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Hydrogen as a panacea for decarbonising everything? Exploring contested hydrogen pathways in Germany

Technological change is often seen as part of the solution to problems of global sustainability. A wide-ranging literature on how path dependent – often fossil fuel-based – socio-technical configurations can be overcome by more sustainable configurations has emerged over the last two decades. One potential transition pathway to transform electricity, heat and mobility systems as well as industrial production is the use of hydrogen. In recent years, hydrogen has received increasing attention as part of decarbonization strategies in many countries as well as by international organizations such as the International Energy Agency or the International Renewable Energy Agency. Also, in Germany it has become a central component of climate change policy and is seen by some actors almost as a kind of panacea, where the use of hydrogen is expected to decarbonize a wide range of sectors. Policymakers have the ambition for Germany to become a leader in hydrogen development and therefore help to contribute to what Grubler called 'grand patterns of technological change'.

The aim of this paper is to analyze whether relevant actors share expectations for transition pathways based on hydrogen, which would foster wide diffusion. Empirical analysis shows that there are multiple contested pathways, both in terms of how hydrogen is produced as well as in which applications or sectors it is to be used. This causes uncertainty and slows down hydrogen developments in Germany. The results support the idea that the concept of socio-technical pathways allows to expose tensions between competing values and interests. The German government is under considerable pressure regarding competing visions on hydrogen transition pathways. A targeted political prioritization of hydrogen applications could mitigate tensions and support a shared vision.

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