South Korea has announced ambitious plans to become the global leader in the development of hydrogen projects. By 2050, the country intends to source one-third of its energy requirements from hydrogen. In this regard, South Korea is much ahead of other regions, such as the European Union (EU), which plans to source only 14 per cent of its energy from hydrogen. In line with this vision, the Government of South Korea announced in November 2022 that it would boost its hydrogen industry by creating large-scale domestic demand, developing relevant infrastructure, and establishing a global supply chain. Initially, the government will focus on hydrogen vehicles. It aims to raise its supply of high-mobility vehicles, such as hydrogen buses and trucks, with the goal of deploying 30,000 hydrogen commercial vehicles and building 70 liquid hydrogen refuelling stations in the country by 2030. The hydrogen bus fleet is expected to reach 40,000 by 2040.
The Government of South Korea has chosen to focus on hydrogen vehicles instead of electric vehicles (EVs) to drive economic growth. While EV development will still receive some funding from the government, the hydrogen vehicle sector will receive more funding for research and development (R&D).
In 2019, the government announced its road map to building a hydrogen economy by 2040. It has stated its plans to produce 27.9 million tonnes of blue and green hydrogen gas by 2050. The cleaner forms of hydrogen, which means that no carbon has been emitted in the production process, will account for 60 per cent of the hydrogen available for use in South Korea. The hydrogen produced through natural gas will be blue hydrogen, and the hydrogen produced through renewable energy sources will be green hydrogen.
Figure 1 states the goals set out in South Korea’s hydrogen road map.
In September 2021, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) announced that a fuel subsidy of KRW3,500 per kg will be provided for hydrogen buses deployed for business uses. It also amended the Passenger Vehicle Transportation Business Act to include details such as the target, standard, and method of subsidy payment for hydrogen fuel as well as a plan for introducing fuel subsidies for hydrogen vehicles deployed for business use. According to the amendment, fuel subsidies will apply to route buses (intra-city/out-city/high-speed buses), chartered buses, and taxis (general taxis/private taxis). For buses, the fuel subsidies were paid from September 2021 onwards. For taxis, the fuel subsidies will be provided from 2023 onwards based on the construction status of hydrogen charging stations and the operation status of hydrogen taxis.
The subsidy is expected to promote the transition to eco-friendly hydrogen buses that do not emit carbon. At the time of the announcement of the subsidy, the selling price of large buses was KRW830 million for hydrogen buses, KRW44 million for electric buses, KRW280 million for compressed natural gas (CNG) hybrid buses, KRW210 million for diesel buses, and KRW220 million for CNG buses. After applying the subsidy, the average unit purchase price of a hydrogen bus was reduced to KRW120 million, which made it possible to purchase hydrogen units at a lower cost than conventional diesel buses. In 2021, a subsidy of KRW140 billion was provided for hydrogen buses.
Figure 2 presents the total number of hydrogen commercial vehicles (including buses and trucks) planned to be procured by 2022, 2025, and 2030.
Figure 3 provides details of the total number of hydrogen filling stations planned to be constructed by 2022, 2025, and 2030.
Each local government has set its own targets to deploy hydrogen buses in its their locality.
Table 1 provides information on the number of hydrogen buses planned to be introduced in each locality in South Korea in 2022.
In December 2020, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced an eco-friendly bus expansion policy to introduce 1,000 hydrogen buses by 2025. But due to delays in the construction of hydrogen charging stations, the deployment has been postponed. In September 2021, the government revised its goal to introduce 1,000 units by 2026. As of August 2022, only 15 hydrogen buses have been deployed in the Seoul metropolitan area.
Hydrogen refuelling stations for commercial vehicles used by buses require a larger space than those for passenger cars, and also require a long charging time, making it difficult for these stations to be used for passenger vehicles. In addition, there have been instances of opposition by residents to the installation of hydrogen refuelling stations in their neighbourhoods due to the mistaken belief that the charging stations could explode. In 2018, the city of Seoul set a goal to build four hydrogen filling stations for buses by 2021. However, due to these challenges, it has managed to build only two charging stations, one near Gangdong Public Garage and the other inside Gangseo Public Garage.
In September 2022, the Busan Metropolitan Government announced plans to replace the existing diesel and CNG-fuelled inner-city and shuttle buses with hydrogen buses. It aims to replace 322 buses by 2023 and 687 buses by 2025. This decision has been made to enhance Busan’s competitiveness in the city’s bid to host World Expo 2030 by creating a hydrogen economy through mutual cooperation in the transportation, industry, and port sectors.
SK Energy has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Busan Metropolitan Government, the Ministry of Economy, Hyundai Motor Company, the Busan Port Authority, Busan Metrobus Company Association, and Busan Techno Park to deploy 1,000 hydrogen buses in Busan as part of these efforts. The consortium will develop a hydrogen economy in the city. This includes the establishment of hydrogen mobility infrastructure, including 10 charging stations, and support for the R&D and talent development programmes of 10 companies specialising in hydrogen energy. The port of Busan will be equipped with hydrogen charging stations and hydrogen-fuelled ships and trucks. The subsidy received for each hydrogen bus procured will be KRW210 million from the national government and KRW90 million from the local government. The subsidies will be provided in 2023.
In March 2022, the Ministry of Environment announced plans to convert all of the approximately 2,000 city buses in Incheon to hydrogen buses by 2030 and to supply 700 hydrogen buses first by 2024. It signed an agreement with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Incheon Metropolitan City, Hyundai Motor Company, SK E&S, and Plug Power for the project. The Ministry of Environment plans to strengthen support for the adoption of hydrogen vehicles by building five liquefied hydrogen charging stations.
The remaining 40 local governments in South Korea have been reluctant to introduce hydrogen buses, which are also required to be 100 per cent domestically sourced. Instead, they prefer to introduce electric buses, of which at least half are produced in China at a cheaper cost. In 2021, these local governments launched tenders and placed orders for 1,249 electric buses. In contrast, only 23 hydrogen buses were purchased in the same year. Local governments are delaying or avoiding the adoption of hydrogen buses because the subsidies for hydrogen buses are nearly twice as large as those for electric buses. Currently, the basic subsidy for hydrogen buses is KRW300 million, of which local governments pay KRW150 million. In the case of an electric bus, the subsidy is KRW160 million, and the burden on the local government is KRW80 million, which is half of that of a hydrogen bus. Given this situation, local governments with limited financial resources prefer electric buses.
Hydrogen fuelling stations
In 2022, the Ministry of Environment planned to build 100 hydrogen filling stations in the country. The total value of the project was KRW213.2 billion. In regard to these filling stations, 50 per cent of general hydrogen filling stations and 70 per cent of special hydrogen filling stations are subsidised by the government. General hydrogen filling stations require the installation of a 50 kg/hr compressor and of two or more chargers. Special charging stations meet the capacity of 500 kg/hr, which can charge two buses per hour. Based on a 10-hour day, a special charging station will be able to fully charge 25 kg in a bus in one hour.
Table 2 provides details of the plans for the construction of hydrogen fuelling stations in different cities and regions.
The way forward
Even though the government has announced various policies to revitalise the hydrogen economy and to encourage the adoption of hydrogen buses, active participation on the part of operators is also required to realise these goals. According to studies, operators require government support in the areas of bus supply, filling station infrastructure, technology development, and bus maintenance. The other factors influencing the adoption of hydrogen buses are support for operating costs, subsidies for the cost of installing charging stations, fuel subsidy, and support for the cost of bus purchase. In the view of operators, government support for developing hydrogen charging stations is more important than providing support for the supply of hydrogen buses. There is also a growing consensus in the industry that the burden borne by local governments in providing hydrogen bus subsidies should be drastically reduced. In order to revitalise the domestic hydrogen industry, the subsidy for hydrogen buses must be fully paid by the government so as to eliminate the burden borne by local governments, or at least to match the subsidy burden of hydrogen buses and electric buses to the same level. These challenges, along with wariness on the part of residents, have resulted in delays in meeting targets. Addressing these issues is crucial to achieving the goals set out in South Korea’s hydrogen road map.