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Hydrogen in Action

The way forward for hydrogen is “squiggly”

A recent journey on the London Underground inspired insights into the evolving hydrogen sector and the significance of the "squiggly" journey.

This thought leadership article was written in August 2023 and first appeared in the ADIPEC 2023 Preview.

By Daryl Wilson

I was riding the London Underground recently when I noted this British term as the title of a new career book: squiggly. A term often used to describe a line that curves or twists in a way that is not regular. The squiggly line urges one to deviate from the ordinary and venture into uncharted territories. Human nature does not prefer squiggly, but squiggly is truer to reality than we would like to admit. 

Just like this undulating line represents continuous growth and change, the same comparison can be drawn to hydrogen. After a very rapid, dare I say linear, rise of hydrogen in the past few years, we are now into the reality of squiggly. Uncertainty reigns in policy, funding, permitting and public sentiment on many fronts, making the way forward not easy.

Faced with uncertainty, there is a strong temptation to stop and wait for the clouds to clear, but inaction is not the answer. The complex development of new energy ecosystems needs constant action and engagement. There are some actions that just make sense no matter what happens.

Getting together, driving cost down and concentrating efforts are three key vectors of action under uncertainty. Convening the public and private parties to engage about the way forward costs little but brings great reward. Governments and industry have a lot of building to do, and the more collaboration and interaction that can happen, the better the joint solutions we forge will be.

Efforts around innovation and cost reduction are also critical under all scenarios. It will be difficult to afford all the change we need to make. If we can lower the cost of change, it will come faster and easier. Focusing and concentrating efforts is also key. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to spread resources over too much territory, diluting the impact for all efforts.  Hydrogen ports and valleys need to further coalesce into thoughtful ecosystems involving multiple hydrogen applications clustered around supply and demand.

Embracing the ecosystems way of thinking is vital at this stage. While the rapid growth of the project roster is exciting, an unconnected mess of super demonstration projects does not make the coherence of our future energy system. It is great that new policies and funding mechanisms have spawned a lot of project activity, but a random call for projects into no ecosystem or infrastructure thinking is simply a mess of projects. The hydrogen port or hydrogen valley approach is a microcosm of ecosystem thinking, but we need to go a step further. A wholistic complete vision of “beginning with the end in mind” is needed. There are three elements of this ecosystem approach I would like to highlight here:

  1. Minimum viable starts: in June, I had the opportunity to stand aboard the Suiso Frontier, the world’s first liquid hydrogen carrier ship, along with members of the Hydrogen Council. This is the culmination of a vision conceived five years ago and the foundation for the first ever international trade in liquid hydrogen. It is a great example of “a minimum viable start”. Through the work of a consortium of companies in Japan and Australia, the project has proven that “it can be done” and that some of the previously never accomplished aspects of port infrastructure are possible. This would never have happened without the long-term vision of our friends in Japan, strong teamwork bringing many diverse companies into one consortium, courage, commitment, and government funding support. The long-term dividends for large scale change are enormous.
  2. Diversity, teamwork and collaboration are essential: the scale and pace of change that needs to be sustained in overcoming climate change demands no less. There is no one company or government that can undertake all the jobs required. Over the past six months, Hydrogen Council members have concentrated their efforts on building the vision and foundation for multiple hydrogen ecosystems. If we are going to build elegant functional and cost-effective future energy systems, it will require the work of good design arising from strong teams. There is an architecture role which leaders in industry and government need to do in collaboration. This is one of the areas where coming together, collaborating and convening is essential.
  3. Step-by-step: thoughtfulness around what needs to be accomplished in each step of the ecosystem journey is the way we will make the most progress. What are the most essential things to learn, to prove, to test, to confirm now? What are the most constructive next steps? This forms the basis of effective and expedient next step action. Some of these things are not hard to do. The harder work is to formulate what to do next. What are the real constraints we need to be challenging and overcoming? There is no time to waste on other things.

I mention many of the items above as a backdrop to the upcoming ADIPEC conference in Abu Dhabi October 2-5, 2023. It is here the “squiggly journey” can find its way. The collaboration between major energy players and governments is just the type of “convening” that needs to happen right now. The global scale capacities of the major incumbent energy players are gradually being focused on the pressing needs at hand.

The theme for this year’s ADIPEC – decarbonizing, faster, together – speaks well to resolving what to do amid uncertainty, having the right conversations and collaborating on the ecosystems we need to build. The panels, the booth conversations, the presentations, and leadership roundtables are a rich environment to help any attendee find their way on the squiggly journey.

I attended ADIPEC for the first time last year. Contrary to the negative and pessimistic picture often created by the media, I was heartened by the size and strength of the leaders in the new and old energy industry “getting down to business” on many of the themes outlined above. 

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