Will 2023 be hydrogen’s year?

GUEST COLUMN

Scott Nyquist debates both sides of the hydrogen argument in this week’s ECHTX Voices of Energy guest column. Photo courtesy of Aramco.

Yes and no.

Yes, because there is real money, and action, behind it.

Globally, there are 600 projects on the books to build electrolyzers, which separate the oxygen and hydrogen in water, and are critical to creating low-emissions “green hydrogen.” That investment could drive down the cost of low-emissions hydrogen, making it cost competitive with conventional fuels—a major obstacle to its development so far.

In addition, oil companies are interested, too. The industry already uses hydrogen for refining; many see hydrogen as supplemental to their existing operations and perhaps, eventually, supplanting them. In the meantime, it helps them to decarbonize their refining and petrochemical operations, which most of the majors have committed to doing.

Indeed, hydrocarbon-based companies and economies could have a big opportunity in “blue hydrogen,” which uses fossil fuels for production, but then captures and stores emissions. (“Green hydrogen” uses renewables; because it is expensive to produce, it is more distant than blue. “Gray hydrogen” uses fossil fuels, without carbon capture; this accounts for most current production and use.) Oil and gas companies have a head start on related infrastructure, such as pipelines and carbon capture, and also see new business opportunities, such as low-carbon ammonia.

Houston, for example, which likes to call itself the "energy capital of the world,” is going big on hydrogen. The region is well suited to this. It has an extensive pipeline infrastructure, an excellent port system, a pro-business culture, and experience. The Greater Houston Partnership and McKinsey—both of whom I am associated with—estimate that demand for hydrogen will grow 6 to 8 percent a year from 2030 to 2050. No wonder Houston wants a piece of that action.

There are promising, near-term applications for hydrogen, such as ammonia, cement, and steel production, shipping, long-term energy storage, long-haul trucking, and aviation. These bits and pieces add up: steel alone accounts for about 8 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Late last year, Airbus announced it is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine as part of its effort to build zero-emission aircraft. And Cummins, a US-based engine company, is investing serious money in hydrogen for trains and commercial and industrial vehicles, where batteries are less effective; it already has more than 500 electrolyzers at work.

Then there is recent US legislation. The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 allocated $9.5 billion funding for hydrogen. Much more important, though, was last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which contains generous tax credits to promote hydrogen production. The idea is to narrow the price gap between clean hydrogen and other, more emissions-intensive technologies; in effect, the law seeks to fundamentally change the economics of hydrogen and could be a true game-changer.

This is not without controversy: some Europeans think this money constitutes subsidies that are not allowed under trade rules. For its part, Europe has the hydrogen bug, too. Its REPowerEU plan is based on the idea of “hydrogen-ready infrastructure,” so that natural gas projects can be converted to hydrogen when the technology and economics make sense.

So there is a lot of momentum behind hydrogen, bolstered by the ambitious goals agreed to at the most recent climate conference in Egypt. McKinsey estimates that hydrogen demand could reach 660 million tons by 2050, which could abate 20 percent of total emissions. Total planned production for lower-emission green and blue hydrogen through 2030 has reached more than 26 million metric tons annually—quadruple that of 2020.

No, because major issues have not been figured out.

The plans in the works, while ambitious, are murky. A European official, asked about the REPowerEU strategy, admitted that “it’s not clear how it will work.” The same can be said of the United States. The hydrogen value chain, particularly for green hydrogen, requires a lot of electricity, and that calls for flexible grids and much greater capacity. For the United States to reach its climate goals, the grid needs to grow an estimated 60 percent by 2030.That is not easy: just try siting new transmission lines and watch the NIMBY monsters emerge.

Permitting can be a nightmare, often requiring separate approvals from local, state, interstate, and federal authorities, and from different authorities for each (air, land, water, endangered species, and on and on); money does not solve this. Even a state like Texas, which isn’t allergic to fossil fuels and has a relatively light regulatory touch, can get stuck in permitting limbo. Bill Gates recently noted that “over 1,000 gigawatts worth of potential clean energy projects [in the United States] are waiting for approval—about the current size of the entire U.S. grid—and the primary reason for the bottleneck is the lack of transmission.”

Then there is the matter of moving hydrogen from production site to market. Pipeline networks are not yet in place and shifting natural gas pipelines to hydrogen is a long way off. Liquifying hydrogen and transporting is expensive. In general, because hydrogen is still a new industry, it faces “chicken or egg” problems that are typical of the difficulties big innovations face, such as connecting hydrogen buyers to hydrogen producers and connecting carbon emitters to places to store the carbon dioxide. These challenges add to the complexity of getting projects financed.

Finally, there is money. McKinsey estimates that getting on track to that 600 million tons would require investment of $950 billion by 2030; so far, $240 billion has been announced.

Where I stand: in the middle.

I believe in hydrogen’s potential. More than 3 years ago, I wrote about hydrogen, arguing that while there had been real progress, “many things need to happen, in terms of policy, finance, and infrastructure, before it becomes even a medium-sized deal.” Now, some of those things are happening.

So, I guess I land somewhere in the middle. I think 2023 will see real progress, in decarbonizing refining and petrochemicals operations and producing ammonia, specifically. I am also optimistic that a number of low-emissions electrolysis projects will move ahead. And while such advances might seem less than transformative, they are critical: hydrogen, whether blue or green, needs to prove itself, and 2023 could be the year it does.

Because I take hydrogen’s potential seriously, though, I also see the barriers. If it is to become the big deal its supporters believe it could be, that requires big money, strong engineering and construction project management, sustained commitment, and community support. It’s easy to proclaim the wonders of the hydrogen economy; it’s much more difficult to devise sensible business models, standardized contracts, consistent incentives, and a regulatory system that doesn’t drive producers crazy. But all this matters—a lot.

My conclusion: there will be significant steps forward in 2023—but take-off is still years away.

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Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn.

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Houston company expands JV to build new power generation, storage assets

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Houston-based Conduit Power is broadening the scope of its joint venture with Oklahoma City-based Riley Exploration Permian.

Under this deal, the joint venture, RPC Power, will build power generation and storage assets for the sale of energy and related services to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the power grid for the bulk of Texas.

RPC Power, established in March 2023, owns and operates power generation assets that use Riley Permian’s natural gas to power its oilfield operations in Yoakum County, located in West Texas.

The expanded relationship will enable RPC Power to sell power and related services to ERCOT, with plans for 100 megawatts of natural gas-fueled generation and battery energy storage systems across facilities in West Texas. The facilities are expected to start commercial operations in 2025.

In conjunction with the expanded scope, Riley Permian bumped up its stake in RPC Power from 35 percent to 50 percent. Furthermore, it plans to sell up to 10 million cubic feet per day of natural gas to RPC Power as feedstock supply for the new generation facilities.

"Our JV expansion at RPC Power represents a significant milestone for our company, and we are proud to build upon our successful partnership with Riley Permian,” Travis Windholz, managing director of Conduit, says in a news release.

Conduit, a portfolio company of private equity firm Grey Rock Investment Partners, designs, builds, and operates distributed power generation systems.

Riley Exploration Permian specializes in the exploration, development, and production of oil and natural gas reserves, primarily within the Permian Basin.

Elon Musk sees more resistance against his multibillion dollar pay package

just say no

A second shareholder advisory firm has come out against reinstating a pay package for Tesla CEO Elon Musk that was voided earlier this year by a Delaware judge.

ISS late Thursday joined Glass Lewis in recommending against the package, recently valued by the company at $44.9 billion but in January had a value of about $56 billion.

Shareholders of the electric vehicle and solar panel company are voting on the package, with the results to be tabulated at Tesla's June 13 annual meeting.

ISS said in its recommendations on Tesla's proxy voting items that Musk's stock-based package was outsized when it was approved by shareholders in 2018, and it failed to accomplish board objectives voiced at that time.

The firm said that Tesla met the pay package’s performance objectives, and it recognized the company's substantial growth in size and profitability. But concerns about Musk spending too much time on other ventures that were raised in 2018 and since then have not been sufficiently addressed, ISS said.

“The grant, in many ways, failed to achieve the board’s other original objectives of focusing CEO Musk on the interests of Tesla shareholders, as opposed to other business endeavors, and aligning his financial interests more closely with those of Tesla stockholders,” ISS wrote.

Also, future concerns remain unaddressed, including a lack of clarity on Musk's future compensation and the potential for his pay to significantly dilute shareholder value, ISS wrote.

Musk plays big roles in his other ventures including SpaceX, Neuralink and the Boring Company. Last year he bought social media platform X and formed an artificial intelligence unit called xAI.

Last week the other prominent proxy advisory firm, Glass Lewis, also recommended against reinstating Musk's 2018 compensation package. The firm said the package would dilute shareholders' value by about 8.7%. The rationale for the package “does not in our view adequately consider dilution and its long-lasting effects on disinterested shareholders,” Glass Lewis wrote.

But in a proxy filing, Tesla said that Glass Lewis failed to consider that the 2018 award incentivized Musk to create over $735 billion in value for shareholders in the six years since it was approved.

“Tesla is one of the most successful enterprises of our time,” the filing said. “We have revolutionized the automotive market and become the first vertically integrated sustainable energy company."

Tesla is struggling with falling global sales, slowing electric vehicle demand, an aging model lineup and a stock price that has tumbled about 30% this year.

Tesla asked shareholders to restore Musk's pay package after it was rejected by a Delaware judge this year. At the time, it also asked to shift the company’s legal corporate home to Texas.

Glass Lewis recommended against moving the legal corporate home to Texas, but ISS said it favored the move.

California’s public employee retirement system, which holds a stake in Tesla, said it has not made a final decision on how it will vote on Musk’s pay. But CEO Marcie Frost told CNBC that as of Wednesday, the system would not vote in favor. CalPERS, which opposed the package in 2018, said it will discuss the matter with Tesla “in the coming days.”

In January, Delaware Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick ruled that Musk is not entitled to the landmark stock compensation that was to be granted over 10 years.

Ruling on a lawsuit from a shareholder, she voided the pay package, saying that Musk essentially controlled the board, making the process of enacting the compensation unfair to stakeholders. “Musk had extensive ties with the persons tasked with negotiating on Tesla’s behalf,” she wrote in her ruling.

In a letter to shareholders released in a regulatory filing last month, Tesla Chairwoman Robyn Denholm said that Musk has delivered on the growth it was looking for at the automaker, with Tesla meeting all of the stock value and operational targets in the 2018 package. Shares at the time were up 571% since the pay package began.

“Because the Delaware Court second-guessed your decision, Elon has not been paid for any of his work for Tesla for the past six years that has helped to generate significant growth and stockholder value,” Denholm wrote. “That strikes us — and the many stockholders from whom we already have heard — as fundamentally unfair, and inconsistent with the will of the stockholders who voted for it.”

Tesla posted record deliveries of more than 1.8 million electric vehicles worldwide in 2023, but the value of its shares has eroded quickly this year as EV sales soften.

The company said it delivered 386,810 vehicles from January through March, nearly 9% fewer than it sold in the same period last year. Future growth is in doubt and it may be a challenge to get shareholders to back a fat pay package in an environment where competition has increased worldwide.

Starting last year, Tesla has cut prices as much as $20,000 on some models. The price cuts caused used electric vehicle values to drop and clipped Tesla’s profit margins.

In April, Tesla said that it was letting about 10% of its workers go, about 14,000 people.

Things to know: $17.5B oil acquisition, new accelerator focuses on sustainability, and more in Houston energy

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Editor's note: Dive headfirst into the new week with three quick things to catch up on in Houston's energy transition: a podcast episode with a biotech leader, a very big oil and gas deal, and events not to miss.


Big deal: ConocoPhillips to buy Marathon Oil for $17.B in all-stock deal

ConocoPhillips is buying Marathon Oil in an all-stock deal valued at approximately $17.1 billion as energy prices rise and big oil companies reap massive profits.

The deal to combine the two Houston-headquartered companies is valued at $22.5 billion when including $5.4 billion in debt.

Crude prices have jumped more than 12% this year and the cost for a barrel rose above $80 this week. Oil majors put up record profits after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and while those numbers have slipped, there has been a surge in mergers between energy companies flush with cash. Continue reading.

Podcast to stream: Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast

Bioindustrial technologies have a high potential for impacting sustainability — but they tend to need a little bit more help navigating the startup valley of death. That's where the BioWell comes in.

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, says the idea for the accelerator was came to First Bight Ventures, a Houston-based biomanufacturing investment firm, as it began building its portfolio of promising companies.

"While we were looking at various companies, we found ourselves finding different needs that these startups have," Estrada says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's how the opportunity for the BioWell came about." Continue reading.

Events not to miss

Put these Houston-area energy-related events on your calendar.

  • The Energy Drone & Robotics Summit is coming to Houston June 10 to 12. Join for the ultimate event in the world for UAVs, Robotics & Data/AI, 3D Reality Capture, Geospatial and Digital Twins focused on the business and technology in energy & industrial operations, inspections, maintenance, surveying & mapping. Register now.
  • Argus Clean Ammonia North America Conference will take place on June 12 to 14 at the Hyatt Regency Houston. Over the three days of the conference, explore the big questions many producers are facing around where demand is coming from, expect to hear perspectives from key domestic consumers as well as international demand centres for clean ammonia. Register now.
  • Join the over 150 senior energy and utilities leaders from June 17 to 18 in Houston for AI in Energy to unlock the potential of AI within your enterprise and delve into key areas for its development.Register now.
  • Energy Underground (June) is a group of professionals in the Greater Houston area that are accelerating the Energy Transition that connect monthly at The Cannon - West Houston. Register now.