The current battle between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels to produce the most competitive low-carbon hydrogen is looking at a new player that could provide an interesting solution: hydrogen from waste.
A solution that could solve at least two problems at once. Currently, there are two billion tons of non-recycled waste globally and the most common way to turn it into energy is by incineration which rather than a solution turns into another emitter. With urbanisation and economic growth, the need for countries and cities to dispose of their waste is increasing. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), waste disposal sites do not always meet sanitary landfill standards by fully isolating waste from the surrounding environment and uncontrolled burning often happens which negatively impacts air quality.
Is low-carbon hydrogen too expensive? Problem solved.
Then there is the cost aspect. A key barrier for low-carbon hydrogen is the cost gap with hydrogen from unabated fossil fuels. At present, producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is the cheapest option in most parts of the world. Depending on regional gas prices, the levelised cost of hydrogen production from natural gas ranges from 0.5 US dollars to 1.7 US dollars per kilogram. Using carbon capture and storage technologies to reduce the CO2 emissions from hydrogen production increases the cost to around 1 US dollar to 2 US dollars per kilogram. Finally, using renewable electricity to produce hydrogen costs 3 US dollars to 8 US dollars per kilogram.
What if someone tells you that there is a way to produce hydrogen at around 2 US dollars and reduce global energy CO2 emissions by 20 per cent and, at the same time, of other emissions like NOx and particulates by 90 per cent?
“I see many waste-to-hydrogen players quoting costs between 1.5-2.5 euros/kilogram of hydrogen,” Gniewomir Flis, Associate at Energy Revolution Ventures tells CEENERGYNEWS. “That would be cheaper than electrolytically produced hydrogen today.”
Among these players, Luxembourg-based provider of hydrogen and clean energy solutions Boson Energy is standing out, in Central and Eastern Europe as well.
“If we look at costs: producing hydrogen from waste is cost-competitive compared to both green and blue and even grey hydrogen,” says CEO and founder, Jan Grimbrandt. “It is even more competitive at point of use, as waste is treated near offtake, eliminating hydrogen transport and logistic. Green hydrogen from electrolysis is directly dependent on the price of power where the hydrogen is produced, which will often mean expensive grid power rather than cheap wind.”
On the other hand, he notes that grey hydrogen follows the price of natural gas and needs a gas price below 20 euros/megawatt-hours (MWh) to compete with waste, a price that currently is hard to see anywhere.
According to Mr Grimbrandt, using waste for hydrogen production solves three problems at once: eliminating otherwise non-recyclable waste, reducing CO2 emissions and producing local hydrogen as waste is available everywhere.
“In fact, waste becomes a green commodity,” Mr Grimbrandt tells CEENERGYNEWS. “When we look at waste from a strictly chemical point of view, we realise that there are several other benefits in addition to the hydrogen: a large part of the CO2 that we capture in our process is green CO2, which can be used as a commodity to replace the widely used fossil CO2 in the food chain, beverages, chemical industries and cooling.”
Not enough C02 emissions reduction? Problem solved.
For Boson Energy, it is important to underline how CO2-negative technologies will stand out from the crowd of the next-generation climate tech. By necessity, negative will play a more important role than low going forward.
So, how does it work? As Heike Carl Zatterstrom, Chief Communications Officer explained during an online webinar, the first step is to produce hydrogen from waste in a thermal chemical recycling process based on regasification, where the transportation is minimal and the distribution efficiency is maximised. The second step is what is called hydrogen-to-X which takes that hydrogen, which is a local fuel (solving also the worldwide debated issues of transportation) and supply it either directly or as grid-independent speed charging.
Easy enough to make wondering, why not many people have thought about it. For Gniewomir Flis, waste-to-hydrogen technologies have far less learning-by-doing potential than electrolysis, so he would expect that electrolysis becomes the cheapest form of hydrogen in the future.
In Mr Grimbrandt’s point of view, it is all about awareness because gasification technology has been around for a very long time.
“We only have one planet and society is beginning to accept and recognise this only recently,” he points out. “There are several companies around the world developing gasification technology for producing hydrogen from waste but the market, up until now, was not ready.”
The target for Boson Energy is to produce 1 million tons of circular hydrogen from waste by 2030. Can we reach this number? Jan Grimbrandt makes some concrete examples to make us understand the real potential of waste.
“Currently, one kilogram of hydrogen can make a hydrogen car drive for around 130 kilometres,” he begins. “And it takes 10 kilograms of waste to produce that one kilogram of hydrogen. This means that the 2 tons of waste per year produced by a medium-sized family can generate 200 kilograms of hydrogen and drive a car for 26,000 kilometres.”
A meaningful contribution towards circularity in CEE
And, if we look at CEE, waste could also play an important role in energy security.
“The issue with using waste biomass as feedstock is that it is fundamentally limited by the availability of such waste and there may be competing users which are keen on the carbon contained in this biomass too,” says Mr Fils. “But a lot of waste in CEE goes to landfills or incineration. Waste-to-hydrogen technologies could make a meaningful contribution towards circularity in the region.”
In particular, Poland is a great example where Boson Energy not only sees awareness but also willingness to be part of next-generation hydrogen for fossil-free mobility.
“CEE is a very good example of how new technologies can bring both positive financial and environmental shifts with next-generation technologies,” notes Mr Grimbrandt.
“In Poland, it is something that can work also because the country has a very strong engineering culture, recently boosted further with the 37,000 engineers that have come back to Poland because of COVID,” adds Krzysztof Switalski, CEO of Boson Energy Polska. “The country also has very good growth compared to other EU countries and forecasts are better than Germany’s. Furthermore, Poland already has experience with hydrogen because it is actually the third biggest hydrogen producer in Europe after Germany and the Netherlands.”
Again, awareness was the issue, there has just not been much awareness of the role that hydrogen could play for climate mitigation and energy security. But now it is changing. Also, big companies like the ORLEN group are stressing the importance to develop hydrogen from different technologies. Within the company’s Hydrogen Strategy released yesterday, the group envisages the production of hydrogen from biomethane and municipal waste. In particular, by 2030, PKN ORLEN aims to reach 540 megawatts (MW) of new low- and zero-carbon hydrogen capacity, including from water electrolysis powered by renewables and municipal waste, with the ambition to achieve one gigawatt (GW) in the long term.