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A Chance to Stop “Biden” Our Time on Hydrogen for Shipping

A comprehensive U.S. hydrogen strategy would help support the connections needed to link green sourced hydrogen to the demand of U.S. ports

CMB h2
A hydrogen-powered crew transfer vessel (CTV) by Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB). © CMB

This blog was written by Elise Georgeff. Elise is an Associate Researcher with the Marine Team at the International Council on Clean Transportation. She supports research on zero-emission vessel alternatives and addressing impacts on marine protected areas from shipping activity. Currently, Ms. Georgeff is aiding the ICCT Marine Team on a series of route-based ZEV feasibility studies, focusing on applying green technology to existing ship types and voyages. 

The first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration could be a whirlwind of climate action. The United States will seek to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and other initiatives could bring investment in green jobs and infrastructure and new clean energy incentives. The Biden Plan for A Clean Energy Revolution considers a number of industries and includes efforts to reduce the cost of “green” hydrogen production. That’s great, but even more can be done to support hydrogen’s potential for shipping.

Fortunately, there’s existing work the new administration can build upon. Several countries in Europe and Asia have already started incorporating hydrogen into their climate planning. And while decarbonizing maritime shipping is no easy feat, things like market incentives to make green hydrogen cost-competitive can already be found in Germany’s and Norway’s strategies.

Also, just last month, the U.S. Department of Energy released a Hydrogen Program Plan. It focuses on the research, development and distribution of hydrogen from renewable, fossil, and nuclear energy sources as an emerging technology, and suggests opportunities toward marine applications. The time is now ripe to more formally incorporate the shipping sector into the Hydrogen Program Plan. This can be done with initiatives that tie the green energy sourcing of hydrogen to port infrastructure, and our recent research suggests that certain U.S. ports are particularly advantageous places to jumpstart such initiatives.

The parts are there, and the next step is to glue them together. 

Hydrogen is being investigated as a fuel for several transport modes, and it’s in varying stages of development across these modes, as each has different requirements for success. In the case of maritime shipping, fuel cells powered by liquid hydrogen (LH2) are seen as one promising route for decarbonization, with pilot projects in the works by Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen K.K and one for a Norwegian cruise ship. Such fuel cells are already in use for specialty vehicles like forklifts, emergency backup power and portable power, and marine fuel cell manufacturer Ballard is also working to scale hydrogen technology up to the level of powering ships. Recently, the company introduced a module fuel cell design that can generate up to five megawatts of power, which falls under the maximum power needs of 74% of current, in-service, seaworthy vessels, according to IHS.

Although LH2 packs a lot of energy per unit mass, one concern is the highly insulated tanks that are needed to store it. As a result, this fuel requires about eight times as much space to provide the same energy as conventional shipping fuels. So, shipowners have concerns about whether LH2 can really power the largest ships on long voyages.

Being engineers, we dug into that question in this study funded by Ocean Conservancy. In analyzing 2015 operations data, we found that 43% of the container ship voyages on the Pacific shipping corridor between China and California—the longest nonstop shipping route in the world—could be fueled by LH2 fuel cells without any change in operations. A whopping 99% of voyages could be fueled by LH2 when just one refueling stop was added, or if 5% of cargo space was devoted to large fuel tanks.

Attainment rates of trips, by legs and voyages, along the trans-Pacific corridor when replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen. Source: Mao et al. (2020)
Attainment rates of trips, by legs and voyages, along the trans-Pacific corridor when replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen. © Mao et al. (2020)

Aside from what’s needed on the ships themselves, the port refueling infrastructure necessary for LH2 is also coming into focus, based on both the refueling methods of liquefied natural gas and what’s been learned in the 60 years that space programs have worked with large volumes of LH2A follow-up paper exploring potential LH2 fueling ports on the transpacific corridor and the subsequent port needs produced some interesting results. Using the same 2015 data, we found that if an extra refueling stop is needed, the ports in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska alone could provide fuel for one-quarter of all voyages that need that additional stop. We also estimated that container ships could demand 47,000 tonnes of LH2 from the Aleutian Islands—6% of the total demand in the Pacific—because of the Islands’ strategic location between Asia and North America.

Additionally, the San Pedro Bay ports in California could be particularly important as LH2 refueling hubs. Annual demand could total 240,000 tonnes or one-third of all trans-Pacific container ship demand. Using current LH2 storage methods, on-site storage would require less than 1% of currently used port space at San Pedro Bay.

Top 10 refueling hubs by annual LH2 demand in the most expanded scenario. Source: Georgeff et al. (2020)
Top 10 refueling hubs by annual LH2 demand in the most expanded scenario. © Georgeff et al. (2020)

This all means the United States could be a key player in LH2 refueling in Pacific shipping if the right policies are put in place. For one, policy could help address concerns over costs. This ICCT commissioned study investigated the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity in the United States and the European Union. It found that while the near-term costs for producing renewable, green hydrogen are high—a median of $9 to $11 per kilogram in the United States today, depending on how the electricity is sourced—those costs could be almost halved by 2050 with policy to promote financial incentives for research and development. U.S. domestic green hydrogen can become even more cost-competitive with an improved national hydrogen strategy that places more emphasis on policy and initiatives for ports and vessels.

It comes down to this: A comprehensive U.S. hydrogen strategy that highlights the shipping sector as a major beneficiary toward its decarbonization goal would help support the connections needed to link green sourced hydrogen to the demand of U.S. ports. Other countries are already ahead when it comes to strategizing, and our research has identified U.S. ports as hubs that offer strategic opportunities for hydrogen. The United States, and the entire global shipping sector, stand to gain a lot if the Biden administration steps up to the plate.

And that’s no malarky!

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