This article was written by Caroline Andretich, Ben Bradstreet, David Phua, Michael Lawson and Craig Rogers
In a region responsible for the majority of the world’s energy consumption, Asia Pacific countries are faced with a critical tension between a pressing need for energy to fuel economic development and global pressure to reduce carbon emissions.
Under the Paris Agreement (which was signed in 2015 by all countries in the Asia Pacific and the vast majority of countries globally), the objectives are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. For these targets to be met, it is critical that the world transitions away from a fossil fuel economy and, for this to occur, a sustainable and green source of alternative energy needs to be found.
Hydrogen (produced from low or no carbon energy), in particular, green hydrogen, has been cited as a potentially key enabler for this energy transition to occur. Strong government and commercial support, coupled with technological advancements, point to promising prospects for development of clean hydrogen in the Asia Pacific region. However, there remain various significant challenges to be overcome before a true hydrogen economy in the region can mature and take root. In the immediate term, the push for hydrogen as a clean energy source must confront and overcome economic uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the longer term, industry and government participants will need to develop both the supply and demand ends of the hydrogen economy (balancing that development so as to ensure its overall commercial viability).
This article is the first in a series to come from KWM. This first article is introductory in nature. It provides a broad overview of the hydrogen market - introducing some of the market’s key concepts and fundamentals, and highlighting some of its key opportunities, challenges and recent developments. In the articles which follow, we will dive deeper - focusing on specific commercial, policy and regulatory issues, and the hydrogen landscape in particular regional jurisdictions.
Production of Hydrogen
Hydrogen can be produced through different methods and it is common in the industry to categorise those methods through a “colour-coding” system based on the methods of production (differentiated according to the carbon intensity involved in the production method). Broadly, hydrogen can be divided into brown, grey, blue and green hydrogen.
- Brown – Brown hydrogen is produced from the gasification of coal to produce what is known as syngas (which contains, amongst other things, hydrogen). Due to the production of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, the production process is relatively polluting. Most of the hydrogen produced by China (currently the world’s largest hydrogen producer) is produced in the form of brown hydrogen.
- Grey – Currently the most common method of hydrogen production. Under this process, hydrogen is produced by steam reformation of natural gas - natural gas is reacted with steam at a high temperature to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The process is energy intensive, and similar to brown hydrogen, not environmentally friendly.
- Blue – Blue hydrogen adopts the same production process as grey/brown hydrogen, but utilises carbon capture and storage (“CCS”) technology for the capture and storage of associated CO2. However, due to the need for CCS infrastructure, this is a more expensive method of hydrogen production (compared to brown/grey hydrogen). Blue hydrogen is considered to be a transitional step on the path to green hydrogen production.
- Green – Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis, which is essentially the process of splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, by passing electricity through water. If the electricity for electrolysis is generated through renewable energy sources, the production process does not result in a carbon by-product, and it is therefore an ideal (clean) form of hydrogen production from an emissions reduction perspective.
One of the main challenges for clean hydrogen (i.e. blue or green hydrogen) lies in its production costs. When compared to conventional sources of energy, these costs are simply too high for hydrogen to be produced (economically) at a scale sufficient to substantially replace conventional fossil fuels. Continual reductions in the cost of production infrastructure and related technology will be key to encouraging the widespread adoption of hydrogen. Apart from the cost of electrolysers (which has been decreasing over time due to technological and design improvements) the cost of renewable energy used in producing electricity is an important factor when it comes to the final cost of production for green hydrogen. In recent times, of course, wind and solar costs have come down significantly, particularly in countries with plentiful access to sunshine and wind (such as Australia). It is also important to bear in mind the effect of economies of scale – the larger the scale of clean hydrogen production becomes, the more likely that the costs of production will fall, whether in the form of CCS infrastructure, electrolyser technology or otherwise.
While the emissions reduction benefits of clean hydrogen are well-acknowledged, the only way clean hydrogen can make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions (in line with the emissions targets of the Paris Agreement) is for clean hydrogen to become a commercially affordable source of energy and cost-competitive against fossil fuel. As further discussed below, there remains promise that reductions in the cost of renewable energy, advancements in green hydrogen production technology and scaling up of hydrogen production will help to improve the commercial viability of hydrogen production. And (again, as discussed in further detail below) government and policy intervention to make carbon intensive fuels more expensive (for example, through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes) or to lower the cost of hydrogen production (for example, through green energy subsidies). This kind of intervention can, of course, help to level the playing field in terms of costs, and facilitate continued investment and technology development, with the long term view of enabling green hydrogen to become cost-competitive in its own right.
Hydrogen policy development in the Asia Pacific region
In Asia, there continues to be a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and the overall energy demand is projected to continue to grow in the longer term (albeit that we have seen a recent drop in demand due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic). In line with the Paris Agreement, there has been a regional push to reduce greenhouse gases and to lower local environment pollution. Briefly, we discuss below the current state of hydrogen-related policy making as well as the hydrogen production and utilisation potential for various countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Japan: Under the Basic Hydrogen Strategy announced by METI in 2017, the Japanese government announced its plans to realise a hydrogen-based society, via measures such as the creation of a commercial hydrogen fuel supply chain, expansion of usage of fixed fuel cells and fuel cell vehicles (“FCV”) and the promotion of hydrogen usage in power generation. Related to the Basic Hydrogen Strategy, Japan has also released a New Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells to set new targets related to the utilisation of hydrogen technologies and to set out measures for achieving these goals. Japan is a world leader in the funding of research into hydrogen technologies, and for the financial year (ending March 2021) the total government budgetary support for hydrogen is 70 billion yen (approximately USD 650 million). Given its relative lack of renewable resource (when measured against its ambitions to increase hydrogen consumption uptake), Japan is also slated as one of the potential top Asian importers of green hydrogen.
Korea: In January 2019, Korea announced its Hydrogen Economy Roadmap with the objective of placing Korea at the forefront of the global hydrogen transition. The roadmap sets out the government’s plan to increase hydrogen production and usage, and to promote the continuing development of hydrogen technologies, in particular fuel cell technology. Amongst other things, the Roadmap outlines goals of producing 6.2 million fuel cell electric vehicles and rolling out at least 1200 refilling stations by 2040. There is also strong support from the commercial sector to back the government’s plan. As part of its 'FCEV Vision 2030' plan Hyundai Motors plans to invest approximately KRW 7.6 trillion (approximately USD 6.7 billion) in hydrogen-related R&D and facility expansion. As outlined by President Moon Jae-in, hydrogen is seen as a key means of bolstering economic growth, improving energy security and improving reducing environmental pollution.
Australia: Under the National Hydrogen Strategy unveiled in November 2019, Australia aims to become a hydrogen ‘powerhouse’ by 2030, particularly blue and green production through CCS and access to substantial renewable resources, both for local consumption and overseas export.
The national strategy is one of many in play – a number of State governments have declared similar intentions. At least a dozen hydrogen projects for production, transportation or export and consumption have been announced or are underway. Some of these are ‘pilots’, to test new technologies and production processes, while others are being commercialised. One example is the ‘Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain’ project, which recently commenced commercial-scale production, liquefaction and export in the world’s first LH2 carrier, the Suiso Frontier. Another project of note is the ‘Asian Renewable Energy Hub’ located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, designated with ‘major project’ status by the Australian government in October 2020. It will use around 15 GW of wind and solar energy to produce green hydrogen for export to Asian consumer centres. By supporting industry, the Australian government is working towards a goal to produce clean hydrogen for under $2 per kilogram. With its political will, access to abundant renewable resources and close proximity to major Asian consumers, Australia is positioning itself as a prime candidate for future commercial exports of green hydrogen to Asian consumers.
China: At a virtual meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a commitment from China to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. This will require a significant shift away from fossil fuels, and it is expected that clean hydrogen will have a major role to play in that transition. Already, China has stepped up investments in clean hydrogen and announced initiatives to promote the usage of hydrogen, particularly in the transportation sector – according to the New Energy Vehicle Industry Development Plan (2021 – 35) released by China’s State Council, China will focus on expanding the use of hydrogen in heavy transportation and developing infrastructure to support such expansion. Between 2016 - 2019, the number of hydrogen refuelling stations doubled every year and there are clear steps to roll out new subsidy policies to promote the usage of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Issued last year, the new draft Energy Law of the People’s Republic of China lists hydrogen as an energy source for the first time and, while there are few other details relating to hydrogen in the draft law, this is an important step towards hydrogen gaining recognition as a green fuel in the Chinese economy.
ASEAN: While still in its infancy for many countries in the ASEAN region, some initial steps have been taken to promote the development of the hydrogen industry. Increasingly, there is a growing recognition that hydrogen has significant potential to reduce the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. In 2020, the Singapore government announced a $49 million (approximately USD 36 million) Low-Carbon Energy Research Funding Initiative, which will support the research and development of low carbon technologies such as hydrogen. In the same year, a number of agreements were executed between Singaporean and Japanese companies to explore the importation and usage of hydrogen as a green energy source . In Brunei, preliminary steps have also been taken to explore the production and transportation of hydrogen – last year, as part of a hydrogen supply chain demonstration project, a total of 4.7 metric tonnes of hydrogen was shipped to Japan from Brunei Darussalam’s first pilot hydrogenation plant, which is operated by the Advanced Hydrogen Energy Chain Association for Technology Development.
Potential for hydrogen usage and production
Hydrogen has a wide array of uses, and it has been used in various applications for many decades. As of now, hydrogen is most commonly used in industrial applications (for example, in oil refining, as a reagent in industrial sectors such as chemical and fertiliser production, and as an ingredient in the production of plastics, fabrics and dyes). However, a key to realising hydrogen’s potential as a decarbonisation tool is encouraging its adoption as a fuel source in transportation and power generation and also as a means of energy storage. It remains early days but there are promising signs of a building momentum for the usage and deployment of hydrogen in these areas.
- Transportation has been identified as a leading area of hydrogen deployment (albeit still in its initial phases). In the Asia-Pacific, there is a broad range of commitment across the government and private sectors to support the usage of hydrogen in the transportation sector, being a major emissions contributor. In particular, while battery electric vehicles are presently the preferred choice as a low carbon solution for small vehicles travelling shorter distances, heavy vehicle transportation has been identified as a promising sub-sector for hydrogen FCVs and more vehicle manufacturers are seeking to invest in this area of hydrogen usage. Japan, China and South Korea all have an express objective to promote the usage of hydrogen FCVs. According to Japan’s Basic Hydrogen Strategy, the goal is to have 200,000 FCVs by 2025 and 800,000 FCVs by 2030, and also expand the number of hydrogen stations to 320 by 2025. Apart from road vehicular transportation, hydrogen is already used as a rocket fuel, and there is also potential for its use as a marine fuel (especially given the International Maritime Organization’s new bunker fuel regulations limiting sulphur content of marine fuels to 0.5% from 1 January 2020) as well as an aviation fuel.
- In the power and heating sector, there are also plans afoot to gradually replace natural gas with hydrogen. Already pipeline hydrogen injection is part of the national hydrogen strategy for various countries including Australia, Japan and South Korea, and a key plank in the broader decarbonisation strategy. Initial plans are to blend hydrogen in a low concentration with natural gas for injection to avoid major modifications to pipeline networks (higher concentrations may require network modifications such as replacement of steel with polymer pipes or replacement of compressors). Certain newer and more advanced gas turbines are already able to accept fuel blends which may contain 50% or more hydrogen, and already major turbine manufacturers are developing gas turbines that could run on 100% hydrogen. While there is a long way to go before hydrogen might fully replace natural gas, the substitution of natural gas with hydrogen will be a very significant step away from fossil fuels and towards a low carbon economy.
- As a means of energy storage, hydrogen can work in tandem with renewable energy projects to address the drawbacks of reliance on renewable energy. By producing green hydrogen through electrolysers (powered by renewable energy), energy generated by wind or solar power projects can be stored and transported from regions with higher production and lower demand to areas with lower production and higher demand, or otherwise simply stored during low consumption periods until there is peak in energy demand. Naturally, production of hydrogen for energy storage purposes will carry some costs in financial terms and energy losses. However, the falling cost of renewable energy enhances the economic viability of hydrogen as a means of long term, seasonal and transportable green energy storage. At least in the early days the utilisation of hydrogen as a means of localised energy storage may be the most practical and promising usage, as a step towards long distance / cross-border transportation of hydrogen.
On the supply side, Asia Pacific holds the potential for clean hydrogen exports from regions with plentiful access to renewable resources to high demand centres in Asia. As noted, Australia stands out as a potential exporter of clean hydrogen, due to its geographic proximity, existing infrastructure and abundance of renewable resources. New Zealand has also demonstrated interest in exploiting its hydrogen export potential. Presently the majority of New Zealand’s power is generated from renewable energy sources and the government is keen to support the development of green hydrogen projects – one example is the development of a pilot geothermal-powered hydrogen production facility in New Zealand by a joint venture between the Tuaropaki Trust and Japan’s Obayashi’s Corporation. Apart from Australia and New Zealand, Brunei is exploring its ambitions to be a hydrogen exporter, having exported a maiden shipment of hydrogen to Japan (as mentioned above). Due to land constraints, Brunei’s hydrogen is more likely to be produced from gas rather than wind or solar power, and the development of CCS infrastructure will be key to enabling its production of blue hydrogen. Overall, while it remains to be seen whether hydrogen production and export can take off on a commercial scale, there are already several potential candidates in the Asia Pacific which could serve to supply green or blue hydrogen to users throughout the region.
Despite the promising prospects for hydrogen, there are still some significant challenges in the path of its development as a clean fuel in widespread use. In this section, we briefly discuss some of these challenges, and how they might be overcome, in order for a successful transition to a hydrogen economy to occur.
- Production of blue or green hydrogen remains expensive compared to fossil fuels. Currently, the cost of production of green hydrogen is estimated to be USD $2.50-6.80 per kilogram, whereas the cost of production of blue hydrogen is estimated to be $1.40-2.40/kg. For green hydrogen to become cost-competitive with the fossil fuels, it has been said that the production cost needs to be lowered to US$2 per kg. A key to reducing green hydrogen costs will be lowering the cost of renewable electricity and prices for electrolysis facilities. In recent years there has been a precipitous drop in solar and wind power costs, and there are expectations that this trend will continue. For blue hydrogen, the cost of CCS technology will also need to reduce to improve its cost-competitiveness, and already there are various CCS projects being developed to explore the use of CCS technology on a significant commercial scale.
For projects which need to source power (rather than self-produce), managing the electrolyser to meet downstream demand will generally require certainty of firm power purchase arrangements. If those arrangements are with a retailer, “firming” of the supply adds further cost (and “partial firming” can add complexity). Project proponents in this position will want to be in a position to optimise their cost base by dispatching power into the grid at higher electricity market prices (where this market option is available). For projects and markets with these characteristics, this may drive participation by those with a strong power portfolio (or access to one) rather than infrastructure investors without vertical integration and who are seeking more stable returns.
Concurrently, there is also increasing government support for the uptake and usage of hydrogen. Government support works on both ends of the equation – in the form of financial subsidies and investment to make hydrogen production and usage more economical, and in the form of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, to increase the cost of fossil fuels. Various countries in Asia (e.g. Japan, South Korea and China) have already implemented emissions trading schemes in different forms, and in 2019 Singapore became the first country in Southeast Asia to introduce a carbon tax. Especially during the initial deployment phases, policy and financial support from the government for hydrogen technology and infrastructure will be critical to improving the commercial competitiveness of hydrogen versus fossil fuels. Hydrogen subsidy schemes should be coordinated with other environmental incentive schemes (for example, relating to carbon pricing or CCS) to ensure that desired policy outcomes are achieved in an efficient and targeted manner.
- Transportation of hydrogen (particularly over long-distances) can comprise a significant component of the final landed cost of hydrogen. For long distance transportation (for example, from Australia to Asian countries), the most realistic options will be for hydrogen to be liquefied or converted into ammonia prior to loading on specialised vessels. Both processes involve a degree of energy consumption and losses during the conversion and transportation process. For instance, during the ammonia conversion process, energy will be utilised to convert hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia, and at the landed destination chemical processing is required to convert liquid ammonia back to gaseous ammonia. Being able to control and reduce transportation costs of hydrogen will be key in promoting the long-distance export of clean hydrogen.
- Widespread deployment of hydrogen will also require more investment in the distribution infrastructure. While certain existing natural gas pipeline networks can accept a limited concentration of hydrogen, existing pipeline infrastructure will generally need to be retrofitted to accept the injection of more concentrated or pure hydrogen. Similarly, for refuelling infrastructure, the current infrastructure is inadequate to promote and support a significant increase in FCVs. Already FCVs cost considerably more than cars with normal combustion engines, and without the construction of hydrogen refuelling stations, it is unlikely that there will be a significant uptake in demand for hydrogen FCVs. Due to the commercial dynamics (i.e. parties may not invest in infrastructure unless there is demand but demand will not materialise without the infrastructure), there is a need for investors to take a long-term view and also a role for governments to provide financial and policy support for additional infrastructure investment.
- The development of a hydrogen economy will require the drafting and implementation of a clear and comprehensive regulatory framework. For instance, operational, environmental, safety and technical standards need to be implemented to in order ensure consistent standards for utilisation (for instance, blending with natural gas), transportation and storage of hydrogen. In particular, the cross-border transportation of hydrogen is still in its infancy, and the more consistent and clearer that such regulations pertaining to transportation can be, the more likely this will in turn promote the growth and development of hydrogen projects. Some countries have already rolled out initial laws pertaining to hydrogen usage and domestic safety standards (for example, in January 2020, the Korean National Assembly passed the Hydrogen Economy Promotion and Hydrogen Safety Management Law). However, substantial further work is still required to develop detailed rules and regulations, particularly in the sphere of international and cross-border regulation of hydrogen trade and transportation.
- In the longer term and for large scale hydrogen export projects to truly take off, there is a need for the development and integration of the full commercial, and operational value chain for hydrogen. This covers all of the factors described above, requiring each link in the value chain (production, storage, transportation, importation and downstream distribution) to be progressed in tandem (and at least in some cases as part of integrated projects). Due to the complexities and costs of the hydrogen value chain, the cross border export of hydrogen will also likely need to be underpinned by long term offtake agreements, which in turn will provide the capital and guaranteed cashflow for project development.
The development of deep and liquid markets for the marketing, trading and transportation of hydrogen will also be fundamental to the long term success of the hydrogen economy. Features such as appropriate pricing mechanisms, conventions for measurement and determination of quality specifications, and consistent methodologies for the labelling and tracing of hydrogen (such as certifications for “green” or “blue” hydrogen) will all be important. Resilient, trustworthy and traceable certification of hydrogen as having been produced from clean energy sources will be key to accelerating hydrogen’s success in the global push to reduce carbons emissions. Already, there are several green hydrogen certification and guarantee of origin schemes proposed in different markets (for instance, in Europe and Australia). However, these schemes are in their infancy – whether and how any of them is successfully developed, tested and adopted at any critical scale remains to be seen.
In this regard, it is possible to look to the development of the LNG industry as providing something of a roadmap for hydrogen. Originally relatively localised and dependent on transport by physical pipeline, the gas industry transformed its product into a global commodity through liquefaction at source, regasification at destination and long distance ship-based transport connecting the two. The industry developed on the back of the project financing of extremely capital intensive infrastructure, supported by revenue under long term multi-billion dollar sale and purchase agreements. In terms of pricing, LNG has also developed certain pricing indices for its sale contracts (for instance, the Japanese Crude Cocktail (JCC) and more recently the Japan Korea Marker) and increasingly become a more liquid and flexible traded commodity over time. Indeed, the connections to LNG may not end with parallels of this nature – already we are seeing examples of planning for LNG terminals to have hydrogen capacity too.
Despite the potential advantages offered by hydrogen in terms of energy decarbonization, there is still a long way to go before hydrogen can be deployed on a wide commercial scale. That said, the signs are promising given the falling cost of production, and strong, growing government and commercial support for hydrogen projects.
As a part of the world which holds both significant potential for clean hydrogen production and is home to potentially significant demand and consumption centres, there are strong prospects for countries in the region to lead in the transition to an international hydrogen economy. In these early days, broad-based government support and commercial commitment (taking a long-term view of hydrogen’s potential) will be critical to accelerating the trend towards widespread hydrogen usage. Over the long term, hydrogen technology and commercial supply and production chains will also need to form a commercially viable and cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels.
In the series of articles to come, we will discuss how this is already beginning to take shape (and the particular challenges, opportunities and potential solutions) in various Asia Pacific countries.
 Western Australia Renewable Hydrogen Strategy (July 2019); Victorian Hydrogen Investment Program (December 2018); ‘Hydrogen Roadmap for South Australia’ in 2017 followed by the South Australian Hydrogen Action Plan (September 2019); Queensland Hydrogen Industry Strategy (May 2019). A significant number of other State and Federal Government studies and roadmaps have been produced over the past few years, including the ‘H2 under 2’ initiative, which is the first economic target pursuant to the National Hydrogen Strategy.
 See hydrogenenergysupplychain.com. The project is developed pursuant to intergovernmental and host government agreements between Japan, Australia, Victoria and the project’s sponsors.
 Under a memorandum of understanding, PSA Corp. Ltd., Jurong Port Pte. Ltd., City Gas Pte. Ltd., Sembcorp Industries, Singapore LNG Corp. Pte. Ltd., Chiyoda Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. will develop ways to utilize hydrogen as a green energy source. See https://www.offshore-energy.biz/psa-jurong-port-others-to-launch-hydrogen-import-study/
 Keppel Data Centres and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore the implementation of a hydrogen powered trigeneration plant concept for data centers in Singapore through the Steam Methane Reforming process. See https://www.kepcorp.com/en/media/media-releases-sgx-filings/keppel-and-mitsubishi-heavy-industries-to-jointly-explore-hydrogen-powered-tri-generation-plant-concept-for-data-centres-in-singapore/
 From 2010 – 2019, the cost of energy production from solar photovoltaics fell by more than 80% and the cost of energy production from onshore wind fell by nearly 40%. See https://energypost.eu/5-charts-show-the-rapid-fall-in-costs-of-renewable-energy/#:~:text=Although%20all%20forms%20of%20renewable,Energy%20Agency%20(IRENA)%20says.
 For instance, Australia’s CarbonNet Project seeking to integrate various CO2 capture projects and inject CO2 into underground storage sites in Victoria’s Gippsland region.