Unlocking the Future of Hydrogen

June 23, 2022

No doubt about it: The potential for hydrogen as a viable alternative fuel is high. So why should the industry slow down to focus on safety instead of maximizing the opportunity as quickly as possible?

Let’s quash the idea that codes and standards get in the way of business growth. In fact, they must be at the forefront of the hydrogen opportunity, rather than considered an annoyance or afterthought.

Safety standards are not just for our industry; they convey a compelling story to others, those who are critical to our success. Let’s look at three groups who could be positively impacted if we slow down long enough to create safety standards for hydrogen use: consumers, government officials and newcomers.

Consumers will be the ultimate determinant of whether hydrogen is adopted—and this group demands safety standards. The Compressed Gas Association conducted a survey of North American citizens in 2021. We found tremendous peril and potential in that survey. Only 12 percent of those surveyed believed hydrogen was a “very safe” fuel source. And yet 92 percent said safety standards were important, while 85 percent said they needed to know that such standards were in place before they would consider hydrogen as a fuel source.

They didn’t need to know what those standards were; they just needed the confidence to understand that the product was safe. Safety standards are part of their everyday lives. They trust that standards are in place for medicine and food. They trust that the elevators that lift us high into our workspaces aren’t going to fall. They trust that the vehicles on the road won’t crumple in an accident.

Why would be think hydrogen might be immune from such well-entrenched belief? The survey is clear: Without safety standards, consumers won’t adopt hydrogen as a fuel source for their vehicles or homes. Without the end user, manufacturers won’t produce consumer-facing products.

OK, so consumers won’t bite without standards. But governments are pushing hard for alternative fuels. Surely gasoline can just be replaced with hydrogen and all will be good, right?

Hardly. In fact, we may have an even higher hurdle there. When we look at codes, in the northeastern part of the United States for example, there are myriad rules that prevent hazardous materials being transported through tunnels, whether in the tank of a truck or powering the vehicle. While gasoline is classified as a hazardous material, over the years communities have carved out exceptions that allow gas-powered vehicles to use tunnels as a form of transportation.

If hydrogen vehicles continue to be banned from tunnels, that will slow down adoption. Just think: Without a tunnel, you’ll have to find a route around the mountain instead of going through it.

Another challenge facing hydrogen is a requirement for setback distances of 100 feet from the next building. This makes fueling stations practically impossible in many highly populated areas. It’s an old standard from the late 1960s, and one that doesn’t encompass what we currently know about hydrogen. Hydrogen performs differently than liquified natural gas and gasoline. It tends to evaporate and its properties make it easier to control. But again, this takes communication with regulators. We’re already at work with the National Fire Protection Association to use data to change these setback distance.

CGA and the broader hydrogen industry can work with community leaders to help them understand that hydrogen is just as safe as other types of fuel. But we must be able to back that up. Safety standards will help.

Perhaps the greatest need for standards will come from the success of hydrogen. IHS Markit anticipates a fourfold growth in hydrogen use by 2050. McKinsey & Company is even more bullish, citing up to a sixfold increase over that same time period.

It’s clear that to drive hydrogen forward, many newcomers will enter the market. But they don’t have the decades of experience operating with hydrogen safely. Hydrogen is a hazardous material. If it’s not handled properly, there will be issues, which will set the industry back decades.  We must be able to effectively communicate hazards and best practices to avoid that.

Safety doesn’t have to be difficult. CGA, working with our partner in Europe, has developed an interactive graphic that shows the storage, use and production opportunities in hydrogen and will show the standards that exist in the United States, Europe and Asia for each application. This tool will help inform newcomers about the standards in our industry. And it will continually be updated as new standards are developed for new applications. CGA also has a suite of resources, like the video below, to help stakeholders understand best practices and key concepts.

CGA also has been working to keep newcomers informed by participating in hydrogen conferences. These conferences draw participants from every aspect of the hydrogen economy and the mobility industry, as well as those who fund these types of projects, and nations that want to explore opportunities in production and use.

We may be the only ones there talking about safety, but by sharing with this audience the importance of safety as a key component of hydrogen’s future, we’re helping people know what’s expected. We have had a safe industry thus far. It’s up to all of us to make sure that, as hydrogen grows, it continues to do so safely.

For access to CGA’s hydrogen safety resources, please visit https://www.cganet.com/hydrogen-initiative/.