It has been hailed as the fuel of the future – touted as a solution to everything from Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels to Asia’s fierce appetite for sustainable energy.
After years of being talked about as a potential change in the game, green hydrogen is finally receiving serious financial and labor commitments from governments and big business.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, with its vast areas where sunlight or wind is almost constant, emerges as the center of the region’s green hydrogen production, which relies on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy to produce fuel .
Australian mining mogul Andrew Forest is building a 2-gigawatt cell and an ammonia plant in Queensland, and plans to use the project to start green steel production.
There are four other green hydrogen projects in operation in Australia, including a plant in Western Australia covering an area of half of Belgium, which is expected to have a production capacity of up to 26 gigawatts (GW) – enough to produce 90 terawatt-hours per year (TWh), or about one third of Australia’s total electricity production in 2020.
Europe has even bigger plans. In Spain, the HyDeal Ambition project will go online in 2025 with an expected capacity of 67 GW. Germany is pouring 9 billion euros ($ 9.4 billion) into space to help end its dependence on gas and coal, including a 100-megawatt cell in Hamburg, a Bavarian hydrogen research center that uses Audi, BMW and Siemens, and the Hydrogen Union 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 14 GW cell in Oman, while Kazakhstan has announced a 30 GW plant.
China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, has set up 30 green hydrogen plants since 2019 and already dominates the hydrogen fuel cell market. Last year, the production of hydrogen vehicles increased by almost half to 1,777 units, according to the China Automobile Association.
“What we have that we have never had before is a really strong attraction to the global decarbonisation market. “People really want to see things change,” Daniel Roberts, head of the Energy Technology Research Program at Australia’s CSIRO, told Al Jazeera.
“Every six months, Siemens and other companies announce an electrolyzer that is cheaper and bigger. It’s amazing how quickly things change from a lack of green hydrogen to huge investments. “
Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, was first used as an energy source in 1804, when Swiss engineer Francois Isaac de Rivaz developed an internal combustion engine powered by hydrogen by extracting the element from water by electrolysis.
The process by which the negative and positive electrodes are placed in water and charged with electricity forces the hydrogen contained in the water to rise to the capture surface.
Hydrogen produced from coal and gas is already widely used in the production of methanol for plastics, reducers and ammonia, the main ingredient in fertilizers and diesel. But this is a dirty industry. Black and gray hydrogen are known to emit 800 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year – about the same amount as Germany.
Green hydrogen is an emission-free alternative that uses renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy to power electrolysis, leaving only steam behind. And because it is easier to ignite than gasoline or gas, it can play a vital role in decarbonizing difficult electrification industries such as shipping, aviation, steel and cement.
“It is the fuel that will save the planet,” said Forrest, a mining tycoon who has become a green hydrogen crusader, to US climate envoy John Kerry and ministers from other countries at the Global Green Hydrogen Assembly in Barcelona, Spain, in May. .
Talking about a hydrogen-based green revolution is not new.
The term “hydrogen economy” was coined by American academic Lawrence Jones in the 1970s and is fading and reappearing, along with new inventions, to be used in the last half century.
The inauguration in 2009 of the world’s first hydrogen-powered tractor from New Holland Agricultural is an example of a textbook. Tests have shown that it can perform all the tasks of the manufacturer’s diesel tractors only with zero emissions and almost silently. But it was never commercialized.
“Hydrogen came and went several times because the technology was not ready, there was no desire of the government to change and the price did not go down to the point where it can compete with existing energy sources. It’s almost like rings on a tree, “said Roberts of CSIRO.
Despite its huge potential, less than one percent of the world’s share of hydrogen production is currently green, according to Statista. The closest thing to a green hydrogen plant operating today is Air-Liquide’s 20-megawatt low-carbon cell powered by Canada’s hydroelectric power plant. But the tide is also reversing rapidly: between December 2020 and August 2021 alone, the number of green hydrogen projects more than tripled, according to Statista.
Statista predicts that green hydrogen production will rise from current levels of less than one metric tonne per year to 160 million tonnes by 2050. But there are significant obstacles to taking off the hydrogen economy, most of which are cost-effective.
Large-scale electrolyzers are still too inefficient and too few and far between, and huge increases in wind and solar production are needed to reduce investment costs. The current retail price of green hydrogen is between $ 5.50 and $ 6 per kilogram, according to ICRA, India’s credit rating agency – more than twice the retail price of gas or diesel. Hydrogen fuel cells are also significantly less energy efficient than rechargeable electric vehicles, which is why some conservationists believe that green hydrogen distracts from electrification.
“There are some industries that are currently burning fossil fuels that will be very difficult to electrify, such as steel and cement. It might make sense for them to burn green hydrogen, “EU Greenpeace spokesman John Highland told Al Jazeera.
But there is no point in burning hydrogen in city buses or in the heating system of your building, when electrification and energy saving will successfully decarbonize these sectors. “There is also a danger that excessive hydrogen use in Europe will also lead to massive imports of green hydrogen from North Africa, where production would use a lot of electricity from renewable sources, which would otherwise help decarbonise local economies.”
CSIRO researcher Roberts said green hydrogen should not be seen as a silver bullet or “fuel of the future”, as decarbonisation is too big and complex a problem to solve with a new technology or fuel source.
“It is or fuel of the future. That is part of the decision, “he said.
To become carbon neutral, we will need to use electrification where it makes sense, such as intercity transport and some aspects of heating. But once you get to big engines like ships or you want to charge trucks fast, you’ll need hydrogen. Together, they can offer an effective way out of this mess. ”