The Texas Gulf Coast does not produce great surfing waves, but the state’s culture of innovation makes it possible for us to catch big waves of emerging technology and ride them gracefully to economic growth. The next big wave coming our way is hydrogen.
Hydrogen, the H in H2O that we all learned about in science class, is moving from a routine material-processing chemical to prime time thanks to fuel cells. Fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity and can power a variety of things.
A recent industry-commissioned study predicts that hydrogen will be a $130 billion business by 2030 in the U.S. Hydrogen has already created more than 500,000 new jobs worldwide, and now China is reportedly investing $17 billion, with nearly $8 billion in heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks alone.
Hydrogen has the potential to help decarbonize the energy, industrial and transportation sectors to mitigate climate change. And it can be profitable through the creation of new infrastructure to support an emerging hydrogen economy and exports to parts of the world that want to jump onboard.
Major players in the hydrogen push already have a significant presence in Texas. Lawmakers can nurture the growth of this emerging sector by bringing companies and the state’s major research institutions together and steering the conversation and investment toward hydrogen.
In Texas, we have a natural advantage and federal investment to leverage larger global investment. We are already among the domestic leaders in hydrogen production and existing hydrogen pipelines, thanks to a robust petrochemical industry. We have the physical infrastructure to produce hydrogen by reforming natural or landfill gas, or through electrolysis driven by nuclear, solar or wind power.
State and local transportation authorities and environmental organizations can nurture prudent investments in hydrogen in addition to their legacy investments. The Legislature and the governor can use their convening power to begin the conversation with Texas industry and academic leaders to focus state activities and leverage global opportunities.
We have the workforce, research expertise and corporate leadership with hydrogen experience. It is time to exploit these advantages and invest the time, effort and resources to make hydrogen Texas’ next big energy business.
At the industrial and government levels, we need to create a Texas Triangle, running from Dallas-Fort Worth to Corpus Christi to Beaumont, to be ground zero for becoming a leader in an emerging hydrogen economy. This triangle includes key companies, universities, infrastructure and the demand needed to become a world leader.
Globally, the push for fuel cell electric vehicles is moving to trucks — a promising emerging market. Achieving adequate power and range from an electric truck requires batteries that are too big. Using a hydrogen fuel cell with batteries provides a smaller, lighter competitive solution. That’s why there is a global race to develop the next generation of hydrogen-assisted electric trucks. Texas can supply hydrogen and key components in the supply chain.
Success requires that we adopt a global outlook, be nimble and creative in innovation, stay focused in our investments and be open to help from others to accelerate progress. The federal government can help, the experience of multinational companies can help, but the commitment to success must be homegrown.
Texas did it with oil and gas, wind and now with solar. We can do the same with hydrogen, and the government can help. To create jobs and economic growth, Germany, a country roughly half the size of Texas, with twice the GDP, announced last month a more than $9 billion investment in hydrogen as part of its COVID-19 stimulus. Though such an investment would provide a major jolt, Texas can succeed with more modest commitment.
By anticipating the future, Texas can build the momentum today that is needed to become a world leader in hydrogen tomorrow.
Bob Hebner is the director of the Center for Electromechanics at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee, whose annual report was recently released.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.