David Parker and Dr Linda Wright got a taste of a hydrogen-powered future when they climbed into Hyundai's Nexo SUV model in Seoul this week.
Hyundai Motor has serious ambitions for its second hydrogen FCV (fuel cell vehicle). It hopes to sell more than 10,000 units of the Nexo next year.
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It was a classic photo-op for Parker, who as Trade Minister had been leading a business delegation to South Korea to get some renewed focus on a market which officials see as seriously under-cooked.
But for Parker – who also holds the environment portfolio – it was also a key opportunity to position New Zealand at the forefront of progressive countries which are developing hydrogen energy opportunities to decarbonise their economies.
So too, for Wright – the enthusiast who by her own endeavours founded a private sector consortium of organisations to progress the delivery of renewable hydrogen infrastructure in New Zealand leading to her appointment as chief executive of the NZ Hydrogen Association. The group – which includes Genesis, Ports of Auckland, Refining, NZ, Beca, Hiringa among others – is committed to the delivery of low-emission hydrogen solutions both domestically and for potential export.
A day later, Parker and Wright notched up an agreement via a letter of intent to formalise a Korea-NZ hydrogen collaboration at a meeting with industry and government representatives.
Parker says he later discussed the joint initiative with South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. "There's obviously Government interest there which is good," said Parker.
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He says the South Korean Government has a "very, very big programme" which it's determined to achieve.
"That aligns with our ambitions to be zero carbon by 2050 and given our reputation to be able to deploy these technologies and practices in a way that is ahead of most of the world," he said.
"The challenge for New Zealand is to make real on a couple of early hydrogen projects to show that we are serious and can do practical things rather than just sign agreements."
South Korea has signed similar letters of intent with Australia, Norway Saudi Arabia and Israel. What sets New Zealand apart from Australia and Saudi Arabia is that all the proposed hydrogen produced in NZ will use renewable energy – it will be "green hydrogen" as opposed to "brown hydrogen" which uses fossil fuels in the process.
"It is a bit like early wind power," Parker reflects. "No one can put a hydrogen vehicle on the road if they can't recharge it with hydrogen.
"Conversely no one's going to invest in hydrogen technology unless there are people that are going to use it.
"It is a real chicken and egg situation but we have to start somewhere."
New Zealand maybe just at the start of its own hydrogen journey. But Parker is confident of corporate support.
Some 10 hydrogen leaders from the Korean side – spanning shipping logistics, hydrogen fuel cell technology, manufacturers or pressure vessels and more – were present for the meeting. They included H2Korea – a group established to promote South Korea as the leader of the global hydrogen industry; leading academics, Korean foreign ministry leaders and a number of private energy sector CEOs.
The path to a hydrogen future is not straight forward. There are safety considerations to overcome. Already there has been an explosion as one station in Korea which killed two people.
Nikkei Asian Review reports that Japanese research company Fuji Keizai predicts that the global fuel cell market will grow by a factor of 23 to about $US46.1 billion by 2030 compared with fiscal 2018, with the cells set to be used for a variety of purposes beyond cars, including industrial machinery, buses and boats.
Following growth trends of other markets in Asia, that for fuel cells is expected to grow rapidly in the region, notably in China and South Korea.
It will also take considerable investment from Governments.
South Korea is moving ahead with public-private partnerships as it accelerates moves to not only produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles but also establish hydrogen fuelling stations. The country is out to reduce its reliance on natural gas and oil as energy sources.
The South Korean Government is funding 50 per cent of the costs of the hydrogen fuelling infrastructure and is providing subsidies for the fuel cell vehicles.
Parker said the NZ Government would also likely be an investor - but at millions of dollars rather than hundreds of millions.
"If you want to participate in these ventures and show that we're up for being early partners, then we have to support those pitches, in my opinion.
"So there are proposals that are coming through from the Provincial Growth Fund."
Those proposals are yet to get to ministerial level but one is understood to involved hydrogen-powered buses.
"This project, if it proves feasible and economic, will introduce new hydrogen technology to New Zealand that will assist with our decarbonisation, will provide New Zealand with a new export industry, and will assist South Korea with its own decarbonisation efforts."
The initiative comes as the United Nations warns world leaders the must cut greenhouse gas emissions by a staggering 7.6 per cent every year for the next decade to meet the most ambitious goal of the Paris climate deal, or suffer the impacts of greater global warming.
In a report on Tuesday, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) laid out the enormous scale of the challenge to meet the target of holding temperature rises to 1.5C by the end of the century, following a decade when emissions have on average grown by 1.5 per cent a year.
If that does not incentivise action - what will?
• Fran O'Sullivan traveled to Seoul courtesy of Air New Zealand.