A push by a city in China’s manufacturing heartland of Guangdong province to become the hotbed for hydrogen development is moving ahead at a much more steady pace, with pedal power.
Residents in Foshan, a city well-known for exporting home appliances, ceramics and furniture, got their hands on 70 unremarkable-looking bikes this month.
The shared e-bikes are a little bulkier than standard models, and they need little more kick to get them started, but they offer most ordinary people their first hands-on experience of hydrogen energy.
The output value of hydrogen energy currently only accounts for a rather small proportion of Foshan’s 1.2 trillion yuan (US$165 billion) economy – roughly 20 billion yuan (US$2.8 billion yuan) according to the Foshan Hydrogen Energy Industry Development Plan for 2018-30.
But the city of over 960 million has the ambition to become a model city for China’s new energy exploration.
China’s hydrogen sector is seen to be in the early stages of commercialisation and industrialisation, and it still relies heavily on government subsidies due to its current high cost as a new energy source.
But this has not prevented local governments from investing heavily compared to previous years despite their weakening finances.
Chinese scientists and energy analysts, though, believe profits are not the main reason behind China’s commercialisation of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and the heavy investment in the hydrogen industrial chain.
Energy storage to transfer solar and wind power generated in the northwest to the rest of the country is instead viewed as the main driver, with China set to ramp up its output of clean energy in the next 5-10 years.
It is part of China’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060, but also is seen as a new engine to drive economic growth.
It is a necessary process that aims to rapidly forge a mature whole industry chain in the coming few years
“China does not really need hydrogen energy if there is not such huge wind power and [solar] power generated in the northwest of the country. To China, hydrogen energy is actually a medium channel that can help balance out the variability of sources such as wind and solar and transport to the end users across China, especially manufacturing hubs in the south and east China,” said Lin Boqiang, head of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University.
“That is what hydrogen energy can really do for China. Most of the hydrogen in use today in China is still made from natural gas or coal, which is not environmentally friendly.
“But it is a necessary process that aims to rapidly forge a mature whole industry chain in the coming few years, so as to drive hydrogen-related technological innovation and independence, as well as cheap manufacturing costs like China’s solar supply chain does now.”
President Xi Jinping has already pledged to bring China’s total wind and solar capacity to at least 1,200 gigawatts as it seeks to cap its carbon emission to a peak by 2030. In comparison, the total power capacity in the United States – including coal, gas, and renewable energy – was around 1,200GW last year, according to the National Energy Administration.
As part of this, China is aiming to build 450GW of solar and wind power in Gobi and other desert regions by 2030, according to a plan released by the National Development and Reform Commission in March.
China had already installed 306GW of solar power capacity and 328GW of wind capacity by the end of 2021.
Since China’s first hydrogen refuelling station opened in Foshan in 2017, the city said it has opened more than 150 hydrogen firms and research and development institutions and has 28 hydrogen refuelling stations, five hydrogen trams and over 1,500 hydrogen-powered public buses and logistics vehicles running on its roads.
By 2025, Foshan expects the cumulative output value of its hydrogen energy industry to reach 50 billion yuan (US$6.9 billion), according to the Foshan Hydrogen Energy Industry Development Plan for 2018-30.
Residents in Foshan got their hands on 70 hydrogen-powered e-bikes as the city seeks to position itself as a hotbed for new energy development. Photo: He Huifeng
Guangdong province, as a whole, plans to establish 200 hydrogen refuelling stations and have 10,000 FCEVs on the road by 2025, with 4,000 of located in Foshan, according to the Action Plan for Accelerating the Construction of Fuel Cell Vehicle Demonstration Cities Cluster in Guangdong Province (2022-25).
Nationwide, China is expected to have 1,000 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2025, servicing 100,000 FCEVs with 390,000 metric tonnes per year of hydrogen demand, according to projections by the government-backed China Hydrogen Alliance.
Around 30 local authorities mentioned hydrogen in their 14th five-year plans for 2021-25 and over 50 cities have already issued policies to grow their hydrogen industries.
“Soaring electrolyser manufacturing capacity and sales in FCEVs this year are encouraging everyone involved,” said Zhou Weijiang, chief scientist for hydrogen energy at Sinocat Environmental.
Electrolysers are the primary technology that makes the production of zero-emissions hydrogen via renewable energy possible.
If you are amazed by the current success of China’s electric vehicle market, you could also be optimistic about Chinese FCEVs in the coming 10 years
A total of 2,593 FCEVs were sold nationwide in the first nine months of 2022, compared to 1,881 last year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
“This is equivalent to the size of China’s electric vehicle sales in 2013. Therefore, if you are amazed by the current success of China’s electric vehicle market, you could also be optimistic about Chinese FCEVs in the coming 10 years,” Zhou added.
Sales of made-in-China new energy vehicles stood at 12,791 in 2012, including 1,416 plug-in electric vehicles, according to China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
In the first nine months of 2022, a total of 4.56 million Made-in-China new energy passenger vehicles were sold, representing an increase of 113 per cent year on year.
China already makes up around a third of the global electrolyser manufacturing capacity and can produce all key parts domestically with few exceptions, according to a report released by Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) in June.
Domestic producers are also very competitive on price, although they are not yet up to international standards in terms of efficiency and reliability, the report added.
The Merics report suggested that China is repeating a similar process with hydrogen that it has done with photovoltaics and batteries as it uses its government backing and low production costs to enable producers to squeeze global competitors on price and capacity despite an initial lower quality.
“Even amid the trend of weakening economic growth, the Chinese market and government’s tolerance for trial and error in new energy development will be certain,” Zhou said.
Keyword: China hopes rapid hydrogen energy push is as easy as riding a bike to aid economy, carbon-neutral goal>