Could Singapore become a ‘hydrogen society’?

By Yun Xuan Poon

We look at the potential hydrogen energy has for powering Singapore and achieving its 2050 emissions target.

Hydrogen societies could soon be upon us. Forget smog-choked cities with cars spurting exhaust fumes along the streets. Instead, think of a city powered entirely by hydrogen, one of the cleanest forms of energy there is.

Hydrogen produces no carbon emissions - only water - when generating energy, and so has been touted as the “ultimate clean fuel”, according to Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, Executive Director, Energy Research Institute at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

China, Japan and South Korea believe hydrogen will have a big role to play in powering the future, and have taken steps to grow the industry. GovInsider delves into where hydrogen energy can make the biggest impact in Singapore, and what steps the country has to take to achieve its emission targets.

The potential for hydrogen energy in Singapore

Singapore plans to halve its peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To do this, it must start using greener sources of energy that release less carbon. The nation has turned to solar power to reduce its carbon footprint, but experts warn that this may not be enough.

Singapore is directing resources and research into hydrogen fuel. The Energy Market Authority has highlighted low-carbon alternatives, including hydrogen, as one option for reducing the country’s carbon footprint. Earlier this year, five local companies began a partnership with two Japanese energy firms to develop innovative ways to use hydrogen fuel in Singapore.

“It's more or less a given that hydrogen has to be incorporated into [Singapore’s] fuel mix, the only question is when,” Prof Mhaisalkar tells GovInsider. Where can hydrogen energy make the biggest difference in Singapore?

Power plants are one of the biggest potential benefactors, Prof Mhaisalkar says. They supply 45 per cent of Singapore’s energy needs, so “a significant portion of electricity generation can go to zero carbon”, he says.

Transport can also benefit from using hydrogen energy, he notes. While Singapore is not yet considering hydrogen vehicles as a mainstream option, China, Japan and South Korea have set targets to introduce hydrogen-powered vehicles on their roads in the next ten yearsSouth Korea will trial hydrogen-powered transportation systems in three cities, as part of a broader vision to build hydrogen-powered cities by 2022.

The process of bunkering, or refuelling ships, can be greened with hydrogen as well. Singapore’s hydrogen forays are particularly important in this area. With its strong position in the maritime industry, the nation could point other countries to the possibilities for greener shipping, according to energy company S&P Global Platts.

Grand visions

Other countries in Asia have begun paving the way to a hydrogen-powered future. Last year, Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang announced the nation’s plans to build a hydrogen society. It currently produces a third of the world’s total hydrogen, making it the biggest producer of the fuel globally, wrote Cleantech Group.

Transport will be a big part of fulfilling China's vision. Chinese manufacturers have begun building their own hydrogen buses and refuelling stations, according to South China Morning Post. The country will also develop infrastructure to integrate hydrogen production, storage and transportation, an important move in growing its clean energy vehicle industry, Minister Wan said.

Japan, with its goal of becoming the world’s first hydrogen society, began preparations early. It launched a Basic Hydrogen Strategy in 2017 detailing clear targets and the steps to take to expand the use of hydrogen fuel. This year, Fukushima opened the doors to the world’s largest hydrogen production facility, which will be able to generate several hundred tons of hydrogen each year.

Issues to consider

But switching to hydrogen comes at a cost. “There’s quite a bit of infrastructure that will need to be modified or upgraded” so that they are optimised for hydrogen fuel, says Prof Mhaisalkar. This makes hydrogen much more expensive than natural gas, which already have mature processes and infrastructure in place.

The cost of adoption will be a big barrier to hydrogen adoption in the next decade, he believes. Clear policies on who should bear these costs will help.

Singapore’s hydrogen policies will also need to address issues such as the timeline for switching to hydrogen fuel, and how to transport imported hydrogen from ports to power plants, he says. Singapore is already working with Japanese energy firm Chiyoda Corporation to explore safe methods for transporting hydrogen.

Other options?

Singapore is hard-pressed for options when it comes to alternative forms of renewable energy. It has rather flat land, no geothermal resources, and low wind speeds, according to a report by the National Climate Change Secretariat. “There is practically no other solution on how Singapore can meet its 2050 intended targets without either hydrogen or carbon capture,” says Prof Mhaisalkar.

Carbon capture is the process of trapping waste carbon dioxide and storing it so it will not be released into the atmosphere. Plans to build a commercially viable carbon capture system in Singapore are underway, but this can be tricky for two reasons, Prof Mhaisalkar says.

First, there is the question of where to store the carbon dioxide once it has been captured. Other countries typically store it underground in oil and gas wells, which are now redundant, but Singapore doesn’t have such wells, he points out.

Second, most of Singapore’s electricity comes from natural gas, which produce a low concentration of carbon dioxide in its emissions compared to coal. This makes it more expensive and difficult to separate the carbon dioxide.
Between the two options, “importing hydrogen seems to have a lower cost and lower barrier,” says Prof Mhaisalkar. Besides, Singapore is already importing liquefied natural gas from overseas, and it will be a similar process to set up the supply chain for hydrogen, he points out.

With an ambitious emissions target to work towards, Singapore will need to be bold in its clean energy transition. Hydrogen, with its wide range of potential uses and availability in land-constrained Singapore, could be the answer.