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The Green Hydrogen Revolution: Challenges and Achievements

Types of hydrogen and production process. Source: weforum.org. 

Green hydrogen is currently one of the most widespread environment-related buzzwords. It is also the main topic of discussion and the object of many international organizations and countries' environmental policies. But what exactly is green hydrogen, and how can it contribute to the green revolution?

A simple definition of "green hydrogen" is provided by Earth.com: Green hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyze water, separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen.

The definition emphasizes electrolysis, a clean process where water is broken into hydrogen and oxygen through an electrolyzer. Electrolysis requires water and electricity. It can be defined as a clean process when the electricity employed to extrapolate the hydrogen from water comes from renewable sources. In this case, the hydrogen is green and the only carbon-generated emissions are those emitted from the overall infrastructure.

Green hydrogen is not the same as gray and blue hydrogen, two types often mentioned. The difference lies in how hydrogen is obtained and the amount of carbon used. As the picture explains, blue and gray hydrogen require coal or methane to be produced.

Unlike gray hydrogen, the production of blue hydrogen incorporates technologies able to capture and store a relatively high percentage of carbon (85–95%). Turquoise hydrogen, another emerging option, looks more promising as the process based on methane and pyrolysis increases the carbon-capture rate up to 90–95%.

Of the four options, green hydrogen is the cleanest, as no carbon is involved in the production process.

Nevertheless, as pointed out by Emanuele Taibi, Head of the Power Sector Transformation Strategies at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the methane pyrolysis needed to produce turquoise hydrogen is still at the pilot stage.

Moreover, electrolysis for green hydrogen production is still expensive, and its costs need to be decreased in the upcoming decades. Taibi also explains that electrolysis is commercially widespread, and it is now easy to find several international suppliers.

He adds that, currently, the type of hydrogen that is most produced is the gray type, which entails high CO2 and methane emissions. Consequently, in his view, priority should be given to decarbonizing current hydrogen demand by, for instance, substituting natural gas-produced ammonia with green ammonia.

This means that a rapid transition to green hydrogen is unlikely in the foreseeable future because “we first need to further accelerate the deployment of renewable electricity to decarbonize existing power systems, accelerate electrification of the energy sector to leverage low-cost renewable electricity, before finally decarbonizing sectors that are difficult to electrify – like heavy industry, shipping, and aviation – through green hydrogen.”

The green transition has now become one of the leading environmental goals globally.

On a global level, the United Nations is one of the major international organizations at the forefront of the battle towards total decarbonization. More precisely, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) supports all countries committed to the green hydrogen transition. 

To this end, the UNIDO released a green-hydrogen-focused global program in 2021. The program features two pillars: the first presents the Global Partnership for Hydrogen in the industry to increase dialogue and practical knowledge exchange on recent achievements related to green hydrogen. The second is more concerned with developing and sharing technical knowledge to assist developing countries in their green transition.

Furthermore, on the 4 of November 2021, the Green Hydrogen Catapult was launched in Glasgow. This initiative, organized under the aegis of the UN High-Level Champions for Climate Action, brought together several leaders in the green hydrogen sector. The parties confirmed their pledge to create 45 GW electrolyzers by 2026. These electrolyzers will be able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and produce zero-carbon hydrogen by employing 100 percent renewable energies.

Likewise, the European Union is taking concrete actions to align itself with these goals. When the EU Commission launched the European Green Deal, the green hydrogen transition was already outlined in 2019. According to the plan, the EU should reach carbon neutrality by 2050. This will be achieved by focusing on a cross-sectorial approach to link sectors like energy and climate with others like transport, industry, agriculture, and sustainable finance to attain a holistic approach.

More recently, in 2020, the EU stressed the need for a greener transition as laid out in its strategy on hydrogen. Accordingly, the EU acknowledges green hydrogen’s high potential in decarbonization, although it still represents a small fraction of the overall EU energy production. According to the document, green hydrogen can help with renewable energy storage, transportation, and heavy industrial processes by replacing carbon, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, creating more jobs, and, more generally, supporting sustainable growth.

Recently, the EU has shifted from theory to practice through profitable deals signed with external partners. One of the most promising stakeholders is Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government recently announced a $50 billion contract with the German-Swedish renewable energy group Svevind. 

According to the plan, the company will build a large green hydrogen production facility in the Mangystau region in western Kazakhstan. The production potential of this new facility is extremely high. It is estimated that by 2030 when the facility is supposed to start its activities, the overall production will be capable of covering at least one-fifth of the overall EU green hydrogen imports.

Northern European countries are just some of the ones involved in the green hydrogen transition.

On November 18, the Portuguese company Fusion Fuel, specializing in hydrogen production through solar energy, announced a new deal with the Italian company Duferco Energia. According to the agreement, the two companies will jointly build solar-energy-based electrolyzer units to produce green hydrogen. The new facility will be built in Giammoro, Italy, where Duferco Energia's operations take place.

This deal is tangible proof of the EU Green Deal's implementation; it will expand green hydrogen production to other markets. Accordingly, Fusion Fuel and Duferco Energia aim to involve the MENA region by selecting and signing green agreements. This is an excellent step towards the EU-touted holistic approach.

The statement of Nuno Filipe, Head of Commercial for Europe at Fusion Fuel, sums up this goal: “This agreement not only represents our entry point into the Italian market, but more importantly the start of what we hope will become a strong anchor relationship with Duferco Group to sell our technology and develop projects in Italy and, ultimately, in adjacent markets like Tunisia and Algeria.”

These deals are just a few instances. The green hydrogen fever is touching more and more countries inside and outside the EU. While the US and Chile aim to sign a new hydrogen green deal in 2023, India unveiled in February 2022 a Green Hydrogen Policy under the aegis of the National Hydrogen Mission to turn the country into a green hub.

Undoubtedly, green hydrogen awareness received a significant boost from the recent COP27 organized in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. While the former focused on the extensive damages caused by fossil fuels, the latter made it clear to the international community and much more so to Europe, heavily reliant on Russian gas, that the green hydrogen revolution cannot be delayed any longer.

As a result, many saw the COP27 as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put into action what had been outlined at the COP26 in Glasgow, where the potential of hydrogen, particularly green hydrogen, was emphasized. The several planned and signed deals that followed can be considered tangible proof of this process. But more importantly, this event highlighted the international community’s will to boost cooperation on a global scale. 

Several multi-stakeholder roundtables held during COP27 ensured that developing countries that wanted to play a significant role in the green hydrogen revolution were included in the process. On the contrary, extensive discussions and the exchange of practical knowledge concerning technological progress and innovative green solutions will enable even weaker stakeholders to align with the current trends.

Edited by: Lou Igounet




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