Hydrogen: A game-changer for ASEAN

Hakim Hayat

For the past two decades, hydrogen has rarely been mentioned by proponents of renewable energy although frequently used in ammonia production, petrochemical and oil refining industries.

However, the adoption of hydrogen usage recently has accelerated in all sectors as hydrogen is versatile and can be produced from many energy sources. Hydrogen fuels present an untapped potential as a clean energy source if the world embraces the adoption and usage in all sectors.

The annual production of hydrogen is about 120 million tonnes globally, of which two-thirds is pure hydrogen and one-third is mixed with other gases. Hydrogen is a clean energy which can be produced from either fossil fuels or from renewable resources. About 95 per cent of hydrogen is produced from coal and gas without carbon capture, sequestration and storage (CCS) – known as ‘grey hydrogen’, and with only small amounts produced with CCS – known as ‘blue hydrogen’. About five per cent of total hydrogen production is produced from renewable resources – ‘green hydrogen.’

Some 4.7 metric tonnes of hydrogen have been shipped to Japan from Brunei Darussalam’s first pilot hydrogenation plant operated by the Advanced Hydrogen Energy Chain Association for Technology Development (Ahead). The plant is part of Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation’s (NEDO) first global hydrogen supply chain demonstration project that runs from January to December 2020.

A total of 210 metric tonnes of hydrogen would be supplied to Japan throughout the year, Minister of Energy Dato Seri Setia Dr Awang Haji Mat Suny bin Haji Mohd Hussein said earlier this year. He said Brunei is poised as a pioneer towards finding an affordable means of global hydrogen transportation using Chiyoda Corporation’s SPERA Hydrogen technology.

“After the end of the hydrogen supply chain demonstration project, we will assess the outcomes. While building on the foundations laid through this project to support hydrogen energy development and explore its deployment for the nation, we welcome opportunities for collaboration in hydrogen energy innovations,” he said.

He said one of the main areas that could unlock further hydrogen demand is the mobility or transportation sector. “With growing demand for electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, it may be a matter of time before the market landscape and global supply of vehicles changes. Early preparations for the future will be key.”

This key development is also in tandem with the global agenda in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement (COP 21) and COP26 which will require leaders to pursue alternative fuel pathways, shifting from fossil fuel-based energy systems towards cleaner energy systems.

Senior Energy Economist, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) Han Phoumin in an interview said although the share of hydrogen fuel remains small in global energy consumption, it represents a positive growth potential as the world leaders start to see the great benefit and potentials of its use as a clean energy source to abate climate change.

Hydrogen fuel has enjoyed political support in many advanced countries including Germany, the Netherlands and many countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) region.

The expert said the potential use of hydrogen in transportation, power generation and other industries has been shown by projects around the world. “Renewable hydrogen has attracted leaders’ attention as an option to address challenges of increasing the share of renewables into electrical grid amid the falling cost of renewable electricity from winds and solar.”

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicted the cost of electrolysers, the devices used to produce hydrogen from water, will halve from USD840 today to USD420 by 2040. If coupled with the falling cost of renewable resources in general, the prospect of renewable hydrogen production could be the cheapest energy option in the foreseeable future.

ERIA’s research in hydrogen energy over the past two years, he said has identified significant potential of hydrogen energy supply and demand in East Asia. The research findings said that by 2040, the cost of hydrogen will decrease by over 50 per cent if adopted across all sectors.

“At this price, hydrogen is competitive with gasoline. The current cost of supplying hydrogen is about three to five times higher than gas, mainly due to the limited investment in hydrogen supply chains and the lack of a wider adoption strategy for hydrogen usage.”

He added that the wide adoption of hydrogen will need time to ensure cost competitiveness and safe usage in all sectors, especially for use in auto-mobiles. The large-scale hydrogen-based energy transition from the ‘grey’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen towards ‘green’ hydrogen will happen concurrently with a global shift to renewables, he added.

Phoumin said green hydrogen can potentially address current system integration challenges that prohibited a higher share of wind and solar.

Hydrogen uptake will happen in several ways. The European Union’s (EU) ambition to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050 will see a large role for hydrogen fuel as an enabler to achieve carbon neutrality. Many hydrogen projects in the OECD will come online by 2023, including electrolysers and pipelines for distribution of hydrogen to end-users.

Since hydrogen is a clean energy carrier, it will provide the best prospect of accelerating hydrogen storage for island countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand. In East Asia, China is one of the biggest potential producers and consumers of hydrogen energy in the foreseeable future. China has recently accelerated hydrogen investment support to local industries where USD2 billion is expected to be invested in the next few years. Japan is actively promoting the global adoption of hydrogen for vehicles, power plants and other potential uses.

Phoumin said Brunei is taking lead in the region’s hydrogen supply chain as it supplied the liquefied hydrogen from Muara port to Japan in late 2019. However, he said that the liquefied hydrogen process will involve more energy consumption to cool the gaseous hydrogen into liquid hydrogen under minus 253 degree Celsius.

He said the demonstration project of the hydrogen supply chain in Brunei with the cooperation from the Japanese government has successfully explored the alternative way of shipping the hydrogen using the new technology called Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carrier (LOHC). “If the cost of this technology is economic viable, it will pave ways for market access worldwide, and address the challenges of hydrogen supply chain barriers.”

Hydrogen use is expanding in the transport sector as well and its adoption is gaining momentum. India is starting to call for foreign investment in fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen transportation infrastructure development in some pilot cities. In Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will increase the number of hydrogen buses to 100 in 2020 and in ASEAN, the Sarawak local government will begin operating hydrogen buses soon. Singapore is working closely with Japanese companies to explore the development of hydrogen as a new clean fuel to develop the economy and decarbonise emissions.

Japan is currently pioneering the renewable hydrogen economy in which its production through the reformatting process of renewable electricity such as wind, solar and nuclear could be the game changer to decarbonise emissions. Japan is also the first country in East Asia to adopt a basic hydrogen strategy to ensure that hydrogen production will reach cost parity with gasoline and power generation in the long term.

A market survey of the future potential of hydrogen demand in Japan conducted by Fuji Keizai in 2019 indicated that hydrogen demand will increase 56-fold by 2030, with estimated investment of more than JPY400 billion. Although the Japanese government and businesses are making efforts to kick start hydrogen adoption, the realisation of a hydrogen society in Japan will largely depend on the competitive cost of hydrogen production and society’s willingness to pay. Likewise, South Korea set a bold target for hydrogen use, reaching 10 per cent of total energy consumption by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2040 to power selected cities and towns.

Unfortunately, in ASEAN, Phoumin said that hydrogen has yet to enter the policy agenda in many countries as an alternative fuel. However, the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) Phase 2, which is under preparation for endorsement at the ASEAN Ministers on Energy Meeting (AMEM) in November 2020, will include policy measures to address emerging and alternative technologies such as hydrogen and energy storage. APAEC will facilitate ASEAN member states to increase adoption of hydrogen for the foreseeable future, with the goal of fulfilling the OECD’s action plan to increase the share of hydrogen in the energy mix.

In ASEAN, hydrogen production is mainly used in the refining, fertilsers, and petrochemical industries. To expand its potential, Phoumin said that ASEAN’s energy leaders must develop a clear strategy for promoting hydrogen use into the transportation and power sectors.

“Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines could take the lead by investing in research and development for hydrogen produced from both renewables and non-renewables and by setting targets learning from OECD countries to guide the investment.”

Phoumin said that investment in industries that can adopt hydrogen energy provides a strong potential for ASEAN, but to realise such potential, ASEAN leaders must accelerate plans and strategies to embrace hydrogen use.

“ASEAN has much to learn from the European community, the OECD, and China. The above barriers to the hydrogen society can be addressed through energy policy changes with clear targets for hydrogen adoption in all sectors, so that investment can be made into renewable hydrogen production and its supply chain. Adoption of a clear hydrogen strategy is poised to be a game-changer for ASEAN’s clean energy future,” he added.