Investors Have Cooled on Hydrogen. A Second Wave Is Coming. - Kanebridge News
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Investors Have Cooled on Hydrogen. A Second Wave Is Coming.

By PATTI DOMM
Fri, Apr 12, 2024 9:43amGrey Clock 5 min

Investors may want to give hydrogen a second look, but they’ll need to be patient.

There’s not a lot of love for the fuel on Wall Street. The Global X Hydrogen ETF is down 81% from its high in 2021, and other hydrogen stocks are well below their peaks.

Skeptics say the cleanest hydrogen is too pricey and still far away from becoming part of a viable marketplace. The government is still sorting out regulation and industry incentives. New infrastructure will be required, and it isn’t clear there will be enough customers once it’s built.

But even as investor enthusiasm faded, a raft of companies have been quietly exploring hydrogen as a clean-burning fuel that can be a building block in the energy transition. There are numerous corporate projects in development that could help propel the growth of a hydrogen economy and drive profits in the future. The Department of Energy is investing $8 billion in promoting clean hydrogen, with the creation of seven hydrogen hubs around the U.S. within the decade.

Many energy and petrochemical companies are studying or have hydrogen projects in the works as a way to decarbonise. One reason is that hydrogen is used in the refining process, and cleaner hydrogen could be used in industrial processes. Hydrogen can be turned into ammonia and is used in fertiliser. In its next wave, hydrogen could be widely used in industrial applications like steel making and for fuel in ships and aircraft.

Supporters believe all the money pouring in now will help bring costs down as hydrogen projects scale. Investors may want to look at traditional energy and industrial companies that are currently working on hydrogen projects as a way to play the long-term growth of a hydrogen market.

“All these companies…have decarbonisation aspirations,” said Marc Bianchi, managing director at TD Cowen. There’s a meaningful opportunity for companies that are already using thousands of tons of hydrogen a day to switch from dirtier to cleaner sources.

The U.S. uses about 10 million tons of hydrogen a year for applications such as refining and fertilizer. Hydrogen demand was about 2% of global energy consumption in 2020 and could grow to 20% to 30% in a net-zero economy, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.

Hydrogen gas is colourless, but industry shorthand assigns colours based on how the fuel is produced. Green hydrogen is the most desirable. Electricity generated from solar or wind is used to split hydrogen from water molecules and produces no carbon byproducts. Blue hydrogen is made by using natural gas along with capture and storage technologies to limit CO2. Grey hydrogen is made with natural gas or methane and generates carbon dioxide.

S&P Global Commodity Insights projects the cleanest hydrogen, even with incentives, would be about three times more costly in parts of the country where renewable energy is more expensive, like the Northeast. In the best case, green hydrogen produced in Texas, using proposed tax incentives and credits, could be as low as $1 per kilogram, slightly less than the $1.3 per kilogram cost of grey hydrogen. In Europe, green hydrogen is $6 to $9 per kilogram.

The energy industry, however, is waiting to see the final structure of U.S. tax credits granted to clean hydrogen under the Inflation Reduction Act. The Internal Revenue Service issued a draft guidance on implementation.

It was viewed as too restrictive by many in the industry, and some industry executives say it put a chill on activity while they wait to see how deep incentives will be for their proposed processes. The comment period has just ended.

“Anyone in power generation wants to talk about hydrogen,” said Richard Voorberg, president of North America for Siemens Energy . “Now, we’ve seen that plateau over the last little while, meaning months. Everyone was excited about [the Inflation Reduction Act], but the guidance that came out Dec. 22 had people scratching their heads.”

Ernest Moniz, a former energy secretary, heads the consortium formed to organise a market for clean hydrogen, called the Hydrogen Demand Initiative. Moniz said recently that the guidance presented by the IRS was too narrow and could slow the industry’s growth if not changed.

“The philosophy has been to require upfront decarbonisation of the electrons that you’re supposed to be using for the electrolysis of water, and the fear—and I certainly fear it—is this will significantly inhibit the near-term demand creation,” Moniz said. “We might end up with a very low carbon grid, but a hydrogen market that’s way behind where it should be at that time.” He added that he’s watching for how the IRS adjusts its plans for the tax credits.

Investors looking at companies with hydrogen projects need to be sure the value is there for the company’s traditional businesses. Analysts say valuations don’t appear to reflect potential for hydrogen, even if some had in the past.

Hydrogen was once the “shiniest new toy” for investors, but disillusionment has set in, said Timm Schneider, CEO of Schneider Capital Group. “Not one investor has asked me about hydrogen at any company, like Chevron or Exxon, that has a hydrogen project, over the past 12 months,” he said.

One way to invest in the transition is through industrial gas companies. S&P Global is projecting that Air Products and Chemicals will be the leading industrial gas producer of hydrogen, in the amount of 5.2 million metric tons by 2030. Exxon Mobil is positioned to be the largest producer among oil-and-gas companies, with 1.5 MMT, S&P Global said.

Air Products CEO Seifi Ghasemi, speaking at the CERAWeek by S&P Global conference last month, said his company is currently the largest producer of grey hydrogen globally. He wants to be the leader in green and blue. The company began producing grey hydrogen at the request of the U.S. government in the 1950s for use in the space program.

Ghasemi said the company has two major projects in development. One is in northern Saudi Arabia, where the company will use wind and solar with its partners to create 650 tons of hydrogen a day. That project, he said, IS “30 times bigger than anything that exists today.”

Air Products has been collaborating with Baker Hughes , an energy services and technology company that has developed turbines and compressors. Baker is working on the hydrogen project in Saudi Arabia and the two have another project under way in Alberta, Canada that is expected to be operational next year. “Baker Hughes is interesting. It is supplying a turbine to that project in Alberta that’s going to run on 100% hydrogen. That’s been a bit of a challenge for the industry, to burn hydrogen in a turbine,” said Bianchi. Baker Hughes, he said, was the first to succeed.

The demand for hydrogen is still uncertain and the market is nascent. The anticipated supply of hydrogen is well ahead of demand, Enverus Intelligence Research said in a report last week. Only 30% of the U.S. projects expected by 2030 have disclosed customers.

But there was a bright note in the Enverus report. European Union decarbonisation targets could mean U.S. producers could find a significant export market.

Exports are what helped turn the U.S. into the leading producer of oil and gas. The energy industry might follow that playbook again with hydrogen.



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More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fuelling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 5 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realize, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.