In summary

Oil companies are investing in the development of hydrogen – a fuel that can scale up clean energy production to meet global demand.

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By Teresa Cooke, Special to CalMatters

Teresa Cooke is executive director of the California Hydrogen Coalition.

Two decades ago, had someone asked farsighted advocates for decarbonizing the economy when they would know their goal was within sight, their answer might have been something like this: When ExxonMobil buys into it.

To be sure, that is a glib response, but it underscores the reality that a true energy revolution cannot take place until government policies, public commitment and economic incentives have become strong enough to force transformative change.

That day is at our doorstep. Around the globe, responding to zero-carbon targets and investor concern about the long-term viability of fossil fuels, major oil companies including Shell, BP and, yes, ExxonMobil, are investing as never before in the development of hydrogen – a fuel that is essential to scale up clean energy production to meet global demand in the industrial and transportation sectors.

It is a welcome development, and one that public policy must continue to push forward through actions that will motivate sustained private investment. In California, for instance, there is an opportunity next year in the state’s Clean Transportation Program to make a meaningful commitment to expand hydrogen fueling stations.

As seen at the recent COP26 conference in Scotland, there are still scars of battles with the fossil fuel industry, which had long fought regulation, disputed science and resisted change for decades. We understand the impulse to be skeptical that a corner has been turned.

But we also understand that we cannot achieve a carbon-free future without the ability to bring clean-energy production to scale. It will take the involvement not just of technologists and existing renewable energy producers, but also of institutions that have the infrastructure, networks and expertise to collect and deliver vast quantities of clean fuel.

In California, we’ve already seen what firm policy, strong market signals and robust political support can achieve.

It will be 20 years ago in July that California enacted its groundbreaking clean cars legislation, over fierce opposition from the auto industry, followed by protracted legal challenges. The policy prevailed and spread across the globe, and the industry over time saw what it must do to remain competitive and relevant: General Motors, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz and Volvo have now all committed to stop producing cars with gas or diesel engines by 2035.

Strong policies and clear market signals are now having a marked effect on the fuel industry – a necessary step on the way to a transformation.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry made that clear in remarks to energy producers. He noted that oil and gas companies have “incredible infrastructure” to transport hydrogen and has called for an acceleration in the development of that fuel. The clean-fuel sector, he asserted, is “the market of the future.”

Hydrogen is a critical part of that future. It can be produced from water, through a process called electrolysis, powered by renewable electricity. It also can be produced from natural gas in a process in which all carbon is captured.

It can meet energy needs that renewable electricity cannot because it can be stored – in the tanks of vehicles that demand greater range and quicker refueling than battery-electric vehicles can provide, for instance, or in facilities that can be deployed when electricity demand exceeds renewable supply.

It is a means to store, move and use energy extracted from sunlight.

At a recent symposium, Saehoon Kim, the head of Hyundai’s fuel cell division, poetically framed the promise of hydrogen:

“In the past, our technology and industry was all about collecting oil, delivering oil and using oil. And now, in the future, it will be collecting sunshine, delivering sunshine and using sunshine – and what will make that possible is hydrogen.”

That future will be closer at hand when companies that are expert in collecting and delivering oil turn their focus to fuels that will decarbonize the planet.

All of us, especially those who have long advocated that objective, should welcome and encourage this healthy new engagement.

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