Hydrogen power could be huge, eventually. If solar and wind are the energy of tomorrow, hydrogen is a candidate for the day after, explains Jonathan Waghorn, portfolio manager of
SmartETFs Sustainable Energy II
exchange-traded fund (ticker: SULR). If and when renewable sources start producing excess megawatts, hydrogen comes into play as a storage mechanism, or to convert that power into fuel cells for vehicles.
That could take too long for even long-term investors, Waghorn thinks. “I still remain to be convinced that the economics of hydrogen can work,” he says.
But Asia may be changing the game. South Korean conglomerates
(005380. Korea) and
(034730.Korea) recently announced multibillion-dollar investments that may start bridging the gap between hydrogen dreams and reality. China raised hydrogen’s profile in its latest five-year plan, and shows signs of picking national champions like
“China controls the value chain for electric vehicles and renewables,” says Mubashira Bukhari Khwaja, an investment director at Aberdeen Standard Investments. “Now they have a political need for hydrogen to work.”
Korea’s need, with no fossil-fuel resources and a poor geography for solar or wind power, may be greater still, says James Lim, Korea analyst at Dalton investments. SK plans to pour $16 billion into hydrogen, with enthusiastic government support.
The chaebol’s strategy is far from the greenie fantasy of a family car that emits harmless water. It’s aiming, for a start anyway, to extract hydrogen from existing streams of petrochemicals and liquefied natural gas.
This is the so-called brown hydrogen that environmentalists feel queasy about. (The dream is “green hydrogen” generated from other renewable sources.) But it could cut SK’s carbon footprint, and looks achievable this decade, Waghorn says.
“Most gas boilers could consume up to 10% hydrogen without having to change equipment,” he says.
Hyundai’s hydrogen plans are closer to the popular image. The auto maker unveiled its hydrogen-powered Nexo SUV in 2018. This year it’s agreed to build a fuel cell factory in China and promised hydrogen-powered ships.
That target reflects a growing consensus that hydrogen’s relative advantage to electric batteries is in bigger vehicles that need recharging less often. China has taken this cue, focusing on putting 1,000 hydrogen-powered buses on the streets of Beijing for next year’s Winter Olympics.
SK and Hyundai, with their diverse and modestly valued legacy businesses, offer a chance to nibble at hydrogen exposure without biting on volatile U.S.-listed pure plays like
(NKLA), Lim says. (SK actually invested $1.6 billion in a strategic partnership with Plug Power in February.) “With SK valued at one times book, the hydrogen is basically an option play,” he says. “You’re getting it for free.”
The bet in China is on the government’s ability to follow through on long-term development goals, Aberdeen’s Khwaja says. Its track record is pretty good. Aside from Sinohytec, she is keen on
(2338. Hong Kong), a state-owned diesel engine builder that opened the world’s biggest hydrogen fuel cell plant last year, and Re-Fire, a fuel cell pure play edging toward an initial public offering. Canada-based
Ballard Power Systems
(BLDP) is a key supplier to Weichai, and should ride the China hydrogen wave, she says.
Asia may not catch the U.S. napping on hydrogen, as it did on solar and EVs. But it’s not asleep either.