Hydrogen holds the key to shedding China’s reliance on carbon fuel, as noted in a policy paper on new energy in which the coastal province of Shandong is featured predominantly as a hydrogen testing ground. Photo: Handout

Beijing is rediscovering the power and potential of hydrogen in its long quest for alternative energy sources to transition to carbon neutrality by 2060 or earlier.

A detailed pilot plan being worked out to transform Shandong, a regional industrial powerhouse, into a “hydrogen society” holds out much hope of delivering on the green promise. 

Among the options being weighed by top policymakers to wean China’s energy consumption off carbon, hydrogen is once again being hailed as the fuel of the future for its abundance and zero tailpipe emissions benefits.

The hydrogen hype was in the air when members of the Chinese parliament deliberated on the nation’s 14th Five-year Plan in March to delineate a policy pathway from hydrocarbon to hydrogen, as Beijing, the world’s largest polluter, seeks to champion green development.

There are already plans afoot in the eastern province of Shandong, following the April signing of a pact on sweeping hydrogen adoption and commercialization initiatives by the provincial authorities, the Chinese State Council’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The pact contains a raft of tailor-made measures for Shandong as China’s only pilot zone for hydrogen’s wider application. Under the auspices of Beijing, Shandong will be made a testing ground for the cells, batteries, pipelines and business models indispensable for a future nationwide roll-out.

An NDRC policy paper on new energy to that effect, reviewed by Asia Times, was signed off last month by Deputy Premier Liu He. 

Leading the pack of the infrastructure projects being floated in Shandong is a 180-kilometer pipeline network to deliver hydrogen from its upstream “factories” to end-users scattered in both commercial and industrial centers across the province under a five-year “hydrogen for 10,000 plants and households” program.

The trunk route of the pipeline network will be between Shandong’s provincial capital, Jinan, and the province’s largest city, Qingdao, with feeder lines extending into neighboring industrial estates in two other cities, Weifang and Zibo, according to the state news agency Xinhua and the Economic Observer newspaper. 

All service areas along the busy expressway connecting Jinan and Qingdao will run on 100% hydrogen power with retail hydrogen fueling stations for fuel cell vehicles. The province now boasts a fleet of 269 emissions-free buses running on hydrogen cells.  

A pilot hydrogen storage and distribution facility in Shandong. Photo: Xinhua

Talk of laying extensive hydrogen pipelines linking major cities in Shandong, not for trials but as a backbone distribution system, suggests that the groundwork of research and development for the transport and storage of the gas has been finished and that most of the production and application projects covered in the broad pact for the province are shovel-ready. 

Citing Huang Zhen, deputy president of Shanghai Jiaotong University who sits on the expert panel for Shandong’s hydrogen drive, the Economic Observer reported that all technological hurdles had been surmounted to supply hydrogen to users. The next phase will be about extending pipelines and hammering out a pricing regime to entice the private sector. 

“Stakeholders of hydrogen commercialization used to cast around for the best ways to ship the gas from A to B that will make best economic sense, because it is the lightest element in the periodic table and volumetrically, a huge tank is needed to store merely a few hundred kilograms of hydrogen,” said Huang.

“Liquefaction of the gas for less bulky storage consumes huge amounts of energy as it must be frozen at minus 253 degrees Celsius,” Huang added.

The scholar said that pipelines would be the best solution, that maintenance and transport costs would be minimal and that Beijing’s ambitions for such hydrogen networks and corridors would extend beyond Shandong to more provinces such as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. 

Building new pipelines or converting existing ones to deliver hydrogen is also being discussed in other countries. Last year, Russia was urging its leading energy companies to expand hydrogen production capacities while mulling the use of the controversial offshore pipeline Nord Stream 2, built for moving natural gas, to transport the synthetic gas to Germany and other users throughout Europe.

Hydrogen energy is known for its zero tailpipe emissions as only water is made when hydrogen is burned for energy. Photo: Handout

Official media in Shandong including the Dazhong Daily said that Shandong had stood out in the NDRC’s selection for a locus for the hydrogen drive on account of its sheer economic size and the proximity of potential producers to end-users. 

The province of more than 100 million residents relies unsustainably on coal and other carbon fuel for its economy – whose gross domestic product hit US$1 trillion in 2019, ranked only after Guangdong and Jiangsu across China and larger than the US state of Florida’s annual output that year. 

Hydrogen produced in the manufacturing process of Shandong’s sprawling steelmaking and metallurgical sectors can be readily tapped, with annual production at around 2.6 million cubic tons each year.

This is on top of plans for water electrolysis to make hydrogen using the power from Shandong’s rich solar and wind resources as a coastal province bordering the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea. The Dazhong Daily reported that 16 water decomposition and electrolysis plants and hydrogen storage facilities in the province would be up and running by 2025. 

In a hint of Beijing’s expectations for swift delivery, Ling Wenzeng, the president of China Hydrogen Energy Association and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has recently been made a deputy governor of Shandong in charge of industrial activities and energy affairs. 

Still, for all the hopes hydrogen springs, its production is often criticized because it is energy-intensive and will increase emissions unless zero-carbon inputs are used.

Analysts point to Shandong’s plan to harness its wind and solar energy for hydrogen production as a solution. Yet initial output may be limited given the big seasonal fluctuations in wind and solar resources available in the province as well as the huge outlay required for supporting infrastructure.