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China's rapid clean H2 expansion: Challenges, progress and future outlook

China's rapid expansion in clean H2 production faces uncertainties despite its growing presence in the industry. While already producing and consuming a significant portion of global H2 output, primarily derived from coal, China aims to shift towards cleaner methods according to its 'Medium- and Long-term Plan for the Development of the H2 Energy Industry (2021-2035)'. This plan targets an annual production of 100,000 t−200,000 t of clean H2 by 2025, along with introducing 50,000 H2 fuel cell vehicles on the roads.

Recent developments showcase China's progress. In January 2024, the world witnessed the inauguration of the first 100,000-t clean H2 demonstration project in Juungar Banner, Inner Mongolia. This project utilizes wind and solar energy to power electrolyzers. Additionally, Sinopec initiated clean H2 production in Xinjiang in June 2023, leveraging solar energy to operate electrolyzers with a capacity exceeding 20,000 tpy.

Contrary to the cautious approach in other regions, China demonstrates remarkable pace and scale in constructing H2 infrastructure. Companies like Air Liquide are actively building supply hubs, such as the one in Tianjin, projected to have capacities of up to 7,000 t.

China's dominance in electrolyzer manufacturing further underscores its competitive edge. With over 40% of global production and 60% of alkaline electrolyzer capacity, Chinese electrolyzers offer significantly lower costs compared to elsewhere. This cost advantage positions China as a formidable force in international markets.

While China's progress is notable, challenges persist. The reliance on less efficient alkaline electrolysis coupled with intermittent renewable energy sources poses production limitations. Transitioning to more advanced electrolysis technologies like PEM, compatible with renewables, encounters obstacles.

Moreover, the issue of infrastructure poses a dilemma. High domestic demand for H2, particularly along coastal hubs, contrasts with supply centers in the northwest and northeast. This misalignment raises concerns about China potentially becoming a net H2 importer unless significant infrastructure investments are made.

Forecasts vary regarding China's future H2 landscape. Deloitte predicts substantial imports by 2030, primarily from the Middle East via ammonia, while other entities envision self-sufficiency by 2050, possibly with limited ammonia imports.

In this evolving landscape, Europe emerges as a contender in the clean H2 economy, particularly in post-alkaline technologies. While China leads in certain aspects, the competition is far from over, with Europe positioning itself strategically to remain competitive.

Source: Reuters

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