Supercharging Electrolyzers: Policy Solutions to Boost Zero-Emission Hydrogen Production and Deployment in California


With all the hype around hydrogen, VX News excerpts this latest report from UC Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. The report, Supercharging Electrolyzers, recommends strategies for boosting zero-emission electrolytic hydrogen production and deployment in California. Join report co-author, UC Berkeley Climate Fellow and VerdeXchange Alumnus, Ross Zelen, along with California State Senator, Nancy Skinner, GO-Biz Senior Advisor for Clean Infrastructure and Mobility, Tyson Eckerle, Coalition for a Safe Environment's Jesse N. Marquez, and UC Berkeley's Ethan Elkind next Tuesday, December 13, at 12:00pm PST for a webinar presentation on the report and panel discussion exploring opportunities for scaling zero-emission hydrogen in California in a way that reduces fossil fuel demand, enhances state energy resiliency, creates new job opportunities, and improves air quality in disadvantaged communities. Click here to register. 


As California seeks to decarbonize its electricity grid and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, hydrogen produced from zero-emission sources could play a critical role. The gas can generate electricity when solar or wind energy is unavailable, as well as power fuel-cell electric vehicles. 

Developers can harness surplus renewable energy to create it, resulting in zero-emission (sometimes referred to as “green”) hydrogen. Zero-emission hydrogen refers to the production and creation of hydrogen using only renewable energy resources. Electrolyzers, which separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, are critical to mass production of zero-emission hydrogen. As a result, zero-emission hydrogen depends on reducing the cost of electrolyzers, as well as ensuring access to low-cost renewable energy. California could be well positioned to leverage its renewable energy deployment and cleantech industry expertise to decrease these costs and create a sustainable industry of electrolysis-based zero-emission hydrogen. 

Hydrogen is on pace for significant growth in the world energy marketplace. In 2020, global hydrogen demand reached 90 million tons. By 2050, forecasts indicate that demand for renewable or low-carbon hydrogen could reach 660 million tons, or 22% of total energy demand worldwide. In the U.S., the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 have spurred significant interest in hydrogen at all levels of government. With hydrogen likely to play a role in the ongoing economy-wide decarbonization process, California can help ensure that the future of this gas is truly zero-emission through state policies promulgated this decade. 

Zero-emission electrolytic hydrogen has the potential to replace fossil gas in a myriad of applications, including hard-to-decarbonize industrial uses such as metals processing, cement production, and glass manufacturing, as well as a transportation fuel for heavy-duty goods movement (trucks, rail, and ships). The produced hydrogen can be distributed in pipelines or by truck, ship, or other means for immediate use. Hydrogen may also be stored in large quantities using natural underground caverns or massive tanks, to be utilized or converted back into electricity when needed. In this way, hydrogen could serve as long-term seasonal energy storage to help California’s electricity grid decarbonize by providing dispatchable, zero-emission power when the sun and wind are absent. Grid operators and project developers could utilize surplus renewable power (solar or wind) to create the hydrogen, helping to solve the issue of having to dump or “curtail” excess solar or wind energy produced during times of low demand.

Yet major hurdles remain to deployment. Most prominently, producing zero-emission hydrogen currently costs somewhere between two to three times more compared with hydrogen created from fossil-fuels. While analysts expect prices for electrolyzers to decrease this decade, zero-emission hydrogen will not achieve cost parity with fossil-based hydrogen absent significant market scale and policy support. Electrolyzers also have additional capital and operating costs, including water, reliance on intermittent power generation, and requirements for new storage infrastructure and distribution systems.

To address these challenges and opportunities, UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) and UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment convened leaders from state and local government, electric utilities, and environmental organizations in Spring 2022 to examine opportunities to optimize deployment of zero-emission hydrogen electrolyzers to meet California’s climate goals. 



Barrier 1: A lack of consistent state policy on zero emission electrolyzers, including legal and regulatory requirements and long-term planning processes.

  • The governor could craft an executive order to align agency priorities and establish a zero-emission hydrogen roadmap to support the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Hub grant application.
  •  The legislature could mandate that all hydrogen production be zero emission or require average ‘well-to-gate’ greenhouse gas emissions for hydrogen production to be magnitudes cleaner than fossil-based hydrogen production.
  •  The California Air Resources Board could utilize a lifecycle approach to define carbon intensity and create an intensity scoring methodology for all hydrogen production pathways and applications, like it already does for hydrogen use in the transportation sector. 
  • The California Air Resources Board and/or regional air districts could set nitrogen oxide emission limits on hydrogen combustion. 
  • The legislature, California Workforce Development Board, and community-based organizations could work together to establish statewide “High Road” job standards to support a just transition for the fossil fuel workforce.
  •  The legislature could dedicate funding to support zero-emission electrolyzer projects, rather than relying primarily on ratepayer funds. 

Barrier 2: High upfront and operational costs prevent electrolyzer projects from attracting private investment

  • The legislature, California Independent System Operator, and California Public Utilities Commission could develop a “direct-tie” or direct access program to support zero-emission hydrogen production from surplus renewable energy.
  •  The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development Climate Catalyst fund could provide financial backstops or guarantees to attract private investment. 
  • The California Energy Commission could assist regional and local governments to develop Zero-Emission Hydrogen Master Plans. 
  • The legislature, California Energy Commission, California Natural Resources Agency, and local utilities could establish a “zero-water-waste” statewide initiative to invest in research advancing the use of reclaimed, brackish, or non-potable wastewater in electrolyzers.

Barrier 3: Zero-emission hydrogen lacks targeted support to fuel difficult-to-decarbonize activities. 

  • The California Air Resources Board could require heavy industrial sources to decarbonize through regulations on thermal emissions.
  •  The California Energy Commission could assess the current hydrogen offtake market and provide producers with a market viability analysis to entice investment in zero-carbon hydrogen production.

Read the full report and recommendations, here.

"While analysts expect prices for electrolyzers to decrease this decade, zero-emission hydrogen will not achieve cost parity with fossil-based hydrogen absent significant market scale and policy support"