Governments, firms make new bet on green hydrogen as climate fix | Environment

It has been touted as the fuel of the future – touted as a solution to everything from Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels to the growing need for sustainable energy. of Asia.

After years of being touted as a potential game changer, green hydrogen is finally getting serious financial and workforce commitments from governments and big businesses.

In the Asia Pacific, Australia, with large areas where there is a near-constant supply of both sun and wind, is emerging as a regional hub for green hydrogen production, relying on renewable energy sources. renewables like wind and sun to produce fuel.

Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest is building a 2-gigawatt ammonia and electrolysis plant in Queensland, with plans to use the project to kickstart green steel production.

There are four other green hydrogen projects underway in Australia, including a plant in Western Australia half the size of Belgium that is expected to generate up to 26 gigawatts (GW) of electricity – enough to produce electricity. produces 90 terawatt-hours per year (TWh), or about a third of Australia’s total electricity production by 2020.

Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest leans on 'hydrogen green' car
Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest is a big supporter of green hydrogen technology [File: Ben Makori/Reuters]

Europe has bigger plans. In Spain, the HyDeal Ambition project will come into operation in 2025, with an expected capacity of 67GW. Germany is pouring 9 billion euros ($9.4 billion) into this space to help end its reliance on gas and coal, including a 100-megawatt electrolyzer in Hamburg, a hydrogen research center in Bavaria invested in Audi, BMW and Siemens, and a “Hydrogen Alliance” with Morocco.

In Texas, Green Hydrogen International announced plans to build an electrolyzer to produce clean rocket fuel for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Hong Kong-based InterContinental Energy is looking to build a 14GW electrolyzer in Oman, while Kazakhstan has announced a 30GW plant.

China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, has set up 30 green hydrogen plants since 2019 and has dominated the hydrogen fuel cell market. Last year, the country’s production of hydrogen-powered vehicles nearly halved to 1,777 units, according to the China Automobile Association.

“What we have that we haven’t had before is a really strong global market pull for decarbonisation. People really want to see things change,” Daniel Roberts, leader of the Energy Technology Research Program at Australia’s CSIRO science agency, told Al Jazeera.

“Every six months, Siemens and other companies announce a cheaper and larger electrolyte. What is remarkable is how quickly things are changing from no green hydrogen to big investments.”

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, was first harnessed as an energy source in 1804 when Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz developed a combustion engine that ran on hydrogen by extracting the element. this from water through electrolysis.

Process, in which positive and negative electrodes are placed in water and charged, forcing the hydrogen present in the water to rise to the surface for capture.

Hydrogen generated from coal and gas has been widely used to produce methanol for plastics, reducing agents and ammonia, a key ingredient for man-made fertilizers and diesel. But it’s a dirty industry. As is known, black and gray hydrogen emits 800 million tons of greenhouse gases annually – the equivalent of Germany.

Green hydrogen is a zero-emissions alternative that uses renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to power electrolysis, leaving only water vapor in the process. And since it’s more flammable than gasoline or gas, it could play an important role in decarbonising in hard-to-power industries such as shipping, aviation, steelmaking and cement.

fossil-free steel mill in sweden
Green hydrogen has been used in Sweden to create the world’s first fossil-free steel [File: Mikael Sjoberg/Bloomberg]

“This is a fuel that will save the planet,” Forrest, mining magnate turned green hydrogen crusader, told US Climate Envoy John Kerry and ministers from other countries at Green Hydrogen Global Council in Barcelona, ​​Spain, in May.

Talk of a hydrogen-based green revolution is not new.

The term “hydrogen economy” was coined by American scholar Lawrence Jones in the 1970s and has been faded and re-emerged several times, along with new inventions to exploit it, over the past half century. .

The 2009 launch of the world’s first hydrogen-powered tractor by New Holland Agricultural is a textbook example. Tests show it can perform all the duties of a manufacturer’s diesel-powered tractor with zero emissions and almost no noise. But it was never commercialized.

“Hydro has come and gone a few times because the technology is not ready, the government is not ready to change and the cost is not yet competitive with current energy sources. It’s almost like the rings of a tree,” says Roberts of CSIRO.

According to Statista, despite its huge potential, less than one percent of current global hydrogen production is green. The closest thing to a working green hydrogen plant today is Air-Liquide’s 20-megawatt, low-carbon electrolyzer powered by hydroelectricity in Canada. But the tides are changing and fast: from December 2020 to August 2021 alone, the number of green hydrogen projects has more than tripled, according to Statista.

Statista forecasts green hydrogen production will increase from the current level of less than one tonne per year to 160 million tons by 2050. But there are major obstacles to developing a hydrogen economy, most of which are moving away. down the price.

Cost impediment

Large-scale electrolysis plants are still too inefficient and too few and too far away, and wind and solar power production must increase greatly to reduce input costs. According to ICRA, a credit rating agency in India, the current retail price of green hydrogen is $5.50 to $6 a kilogram – more than double the retail price of gas or diesel. Hydrogen fuel cells are also significantly more energy efficient than rechargeable battery-powered electric vehicles, which is why some environmentalists see green hydrogen as a distraction in electrification.

“There are a number of industries that currently burn fossil fuels that will be very difficult to electrify such as steelmaking and cement production. For these, burning green hydrogen might make sense,” Greenpeace EU spokesman John Hyland told Al Jazeera.

“But it doesn’t make sense to burn hydrogen in city buses or in building heating when electrification and energy efficiency will successfully decarbonize these areas. There is also a risk that the excessive use of hydrogen in Europe will also lead to massive imports of green hydrogen from North Africa, where production will use a lot of renewable electricity that would otherwise reduce the amount of electricity produced. carbon of local economies. “

CSIRO researcher Roberts says green hydrogen should not be seen as a silver bullet nor “the fuel of the future”, with decarbonisation being a problem too large and complex to solve with one technology or new fuel source.

“That is one fuel of the future. That is part of the solution,” he said.

“To become carbon neutral, we will need to use electrification where it makes sense, such as commuting vehicles and certain aspects of heating. But once you have a big engine like the one on a ship or you want to refuel your truck quickly, you’ll need hydrogen. Together, they can offer an effective way out of this mess. “

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