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Renewables 'will fuel intercontinental trade in green hydrogen'

IN DEPTH | The zero-carbon energy source will be shipped around the world like LNG, and produced where winds and sunshine are most powerful, Hydrogen Europe boss tells Recharge

Renewable energy — in the form of green hydrogen — will be shipped around the world on purpose-built vessels and used for power, heating, long-haul transport and industrial processes, according to one of the world’s leading figures in the sector.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary-general of industry association Hydrogen Europe, tells Recharge that green hydrogen — produced in electrolysers that split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity — will be manufactured in places with strong winds and sunshine and then transported between continents to where it’s needed.

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“In Australia, you have the hottest spot on earth, it’s the size of Spain. And if you would combine PV and solar thermal energy [there], you would produce five times as much electricity as you need per day globally,” he says. “You cannot export the electricity, but you can export hydrogen. And this is where the vessels come in, and they will ship hydrogen around the world.”

The Atacama Desert in Chile will become another hotspot of green hydrogen production due to its cloudless skies and relatively cool temperatures (the annual average being 17.3°C), which improve the efficiency of solar panels,” he adds.

“Chile will become one of the really, really big suppliers of hydrogen around the globe, as Saudi Arabia is now for crude oil, as Russia is now for [natural] gas.”

Sparsely populated Tibet, in windy western China, could also be another hotspot for wind-and-solar powered green hydrogen, he adds, pointing to the recent International Energy Agency report, The Future of Hydrogen, which shows that green H2 would be roughly three times cheaper to produce there than in Japan.

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The world’s first liquid-hydrogen (LH2) carrier vessel is due to be built in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by Japanese conglomerate Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI). The storage technology is similar to that of liquefied natural gas (LNG), but whereas LNG has to be stored at a temperature of -162°C, LH2 has to be kept below -253°C. In its liquid state, hydrogen takes up 800 times less space than its gaseous form, enabling large quantities to be shipped in one journey, and KHI already has 30 years’ experience of storing LH2 for the Japanese space programme.

Hydrogen could also be transported by long-distance pipeline, adds Chatzimarkakis, pointing out that Europe’s existing gas grid — which could be converted to hydrogen — can currently store 340 times the energy of the continent’s electricity network.

Going green — or blue

With European utilities promising total decarbonisation of their electricity production by 2050, and the likes of the UK promising to become carbon-neutral by 2050, the need for large-scale hydrogen is increasingly hitting home, with even large fossil-fuel producers such as Shell, Total and Equinor helping to push H2 use through the Hydrogen Council industrial development group.

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Hydrogen’s ability to store renewable energy indefinitely is arguably the only way to power Europe with zero emissions during its low-wind, low-sunshine winters, and there are few green alternatives to producing the high-temperature heat that industry requires. Its sheer versatility — it can be used for power and heat generation, as a transport fuel and as a derivative for carbon-neutral synthetic fuels — makes it a seemingly essential component of the energy transition.

Many in the renewables sector have argued that hydrogen can be produced using curtailed or excess wind and solar power. For instance, the huge amounts of excess solar power generated in the summer can be stored and used in winter. But Chatzimarkakis says the volume of green hydrogen that Europe can produce will be nowhere near enough to meet the continent’s needs.

“In all the scenarios that the European Commission [EC] has come up with for affordable, deep decarbonisation, the amount of hydrogen that you need cannot be produced in Europe alone,” he tells Recharge.

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“If you really want to decarbonise, let’s say, steel production, you need one and a half times the energy production of Germany — to replace the coke with green hydrogen. If you want to decarbonise the whole chemical industry, the figure’s more than three and a half times Germany.”

He adds that, in the long term, the fossil-fuel industry would like to use green hydrogen as a feedstock to produce carbon-neutral synthetic fuels for shipping and aviation.

The EC says that hydrogen and derived synthetic fuels may need to account for 23% of Europe’s total energy mix by 2050 — requiring 900GW of electrolysers or massive amounts of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Today, more than 95% of industrial hydrogen — used for oil refining, the production of ammonia-based fertilisers and in the plastics and pharmaceutical sectors — is produced from methane, which emits about 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year — more than the combined annual emissions of the UK and Indonesia.

Fossil-fuel companies such as Equinor argue that it would be far cheaper to continue producing hydrogen via methane — and to capture and bury the CO2 emissions — than to produce H2 from clean energy.

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Chatzimarkakis disagrees, arguing that this so-called “blue hydrogen” would be required only as a “transition technology” — until the green-hydrogen sector becomes more mature.

He points to the Netherlands’ Magnum project — being run by Norwegian energy group Equinor (formerly Statoil), Vattenfall subsidiary Nuon, and Dutch gas distributor Gasunie — which aims to convert a natural-gas-powered generator in Eemshaven to run on hydrogen by 2023. The hydrogen would be produced from Norwegian natural gas, with the resulting carbon emissions being captured, transported and injected into depleted Norwegian oil fields (or existing ones to enhance oil recovery).

The Netherlands needs this hydrogen as it has turned its back on coal and nuclear power, and wants to reduce its reliance on its depleting natural-gas reserves, says Chatzimarkakis.

“Here’s the perfect example of something that starts with blue [hydrogen], because they need the capacity, they need to produce the electricity somehow,” he says. “But in the long run, with more renewables, they won’t need the CCS anymore.”

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