Renewable energy is a rapidly growing industry. Five years ago, the political debate on climate change only consisted of vague PR messages, rather than the determination to take on real actions or investments, but today, that situation has fundamentally changed. One of the reasons is the introduction of more affordable renewable electricity generation technologies, which are supporting the development of new electricity capacities. Increased market prices for the emissions allowance (EA) and for the generated electricity are further driving this process. This has reinforced investor optimism and resulted in bolder investment portfolios. The attractive market conditions and increasing public expectations have led to a rapid increase in the construction of solar and wind power plants. But what does all this have to do with green hydrogen?
In fact, the origins of this phenomenon are quite different. I believe it should be linked to the determination of countries to move towards the full decarbonisation of their economies and the results of the analyses of the related scenarios. Evaluations have shown that electrification based on renewable energy sources (RES) generation is not enough to completely decarbonise an economy. Also, some sectors face difficulties in applying all types of electrification technologies. Such sectors include energy-intensive oil refineries, the chemical industry, fertiliser production and metallurgy. The transport sector has also raised many issues, especially in relation to the heavy transport, aviation and shipping sectors. Hydrogen, which can be used both as a fuel and as raw material, should solve these problems.
The hydrogen strategy approved by the European Commission divides the whole process of developing the hydrogen economy into three periods. In the first period, Member States are intending to install 6 gigawatts (GW) power electrolysis devices, to produce up to 1 million tonnes of hydrogen by 2024. The first demonstration projects will be structured next to industrial companies, as the hydrogen users. An additional 40 GW of electrolysis capacity should be installed in 2024–2030. During this period, hydrogen is expected to be integrated into all sectors of the economy. By 2030, the economy will essentially be developed solely based on hydrogen and green electricity. This ambition is colossal. Electrolysis devices will have to operate solely on the electricity produced from renewable energy sources. This means that the development of the hydrogen economy alone will require the additional construction of at least 46 GW of green electricity generation facilities. After assessing the possibilities for colocation, the amount of power may even double.
While at first glance this plan may seem unattainable, the countries involved are already moving in the planned direction. This is best illustrated by Germany, which sees itself as a global hydrogen flag bearer. In May 2021, Germany provided 6 billion euros in support for hydrogen-related projects. This state aid was granted to 62 projects related mostly to hydrogen production, transportation, consumption and mobility. Taking into account the private funds of investors, it is estimated that the first package of hydrogen projects will cost around 33 billion euros. Nonetheless, a number of countries have already adopted national hydrogen strategies and are considering various support measures for the near future.
Green hydrogen and RES
Let us be clear that we are talking about green hydrogen here. But let’s not forget, in addition, there are: blue, turquoise, grey and brown forms of hydrogen. Brown hydrogen is obtained by the gasification of coal. Grey hydrogen is produced using a method of reforming the methane flow of natural gas and releasing the resulting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If the carbon dioxide is captured and stored in a reforming stream of methane, the result is blue hydrogen. Turquoise hydrogen is obtained during the methane pyrolysis process when solid coal is obtained that can be used further. Meanwhile, green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis from water using electricity from renewable energy sources. It is the hydrogen produced using this latter method that will create the energy backbone of the future economy.
Challenges and solutions
At present, there are a number of challenges facing green hydrogen production that the developers still have to overcome. One of the issues is that the development of the green hydrogen production capacity has to go hand-in-hand with the construction of new green electricity generation parks. This condition is mandatory. For example, if electricity were to be used to produce hydrogen from the existing hydropower plants, such hydrogen would not be considered green. Not only that, to be sure that the hydrogen is produced only from green electricity, a 15 minutes production and consumption balancing condition has been introduced. In other words, an electrolysis device would produce as much green hydrogen as electricity at any given moment.
There are also a number of challenges involved in transporting hydrogen. Its compression and transportation are relatively expensive, so it is planned to mix hydrogen with natural gas and use the existing pipeline infrastructure, at least during the transition phase. It is expected that with the increase in capacity and the implementation of a number of technical improvements, these pipelines will eventually be 100 per cent adapted to transport hydrogen gas.
Practical steps towards hydrogen production
As already mentioned, green hydrogen involves more than simply using an electrolysis device. This area is accompanied by a range of new topics: the development of new electricity capacity, addressing hydrogen transportation issues, finding customers and many other nuances. The renewable energy development company Green Genius is currently actively developing a model demonstration project. The main goal of the project is to learn all about the new technology and to validate its usage. It is very important for us, as a renewable energy company, to go one step further than the status quo in the market. We firmly believe that only the results gained from practical tests will allow us to believe in and further drive the hydrogen revolution throughout Europe.