Hydrogen to drive the future of energy

Hydrogen to drive the future of energy
Published: 17 June 2019 - 5:45 a.m.
By: Baset Asaba

Early this year, Dubai broke ground for what is expected to become the first solar-driven hydrogen electrolysis facility in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a collaboration between Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), Expo 2020 Dubai and Siemens.

“EThe project is being built at DEWA’s outdoor testing facilities in the Research and Development (R&D) Centre at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai. The move supports a green economy in the UAE.

This pilot project is the first of its kind in the MENA region to produce hydrogen using clean energy. It would support DEWA’s efforts in innovation, research, and development in energy storage and sustainability, which is one of the themes of Expo 2020 Dubai.

The project also supports DEWA’s efforts to contribute to hosting one of the most sustainable World Expos in history in line with DEWA’s role as Expo 2020’s Official Sustainable Energy Partner.

Expo 2020 Dubai intends to showcase hydrogen mobility by powering a number of fuel-cell vehicles with the hydrogen generated at the facility, and transport Expo 2020 Dubai visitors to the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Live data of the green hydrogen electrolysis will be displayed at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“This pioneering project is a role model for strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors. It will contribute to developing the green economy concept in the UAE and explore the potential of green hydrogen technology. The hydrogen produced at the facility will be stored and deployed for re-electrification, transportation and other uses,” said Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, MD & CEO of DEWA at the ground-breaking ceremony in February.

At the same ceremony, Joe Kaeser, President and CEO of Siemens revealed that his company had made the commitment to bring green hydrogen to Dubai. “With this ground-breaking ceremony, we are inching closer to making this a reality. Siemens has pioneered this space globally, generating green hydrogen from renewable energy using Proton Exchange Membrane electrolysis. This project will be an important contribution to the evolving energy mix in Dubai and the UAE,” he said.

Now, a new research paper has concluded that hydrogen produced from renewables will become “an economic energy carrier to complement electricity and accelerate the decarbonisation of industrial feedstock and heat, as well as providing long-term storage solutions”.

The study by DNV GL explains that hydrogen is a unique energy carrier with no carbon emissions that can be used for long-term storage and heating applications. When used with electricity generated from renewables, “the resulting energy carrier is carbon-free green hydrogen”.

“The prospect of delivering affordable hydrogen applications in the mid-term future provides a very encouraging signal to accelerate the global energy transition,” says Lucy Craig, Vice-President of Technology and Innovation at DNV GL-Energy.

“Our research demonstrates that green hydrogen provides an optimal use for surplus electricity, which we expect to see in the years to come due to the rapid rise of renewable energy. In combination with electrolysis, hydrogen proves to be an economically feasible solution for the decarbonisation of the heat and storage sector.”

DNV-GL believes that the economic viability of green hydrogen will be feasible due to the increasing penetration of wind and solar power in coming years. DNV GL’s Energy Transition Outlook forecasts that solar PV, wind energy and hydropower will account for 80 per cent of global electricity production in 2050.

The study states that as this capacity increases, “opportunities to utilize its low-cost electricity are becoming feasible to avoid curtailment: initially conversion into heat then (daily) battery storage and eventually conversion into green hydrogen”.

DNV-GL says the prerequisite for hydrogen to become an economically viable energy carrier are two-fold. Firstly, the prospect of increasing times with low-cost electricity caused by an oversupply of available energy due to the sharp rise of renewable energy sources. Secondly, use cases for hydrogen applications are expected to be in support of low-carbon options.

If those parameters are set, DNV-GL says the production of hydrogen from electricity can compete with natural-gas based hydrogen production and provides a viable commercial business option for numerous applications, starting with industrial hydrogen feedstock.

DNV GL’s energy experts conclude that the main reasons for the economic feasibility of hydrogen between 2030 and 2050 are driven by three key developments. Firstly, the cost of electrolysers will go down caused by learning curve experiences and the cost of asset developments which is expected to decrease. Production by electrolysis from ‘surplus’ or low- cost electricity from renewables is an option for producing low-carbon hydrogen with no related carbon emissions.

Secondly, time periods when low or zero cost prices for electricity are available will increase due to the rise of renewables, generating a surplus of energy available to the power grid.

And finally, penalisation of carbon emissions in coming years, as industries are expected to see a shift away from carbon-heavy activities, for example due to the introduction of carbon tax and incentives for low carbon solutions.

World fuel has gradually moved from wood which has 10 times as much carbon as hydrogen, through coal, with about one hydrogen atom for each carbon, to oil with twice as many hydrogen atoms, and natural gas with four hydrogens per carbon.

A major part of the energy future revolves around energy sources with neither carbon nor hydrogen: solar, wind, hydropower and perhaps nuclear, charging the batteries of electric vehicles, according to Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.

“But hydrogen could become an indispensable store and carrier for energy. It can be produced from natural gas,” says Mills. “This process also yields carbon dioxide, contributed to climate change unless it is captured and stored. Or, it can be made by splitting water through electrolysis, with no emissions except those from generating the electricity – which can be a low-carbon method such as renewable or nuclear energy.”

Interest in hydrogen has waned and waxed. George W. Bush’s administration promoted it as a diversion to avoid tackling climate change seriously, and late US senator John McCain dismissed it as a “nice little PR ploy”. It was hoped hydrogen fuel cells could power vehicles, but they have been overtaken by electric cars. Hydrogen is relatively expensive and requires bulky tanks, refuelling infrastructure is not developed, it is less efficient than batteries once allowing for generating the hydrogen, and fuel cells are costly.

But hydrogen has now returned as a key focus, as former Masdar and International Renewable Energy Agency executive Frank Wouters notes. The element has four key advantages. Firstly, it is much more energy-dense than batteries, which still carry too little charge for long-distance transport – lorries, ships and planes.

Secondly, home heating in Europe, North America and increasingly north-east Asia depends on natural gas. Replacing this with electricity would tax the generation and distribution capacity in a cold winter. But hydrogen can be delivered through the existing gas network, firstly as an additive to natural gas in small quantities, later perhaps as the sole fuel.

Thirdly, hydrogen can generate high-temperature heat and is a feedstock for other industrial processes, such as steelmaking. Amid a plethora of plans to make European and American economies zero-carbon by 2050, there are no current commercial processes that can decarbonise most heavy industry.

Fourthly, electrolysing water to make hydrogen can be used to save renewable energy at times of abundance – such as solar power on a sunny but cool spring day in the Middle East – to be used in high-demand periods. Batteries are probably cheaper for storing electricity for short periods, but hydrogen could win for seasonal storage.

Hydrogen could be an answer to the two conundrums major oil and gas producers are facing today. How do they diversify their economies and exports? And how do they make the most of their massive hydrocarbon resources while tackling climate change, and not being stranded in a decarbonising world?

“The MENA region has four key advantages in leading the hydrogen economy: abundant low-cost solar power; large, reasonably-priced gas resources; underground storage space for carbon dioxide captured from hydrogen production; and a geographic location ideal for reaching both European and Asian markets,” says Mills.

The process of making hydrogen, whether from natural gas or electricity, is well-understood. Hydrogen can be transported in modified gas pipelines, such as those existing from North Africa to southern Europe, or as a liquid in ships similar to LNG tankers. It can be used in industries and homes with some modifications, though transport is a bigger step. Japan, short of domestic energy, has targets to bring down the cost of hydrogen to about $7 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), about the current price of LNG.

“To become a major part of the energy economy, hydrogen needs cost reductions, a business model, and infrastructure. This is where it resembles the early days of LNG. Abu Dhabi, in 1973, was the first Middle Eastern LNG exporter; Japan was the earliest big buyer and is still the world’s largest customer for the fuel,” says Mills.

Hydrogen producers, shippers and consumers have to be linked by viable commercial contracts and markets. Governments have to make a clear commitment and invest directly in early deployment and perhaps pieces of infrastructure. Along with European governments, Japan could kick-start hydrogen as it did LNG. They could mandate a certain share of hydrogen mixed into marketed natural gas, and limit carbon dioxide emissions from gas-fired power plants.

To have confidence in this approach, consumers would have to be sure the green fuel will be available at reasonable prices. Japan has already begun to engage Brunei, Australia, Norway and Saudi Arabia. Brunei was one of its earliest LNG suppliers; Australia is now by far its biggest provider. The UAE, a pioneer of LNG, carbon capture and solar power, should also be a natural partner, along with a hydrogen-curious big gas company such as Shell or Total.

The “hydrogen economy” will not just happen – it faces plenty of challenges, competitors and inertia, Mills points out. There is only a limited window of opportunity. Middle East countries can be inspired by history and build a new energy industry as they did before.

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