Green hydrogen, solution or waste?

Green hydrogen, solution or waste?

“The commitment to green hydrogen as an energy alternative has gone from being a crazy idea of ​​some geeks, as some called us, to becoming the star commitment, and the rush with which they want to do everything now is not good either.” The one who issues this warning is Miguel Antonio Peña, secretary of the Spanish Hydrogen Association, an organization that has spent decades defending hydrogen as an alternative to decarbonize the economy.

The overwhelming commitment of the Spanish Government surprises even the staunchest defenders of this energy vector. Together with Portugal and France, it leads the construction of the world’s first underground pipeline for hydrogen, the H2Med. It will cost a minimum of 2,800 million euros, for which on Friday it already formally requested financial aid from Europe, in addition to also presenting the first national hydrogen network.

Hydrogen is expected to decarbonise a third of the entire world economy

The Spanish Government has already approved public aid worth 250 million euros for 29 projects in an advanced state of development. According to experts in the sector, there are also close to 700 projects started that will qualify for the 1,555 million grants collected by the Perte for Renewable Energies, Renewable Hydrogen and Storage, and which is expected to mobilize another 2,800 million of private money.

But far from being before a Spanish quixotada, the fever for hydrogen has been unleashed throughout the world. According to the World Hydrogen Council, investments in this vector will reach 1,000 million dollars in 2030, the year in which it is expected to demonstrate its profitability. If so, they would reach 5,000 million in 2040 and 10,000 million dollars worldwide in 2050, according to a report published by this organization and the McKinsey consultancy.

Water treatment in green or pink

Unlike oil or gas, hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is not found free in nature to be used, but is the lightest known molecule (H, in its identification in the periodic table), which together with oxygen (O) forms water (H2O). To obtain hydrogen, it is necessary to break that water molecule and release it, and this can be done in various ways, but the most common is to carry out an electrolysis process. Hydrogen is a staple for refining plants and for the fertilizer industry. Spain now consumes 500,000 tons of gray hydrogen, which is produced with gas and therefore pollutes. For hydrogen to be green, the electrolyser must be powered by renewable energy. Normally, this electricity, which accounts for 50% of the cost of producing hydrogen, comes from photovoltaic and wind sources. France, for its part, defends pink hydrogen, which is generated with nuclear energy. Hydrogen is, in turn, the basis for generating other products such as methanol and ammonia, which compete with hydrogen itself as a formula to be transported and used to move heavy transport.

It outlines the dozen routes that are expected to cross the planet by 2030, transporting one million tons of hydrogen per year both in pipelines and in ships. Some routes in which Spain wants to be, despite the fact that the large producers will be American countries, North and South Africa, the Middle East and Australia. The demand will be in Europe, China, Korea and India. Does this strong bet make sense or are we witnessing another of those historical moments of investment “hysteria” in the face of a new technology, as happened in the past with trains, dot.coms and others? “Actually there is a bit of both. Betting on hydrogen not only makes sense, but it is essential if we want to achieve the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions and especially if we want to be self-sufficient in energy matters. But it must be done in due measure. eye! Not everything is and should not be hydrogen as it seems now”, warns Miguel Antonio Peña.

Green hydrogen is called to be the only substitute for gray hydrogen (the one that is produced with gas and pollutes) used massively by refineries and fertilizer companies. Now Spain consumes 500,000 tons of this hydrogen. In the future, it is also expected to replace gas in industries that are intensive in this energy, and it is also seen as the most efficient option to decarbonize heavy transport, as well as to serve as a battery for excess renewable production. “50% of the economy can be decarbonized with electricity. Of the other 50%, a third may be covered by green hydrogen. In other words, 15% of the total economy,” explains Tomás Malango, Repsol’s director of hydrogen.

Spain hopes to produce in quantity and cheaply so that exporting hydrogen to Europe is profitable

The main challenge facing hydrogen is its profitability. It takes three gigawatts of renewable energy to produce one gigawatt of hydrogen, and electricity is 50% of the cost of generating hydrogen. “That now makes any project that is developed with hydrogen very expensive. For this reason, it is necessary to select very precisely what it is intended for and where. Because transporting it is also expensive and not too necessary”, says Javier Carroquino, PhD in Engineering specializing in hydrogen research and founder of Intergia engineering.

Compared to the two euros that a ton of gray hydrogen can cost, green costs more than five. R&D in the energy sector works at full speed to seek efficiency in these electrolysers powered by renewable energy.

The consensus seems guaranteed in terms of the confidence that hydrogen production can reach the point of profitability around 2030 and it is also in terms of the fact that the cheapest thing will be to consume that hydrogen as close as possible to the production center. “What is not so clear is that it is profitable to transport it. You have to compare it with what it costs to produce electricity in the place of origin, which must be at least cheap enough to offset the cost of investing in pipelines for hydrogen and what it later costs to move the product”, warns Jorge Sanz Oliva, director of Nedgia Spain and former president of the Commission of Experts on Energy Transition.

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Pilar Blazquez

Pedro Sánchez at the presentation of Cepsa's green hydrogen project in San Roque (Cádiz)

This is where the dissent starts. To what extent will Spain be able to produce hydrogen cheap enough so that it pays more for a German industry to buy Spanish hydrogen than to produce it? “To the point that countries like Germany do not have sufficient capacity to install enough renewable energy to produce the hydrogen they need,” says Tomas Malango. Space, sun and wind are the factors that Spain has and wants to take advantage of in this energy revolution.

Carroquino and Sanz Oliva, on the other hand, agree that “it would be even cheaper to transport the electricity generated at a lower price in Spain to generate hydrogen near the final consumption industries.” His doubts are the same as those expressed by the French press when talking about H2Med. Are we not betting on large infrastructures that remain underused, as has happened with gas?, read in the French press. “In Spain we have the example of the regasification plant in El Musel (Gijón), with cobwebs after its construction that have only been removed by the outbreak of the energy crisis derived from the war,” warns Sanz Oliva.

What if success lay in becoming a global technology production center and not an exporter?

Miguel Antonio Peña introduces an additional doubt. “It makes sense to make corridors, what I don’t think is that we will have enough hydrogen in Spain in 2030 to cover all our needs and also export,” he points out. For Tomás Malango, from Repsol, the main danger is regulatory: “Europe has not yet defined what green hydrogen is or what projects it should bet on.”

Only time will tell which of them is right. Of course, Spain’s decision to establish itself as an outstanding student in hydrogen will have a reward in any case. “We will be one of the countries that best knows the technology of producing hydrogen, and be a hub production can also be successful”, acknowledges Carroquino.

H2 in the world

The demand for hydrogen is expected to multiply from the 90 million tons that were used on the planet in 2020 to the more than 660 million tons that the World Hydrogen Council estimates will be demanded in 2050, the year marked for that the industry works without emitting CO2. From ships to heavy industry, refineries rely on it to move what electricity cannot.

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