Developing a hydrogen economy in the South

Posted: 21 November 2005

Given the right support, there could be 5-10 million fuel cell vehicles globally by 2020. The time horizon for the Hydrogen Economy is long - it is at least 20 years away for developed countries. But long term change requires short term change.

China, India and Brazil have already developed active programmes of research on hydrogen fuel cells, which are tailored to their own needs and development goals.

By developing their hydrogen roadmaps now, developing countries have the opportunity to monitor progress in the North and make informed, strategic decisions concerning this latest wave of technological change.

These are among the many issues discussed at the recently concluded international conference on hydrogen fuel cells, their application in the transport sector, and the implications for developing countries. Hosted by United Nations University Institute for New Technologies (UNU-INTECH) in Maastricht, The Netherlands, from 7-9 November, the conference brought together 40 researchers, energy experts, industry representatives, and policymakers from key public institutions across the world.

The conference was part of a global United Nations University research and capacity building project coordinated by Professor Lynn Mytelka, Senior Research Fellow at UNU-INTECH, and Grant Boyle, Associate Project Coordinator at the University's Environment and Sustainable Development Programme (UNU-ESD)in Tokyo, Japan. UNU's Geothermal Training Programme (UNU-GTP) in Iceland is also participating in the project.

Raising awareness

The purpose of the project is to raise awareness of emergent hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and to enhance long-term transport and energy decision-making in developing countries by tracking hydrogen fuel cell activities in the transport sector around the world.

Topics discussed at the conference included: Hydrogen Production, Distribution and Storage; Fuel Cells and Fuel Cell Vehicles; the State of Activities and Knowledge in Developing Countries and the Implications for Oil and Gas and Automotive Industries in these countries.

Participants learned that while the greatest investments have been made in Europe, North America and Japan, developing countries have made significant advances as well with a growing number of countries preparing well thought out hydrogen 'road maps' that reflect their national goals and needs.

Whatever their motivation - environmental concerns in the North, or the need to achieve energy security in the South -­ a critical feature of these emerging programmes is their focus on building domestic capacities for research, development and sustained policy support in moving towards a hydrogen economy.

Hybrid vehicles

China is carrying out fuel cell vehicle and refueling station demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as undertaking its own national research and development activities. The country's R&D programme is aimed at developing advanced hybrid-electric and fuel cell vehicles and involves a large number of universities, public sector research institutes and private firms.

India too is rolling out hydrogen-fueled two and three-wheeler vehicles, while at the same time exploring ways of tapping hydrogen for stationary power. Brazil has a well established alternative energy programme based on biodiesels and ethanol. South Africa's ambitious R&D programme covers a range of alternative applications, with a major emphasis on exploring opportunities to exploit its vast platinum reserves in fuel cell catalysts.

Nigeria is putting in place a comprehensive energy strategy aimed at expanding its production of natural gas, which is one of the bases for creating methanol and hydrogen to fuel the future hydrogen economy. And Malaysia has adopted a dual strategy to simultaneously develop hydrogen and solar energy as alternative fuel sources.

Complex process

In his keynote address, Professor Turner Isoun, Minister of Science and Technology in Nigeria stressed that the way forward "...is to develop deliberate strategies to stimulate and sustain institutional R & D in the developing countries through support by their counterparts in the developed countries."

But the uncertain future of the Global Environment Facility initiative to test fuel cell buses in five mega cities with serious pollution problems ­ (Shanghai, New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Cairo) shows how problematic the process is. It­ demonstrates that even with the right technology and support, embarking on hydrogen economy activities at this early stage is a complex undertaking that involves trade-offs and strategic decisions related to costs, public policy goals, industrial development and a range of alternative transport modes and fuels.

According to Gabriel de Scheemaker, General Manager of Shell Hydrogen in the Asia Pacific, the first steps must be taken in the North, through 'Lighthouse Projects'. These are "hydrogen clusters where over a hundred hydrogen vehicles from different car companies are served by more than four hydrogen stations operated by two or more energy companies, involving fleet owners, operating on a semi-commercial bases, in international collaboration with the government."

The aim of such public-private partnerships is to pool resources in the expensive initial phases and catalyze a critical mass of researchers and entrepreneurs, accelerate best practice and give confidence to investors.

Leapfrog strategy

"If the future is still 'hydrogen'," notes Prof. Mytelka, "...countries will need to make some tough decisions now: on whether to wait until all pieces of the system are in place or to take action; how to build a path today that does not compromise change in the future; how to incorporate a range of options - gasoline, natural gas and hydrogen without wasteful investment." This requires that governments, both in the North and South, start to build public awareness of all the choices available now, to enable consensus building on the best way forward for individual countries.

The consensus at the meeting was that the South should not make the jump yet, but must start now to put the conditions in place to enable it to leapfrog into a hydrogen economy - when the time is right, and on its own terms. This will require that developing countries make, and be supported in efforts to understand these technologies, and to monitor the lessons being learned in industrialized countries so as to plan for their own participation.

Participants expressed interest in working with UNU in undertaking follow-up activities in developing countries in two areas: building networks of centres of excellence and collaborative partnerships and strengthening research capacity by taking up training and demonstration opportunities. They also want to find ways of monitoring progress, sharing information and strengthening the base for informed policy-making in moving towards a hydrogen economy.

Source: This is a slightly shortened version of a report by iNSnet in the Netherlands.

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