03/01/2022 | Spotlight
The much-discussed pink option for hydrogen entered a new phase this year as the German industrial gases giant Linde shook hands on a commercial deal to use nuclear-derived H2 from a Swedish power station. It was the first-ever such deal and thus adds a new dimension to a much-discussed topic. The plant at Oskarshamm, near the Baltic coast, is the last of three operated by OKG and owned by Uniper and Fortum. It has been producing hydrogen for use as a reactor coolant from electrolysers powered by its own electricity for 30 years.
The earlier ones were closed a few years ago but its electrolysis facility has been able to produce more H2 than the site needs so decided to sell the excess H2 to Linde, something seen as an opportunity for expansion. Uniper Sweden boss Johann Svenningsson announced: “Our ambition is to develop the growing market for hydrogen together with Fortum. The Swedish electricity system is virtually fossil-free, and we therefore have good conditions for producing large volumes of hydrogen.”
It came only months after President Emmanuel Macron described using France’s nuclear plants to produce hydrogen as a potential “primary asset” for his country in its quest to make the country an H2 powerhouse by 2030. Nuclear has also been flagged by French-owned EDF as a potential power source for hydrogen electrolysis in the UK, which shares his enthusiasm for a nuclear-led energy transition.
The French president said linking France’s extensive nuclear fleet to electrolysers could be a “primary asset” for the country in meeting predicted massive domestic demand for hydrogen in the future. His support for nuclear – or pink H2 hydrogen – is at odds with neighbouring Germany, which has so far preferred to rely on imported green hydrogen made using wind and solar for its energy requirements.
Macron’s backing for the pink option came as he put the trio of “nuclear, hydrogen and renewable energy” at the heart of a €30bn industrial revival plan that also includes two electrolyser “mega-factories”. Supporters of pink hydrogen claim the nuclear option means an ability to run electrolysers uninterrupted at maximum capacity which can help to decarbonise H2 rapidly and achieve cost parity with existing supplies, or the blue variety produced using abated fossil gas. Like the UK, Macron also pledged to pursue so-called small modular reactor technology that companies developing it claim can provide reliable decarbonised baseload power without the variability of renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Rafael Mateo, CEO of Spain’s Acciona Energía, one of the continent’s largest renewable-energy producers, is on record as claiming Europe would be “crazy” to import green hydrogen from places such as Chile and Australia. “The advantage of renewables, and the advantage of green hydrogen, is that it’s local, using autonomous resources – so each country can secure its own low-carbon energy at stable prices for 30 years – it’s crazy to import if you have these resources,” he said, citing the recent natural-gas prices which reached record-highs. “Europe is importing about €22bn of fossil fuel every month, we are dependent on other countries, such as Russia. So we are now in the hands of the third party and the third party is fixing the price of gas.” He added: “If you can have your own energy supply – electricity plus green hydrogen – it doesn’t make sense to import fossil fuels, because when you are importing, you are subject to the volatility of the industry and to the volatility of geopolitics.”
He was speaking before the current crisis as the European Commission sought to import 40GW of H2 from that country and North Africa, in line with its 2020 hydrogen strategy, while Germany has earmarked €350m to support green H2 projects outside the EU with a view to strengthening its imports.
It’s a complex issue with strong arguments on both sides but the one common denominator is cost, which is generally linked to environmental conditions. Countries such as Australia, with its vast deserts, strong winds and high solar irradiation are ideal for producing cost-effective renewable hydrogen, unlike densely populated countries such as Germany which has to look elsewhere.
But there are cost issues involved in imports too, particularly when it comes to shipping. A recent study by the Chatham-House styled German think-tank, Agora Energiewende, found that it would be cheaper for Germany to produce its own renewable H2 than import it, although that didn’t apply to such hydrogen derivatives as green ammonia, where the opposite would be the case.
It’s interesting that, given its lack of natural colour, it is classified variously as not only pink but blue green, grey and even turquoise, a somewhat offbeat alternative better known as methane pyrolysis. Like the grey and blue options, it uses methane as a feedstock, but the process is driven by heat produced with electricity rather than through the combustion of fossil fuels. It produces hydrogen and carbon as outputs, but unlike steam methane reforming (SMR), the carbon takes a solid form rather than CO2, meaning there is no need for CCS and the carbon can even be used in other applications, such as a soil improver or manufacturing components.
Where the electricity that is driving the pyrolysis is renewable, the process is entirely zero-carbon, or even carbon negative if the feedstock is biomethane rather than fossil methane.
Ignoring the Pantone shades for the moment, it should be remembered that more than 90 per cent of hydrogen globally is grey, specifically, produced through an SMR process involving fossil fuels, either coal or natural gas. The process is highly carbon-intensive and results in 800 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
There can be no understating the size of the task the EU has set itself putting in place the legal framework needed to support the development of a continent-wide hydrogen economy, something seen as vital to lure the European economy as a whole away from fossil fuels and decarbonise the toughest sectors, such as heavy industry and transport. But a combination of high energy prices, a major conflict which threatens security of supply, and potential clashes between its plans and national strategies should not be underestimated. The current debates around infrastructure, standards and governance will be tough enough. But it’s a start of what could be a rocky but ultimately essential journey.
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