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Mind the perception gap: Getting mainstream support for hydrogen will be key to scaling up

This article was first published in H2 View.

By Sam French, Senior Business Development Manager at Johnson Matthey, and Hydrogen Council Communications Co-lead

The last summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo was in 1964. Dubbed the ‘Technology Games’, it was the most advanced to date in terms of new technology solutions being used – from broadcast satellites to touchpads. Fifty-six years later, in 2020, it will be Japan’s time again to showcase the evolution of technology to the world – and this time it could be dubbed the ‘Hydrogen Olympics’.

The hydrogen industry, including many Hydrogen Council members, will help showcase hydrogen solutions during the event by powering the 6,000-unit Olympic village, lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony, transporting athletes between stadiums, and fuelling the Olympic torch at the start of the relay.

This milestone event will raise the awareness and understanding of hydrogen solutions for a clean, secure and affordable energy future on the world stage, and could help make 2020 the defining year – a turning point for the energy transition and for the overall future of hydrogen.

In the past year alone, hydrogen has gained unprecedented momentum particularly in terms of increased development of hydrogen solutions across the value chain, market growth and support from countries and governments. There are now an estimated 50 targets, mandates and policy incentives in place that promote hydrogen as part of government energy transition goals. On top of this, investors are beginning to seriously consider if now is the right time to tap into hydrogen’s potential, as mooted by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

It certainly seems to be the right time. According to the IEA, global carbon emissions reached a historic high in 2018, despite widespread awareness and recognition of the ‘climate emergency’ and various attempts to reduce harmful emissions. Organisations and consumers of all shapes and sizes are now re-thinking how we should behave in the future if we are going to continue to provide and use modern life essentials, such as transport, building heating, and heavy industry, without irreversibly damaging our environment. We’ll need to decarbonise a range of sectors to achieve this and hydrogen presents a real solution – but only if it can be scaled up to a level where the benefits can be captured. And, herein lies the challenge: for mass scale up we’ll need mass acceptance, yet hydrogen is still a mystery to most people.

Experts agree that hydrogen is expected to play a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future; and the technologies to generate and capture power from this source are here, ready to be deployed at scale. But hydrogen has not yet broken into the mainstream. Much progress has been made by the industry to increase awareness and support, through collaborations like the Hydrogen Council. Council members are working hard to align with policymakers, investors, and other key industry actors. These important stakeholders are now onboard to help accelerate deployment and diversify hydrogen use at a greater scale. Support from the public is needed to unlock hydrogen’s potential but it is critically missing.

Building enough of a groundswell of support from the general public to push forward investments for massive scale of hydrogen solutions for a long-term energy transition will require addressing vast awareness gaps and misperceptions. These are largely around affordability, safety, and availability. Addressing these challenges will be a far easier task if we can first make hydrogen real, relevant and non-technical for the every-day person.

We need to demonstrate that the technologies are already here, and being used to power real-life applications, so we can help people to imagine what a clean energy future with hydrogen solutions could be.

Next year’s Tokyo Olympics will provide the platform for hydrogen to pole vault into the mainstream. This will be the time for the industry to use its collective efforts and reach to demonstrate the benefits of hydrogen solutions, address the challenges to assuage public concerns, and ultimately garner the trust and support needed to ramp up hydrogen deployment. We’re on the cusp of a major energy transition. If we achieve this then 2020 could very well be the year to shift public perception and unleash the global hydrogen market.

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