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S&P podcast: Hydrogen's time is coming but 'won't be turnkey' or next year

Hydrogen is generating a lot of buzz in the U.S. energy world, but what might look like a nascent technological revolution is not going to occur overnight, several experts cautioned on a new episode of "Energy Evolution," a podcast by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

While hydrogen has received its fair share of hype in the past, this time may be different as the growth of sustainability-driven investments, rising pressure to act on climate change and shifting economics are increasingly favoring hydrogen technologies. Still, Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, said it might be better to think in terms of being at the beginning of the decade of hydrogen rather than the year of hydrogen going into 2021.

"We're going to have a real hydrogen market for real, and a lot of money is going to go into it and build it," Friedmann told the "Energy Evolution" hosts. "But it won't be turnkey, and it won't be next year. There's a lot of work between here and there."

Kristine Wiley, director of the Hydrogen Technology Center at the Gas Technology Institute, noted that the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drives a need to deploy and develop low-carbon technologies at an unprecedented rate. That trend is likely to benefit hydrogen.

"I think the versatility of hydrogen from ways to produce and use it across the full energy value chain creates an unprecedented opportunity for it to become a greater part of our global energy system," Wiley said.

Karl Nietvelt, head of analytics and research for global infrastructure ratings at S&P Global Ratings, noted that compared to Europe, the U.S. is in the infant stages of developing hydrogen. He told the hosts of "Energy Evolution" that Biden administration policies could be crucial to creating new markets for hydrogen.

Still, there is real cause for hydrogen optimism already, said Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power PLC, a U.K. company that designs and manufactures products that generate hydrogen gas. Chief among the reasons is that the cost structure of producing green hydrogen, or hydrogen produced with renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, has fallen significantly. The increased use of renewables is also driving demand for more energy storage products. All of this is compounded by companies and countries striving to reach net-zero emissions goals.

"You have a convergence between the renewable energy companies in the oil and gas industry. I think in the future, you won't be able to see a distinction," Cooley said. "Actually, they'll just be energy companies supplying both net-zero electrons and net-zero molecules via green hydrogen. "

Transporting, storing and otherwise handling hydrogen is similar to handling fossil fuels, noted Rachel Fakhry, a climate and clean energy policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. For that reason, those industries can offer expertise on developing this new sector of the economy.

"The issue is that because of this compatibility, we are starting to see fossil companies come out and use this promise of a future hydrogen world to either prolong the status quo or to keep on expanding their fossil infrastructure, promising to just replace fossil fuels with hydrogen in the future," Fakhry said. "We need to be very careful because hydrogen can indeed do a lot, but it can't do everything."

Episodes of "Energy Evolution" are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms.