Sustainably generated hydrogen has great promise as a fuel where electricity alone won’t suffice, but the road to its broad adoption remains complicated for investors to navigate.
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Jessica Alsford Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Jessica Alsford, Global Head of Sustainability Research at Morgan Stanley.
Ed Stanley And I’m Ed Stanley, Head of Thematic Research at Morgan Stanley.
Jessica Alsford And today on the podcast, we’re going to be talking about the investment implications of hydrogen. It’s Thursday, October the 21st at 3:00 p.m. in London.
Jessica Alsford So Ed, hydrogen has been something we’ve been looking at for some time, given its potential role in a low carbon economy. So why is it that the debates around green hydrogen seem to have intensified over the last 6 to 12 months?
Ed Stanley Great question. Massive, centralized support and road mapping in the form of the European Hydrogen Strategy and the US Infrastructure Bill simultaneously thrust hydrogen to center stage around the world.
Ed Stanley But the froth has come and gone to some extent from most of these hydrogen names. And so now it’s a really interesting time to be relooking at the space from a stock picking perspective. The number of dedicated hydrogen thematic funds is really beginning to accelerate as well. We’ve reached 10 hydrogen funds in Europe from only 1 two years ago, and many of the pure play equities that these funds are or will be buying are pretty illiquid, which we expect will lead to further volatility in due course for single name equities. The electrolyzer stocks are up to two thirds of their highs, so the reason why now is that as the market froth subsides, we’re beginning to see these thematic alpha opportunities all the way along the supply chain in hydrogen.
Jessica Alsford Now, projections by the Hydrogen Council suggest that green hydrogen could enable a global emissions reduction of around 6 gigatons by 2050 – so almost 10% of current global emissions. It also has the potential for unlocking something like 30 million jobs and $2.5T of associated revenues. And yet, despite this huge potential, it does feel that we’re still at a very early stage. So why is that? What are some of the challenges around the wider adoption of green hydrogen?
Ed Stanley That’s right, and I don’t think you can fault the ambition. The Hydrogen Council, as you mentioned, is over 200 member companies and they have a clearly defined goal and they’re pulling in the same direction. And increasingly, governments are also walking the talk. I guess, though, when you ask our analysts what the greatest hindrances are, if I had to boil them down to two factors, it would be these: first, the lack of standards, and that really means we have dual investment and thus potentially wasted investment going on as each stakeholder has their own vested interests on whether to use PEM or alkaline electrolysis, for example; or whether to retrofit existing pipe networks or to rebuild from scratch. So, a lack of agreement on these dichotomies is a risk of diluting the early stage growth and investment.
Ed Stanley And the second is much simpler, actually, it’s economics. Costs for renewable energy, predominantly wind and solar, that feed these very power hungry upstream electrolyzers have fallen substantially in cost – over 90% decline in 10 years. But it still requires cost per unit breakthroughs across the rest of the supply chain; from ammonia, for example, or redesigning jet engines to make it viable, particularly for publicly listed companies to make the necessary investments. Ultimately, we should probably expect very generous subsidies for some time if we are to hit that 6 gigatons value, you mentioned.
Jessica Alsford So there are challenges, but also clearly opportunities as well. Where do you think the most value can be created and how should investors participate in this market?
Ed Stanley Again, our analysts obviously have their own single stock preferences, of course. But if I were to take a step back and look at the supply chain holistically, it’s a question of relative risk reward. For example, upstream, some electrolyzer names have over 100% upside in our view, but that has to be taken in the context of an ongoing debate, as I mentioned, into which electrolyzer technology will become the industry standard, and so at risk potentially putting all your eggs in one basket. At the other end of the spectrum, downstream, rail and aviation has potential, but with extremely long time horizons, which risk compounding forecasting errors several decades away.
Ed Stanley So in my mind, some of the best plays are midstream – the chemical names, for example, with best-in-class green ammonia platforms. And you can see that in their excellent intellectual property positioning relative to the rest of the supply chain. Other subsectors include the inspection companies, which will benefit to the tune of 0.5% to 1% of all global hydrogen capex being spent on safety testing. And that’s irrespective of which technology or country is the first to roll out. And we don’t believe some of those fundamentals are being priced in. So given there’s a still very high degree of uncertainty as this technology rolls out, our preference is for midstream and particularly technology and country agnostic companies.
Ed Stanley On that note, hydrogen is obviously only one of a handful of decarbonization tools. So, what else do you think has promise in the decarbonization outlook?
Jessica Alsford Yes, you’re right, Ed. And if we are to achieve a net zero scenario by 2050 and achieve the Paris Agreement, then we need to deploy a range of different strategies. Now one of them may be renewables from a power generation perspective. Solar wind is already economically viable, and we expect to see a huge amount of roll out of renewable power capacity over the coming decades. Elsewhere, we need to see electrification of certain types of energy. The great example being on the auto side as you see movement from the combustion engine to electric vehicles. And though again, although adoption rates are still very low, the stimulus has been set. The policy is outlined to really incentivize this drive from the combustion engine to an EV. So, we’re very confident it is only a matter of time before you see that greater adoption of EVs globally.
Jessica Alsford Then we come on to some of the more innovative technologies. I think CCS – carbon capture and storage – is a great example of this. Just a few years ago, it was really viewed quite negatively as essentially CCS allows you to still use fossil fuels, whether that be in power generation or in industrial processes like steel and cement manufacturing. But I think now there is a greater acceptance that in some situations we’re not going to be completely able to remove all fossil fuels, and so by using CCS technology, you can allow coal/gas to be used, but without emissions as a result of that. And so, I do think that CCS is a really interesting technology to also watch alongside hydrogen as an enabler of a low carbon economy.
Ed Stanley That’s very clear. And I guess the timing is very opportune to speak to you today because COP26 is approaching. And so, I’m keen to find out from you, what do you think we will see from the world leaders or even corporates in terms of decarbonization pledges? And what impact could that have ultimately on the market for hydrogen longer term?
Jessica Alsford Absolutely. So COP26 starts on the 31st of October in Glasgow. It has been delayed since last year because of the pandemic. Two things that I’d particularly point to is, first of all, we would expect many world leaders to step up and announce more ambitious carbon reduction targets. Not everyone currently has a 2050 net zero ambition. And we also now need to see that shorter term trajectory about how are we’re going to get there at the right pace of decarbonization as well. So, 2030 reduction targets is also something that we’ll be looking for at COP.
Jessica Alsford The second area I’d point to is then in terms of global carbon markets. So, the EU has been leading the way for a long time in terms of establishing a very broad and effective carbon market through the Emission Trading Scheme. However, in order to really, again accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy, we need to see a broader adoption of higher carbon taxes, higher carbon prices globally. And why is this important for hydrogen? Well, one of the ways I think that you can really incentivize adoption of hydrogen is to make the higher carbon incumbent alternatives more expensive, and you can do that by pricing carbon at a much higher level.
Jessica Alsford So I think the combination of more ambitious carbon reduction targets and more acceptance of the need for higher carbon taxes could be two positive catalysts for hydrogen at COP26.
Jessica Alsford Ed, thanks for taking the time to talk today.
Ed Stanley Great speaking with you, Jess.
Jessica Alsford As a reminder, if you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please do take a moment to rate and reviews on the Apple Podcasts app. It helps more people to find the show.