The “Hydrogen Grid” is Here 

On April 3, coincidentally the same day that Tesla’s market valuation overtook Ford’s, Roger Arnold wrote an article in The Energy Collective that laid out the silent but astonishingly quick progress of hydrogen. He opened his article by asserting the assumptions of many in the energy industry: “After more than two decades of hype about the imminent arrival of a transformative ‘hydrogen economy,’ many veteran technology watchers—myself included—had concluded that hype was pretty much all it was. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, in particular, looked like a failed dream.”

Then he contrasted that mindset with a new “shocking” reality: “In the face of that expectation, a spate of announcements and news articles over the past year relating to hydrogen have come as a shock. Most prominent have been recent announcements by Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai of new FC vehicles for production release in markets where hydrogen refueling stations are available. Toyota announced the Mirai, Honda announced the Clarity Fuel Cell, and Hyundai announced the Tucson Fuel Cell SUV. But those were just the commercial announcements backed by ad campaigns. When one starts digging, scores of significant news stories and announcements from around the world turn up.” To sum up his point, he wrote, “The whole idea of the hydrogen economy—which never quite went away—seems to be resurgent.”

Technological innovation over the past decade in areas related to the production, storage, and transport of hydrogen has made this “resurgence” possible. Just like solar and wind whose prices are now cost-competitive to fossil fuels, hydrogen is continuing to make steady (albeit silent to many outside our industry) progress. Hydrogen is rapidly fulfilling its potential to become a widely available and cost-competitive energy source to power all kinds of stuff—from cars to cities and everything in between.

Catching Up with Progress in Hydrogen

Industry writers are not the only ones shocked by hydrogen’s steady progress. Just last week, an industry group in the natural gas industry, called HYREADY Joint Industry Project (JIP), announced, “A new industry collaboration [that] will prepare for the introduction of clean hydrogen gas to the [gas] grid.” They pointed out, “Hydrogen from renewable sources being added to natural gas will support the decarbonization of the current gas system and accelerate the integration of sustainable energy sources.”

Cities around the world are also catching up to the clean benefits of hydrogen. In the UK, for example, another industry group, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH), published specific guidelines to roll out hydrogen public transport a couple of years ago. Across the U.S. from California to Virginia, fleets of public buses have been running on hydrogen for several years.

Meet the New “Hydrogen Collaboration Economy”

Isolated work is a thing of the past in our industry. Leading companies and organizations recognize that critical mass is here and that collaboration is the way to realize the many benefits that the universe’s most abundant element can provide. On what they call “paving the way for others,” Toyota is making 5,000 of its patents on the Mirai freely available to accelerate hydrogen progress. Toyota announced their intention by stating, “We believe that a hydrogen-based society is within reach, but we can’t build it on our own. So, we’re sharing our patents, to encourage other car companies and energy companies who believe in clean, alternative energy to help bring hydrogen to the world. Every innovation marks a turning point in the hydrogen movement and a step towards a more sustainable future.”

We are at the tipping point on the path to make clean hydrogen available. Cambridge scientists have recently developed a way to use sunlight to turn unprocessed biomass into clean hydrogen. Here in the U.S., work on Hydrogen 2.0 is making it possible to turn water into clean hydrogen using a novel approach that will make it cost-competitive to other alternatives.

The invisible infrastructure to support hydrogen is now visible. Innovators across the entire hydrogen supply chain stand ready to help our society add the clean energy benefits of the number one element to the world’s energy mix to move society forward in a sustainable way.


Photo courtesy of photographer Christopher Michel.
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