Green hydrogen technology already “feasible and mature”, but still several leaps ahead

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The war in Ukraine and the threat of cutting off gas supplies to Europe have led to a boom in green hydrogen projects, whose technology is already “viable and mature” but now needs to make the leap to economic viability.

This is the opinion of the director of the Spanish National Hydrogen Center, a country whose government guarantees to be the destination of 20% of all green hydrogen projects currently known in the world and which, together with Portugal, wants to make the Iberian Peninsula an exporter of this gas produced by renewable energies considered clean (wind or solar, without polluting emissions).

Green hydrogen requires electricity from solar or wind energy and water to be produced in a process called electrolysis, which uses electric currents to separate the components of water (H2O) – hydrogen (H2) on one side and oxygen (O2) on the other. This is done by using an electrolyzer in which the water is split and the two separate components are released through different tubes.

By using electricity generated from clean energy, there are no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, hence the term “green”.

Hydrogen is essential in industrial sectors such as refineries, fertilizers or heavy-duty transportation, which use so-called “gray hydrogen,” where the energy needed to produce it is essentially produced with natural gas and is therefore a source of major pollutant emissions (about 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of hydrogen).

“The trend for hydrogen to really be a solution for the future is that it contributes to decarbonization,” emphasizes Miguel Ángel Fernández, director of Spain’s National Hydrogen Center, while acknowledging that it is last year’s problems that explain the current boom.

“Before, we were worried about the environment, now what concerns many agents is the guarantee of supply, safety. And that, yes, guarantees renewable hydrogen against hydrogen produced by natural gas,” he says.

The war in Ukraine and the problem of Europe’s energy autonomy have thus been another push for industry and states to “get on the green hydrogen bandwagon” and “the sector has been further strengthened”.

O Centro Nacional do Hidrogénio de Espanha foi criado em 2007 pelo Governo espanhol e instalado em Puertollano, uma cidade a cerca de 240 quilómetros ao sul de Madrid ligada, no passado, à exploração de minas de carvão e onde hoje estão refinarias e fábricas de fertilizantes, entre outras indústrias.

This center bridges the gap between “pure and hard” scientific research and companies, facilitating the effective application of knowledge in industry, with “technological maturation” work and other work related to bureaucracy or applications and project implementation.

“We also try to have the broadest possible knowledge of the science, the fundamentals, nationally and internationally, and how the sector is doing, which is increasingly difficult because the truth is that there are so many initiatives that it is currently impossible to have a picture of all the hydrogen projects that are being announced,” guarantees Miguel Ángel Fernández.

“The situation of the sector is that we have reached a remarkable technological viability, there are no problems with the equipment. The technological situation is absolutely mature and viable, and we need to work a little on costs to achieve economies of scale,” says Miguel Ángel Fernández.

A “leap that already implies many more actors, beyond pure technology” and that “the forecasts are good”, given the bets of companies and public authorities, between states and the European Union itself, he believes.

The production of green hydrogen is currently two to three times more expensive than the production of hydrogen from natural gas, according to companies in the sector, who say that only with public aid is it currently possible to move forward with a project.

At the moment, says Miguel Ángel Fernández, the sector is facing problems in purchasing new equipment and components due to difficulties in global supply chains and regulatory gaps.

“The regulations are a bit behind the projects, and this causes delays because the administration itself has not established the rules of the game [of green hydrogen],” explains Miguel Ángel Fernández, who also identifies a “third obstacle” at the moment, the “huge gaps” in professionals and qualified personnel.

There are also unknowns, such as how best to transport green hydrogen, whether by pipeline or by ship.

According to Miguel Ángel Fernández, current technology already allows for pipelines to transport 100% hydrogen, but entirely new pipelines will have to be installed because the current ones, for natural gas, are no good.

He therefore believes that investing in new hydrogen pipelines (such as the one agreed by Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands for 2030) only makes sense if there is continuous consumption of the production.

“What is clear to us is that there is a path between hydrogen production and consumption. At the moment, business initiatives and political support seem to be very much on the production side, and the big success of the projects is to have a guaranteed consumer and to produce hydrogen alongside the consumer,” he says.

This is the case with the largest green hydrogen production plant already installed and operating in Europe, albeit as a pilot project, in Puertollano.

The project is the work of the electricity company Iberdrola, which installed the plant in the facilities of the fertilizer company Fertiberia, with which it has signed a contract and to which it supplies all the production, requiring only a few meters of piping for transport.

The electricity to produce the hydrogen comes from 250,000 solar panels, also installed by Iberdrola, 10 kilometers away.

Another issue related to green hydrogen is the quantity and quality of water needed for production.

Green hydrogen requires four times less water than hydrogen produced with natural gas, but the projected increase in demand will also increase the amount of water needed, which must be clean.

Technology is now focusing on the possibility of using desalinated or less clean seawater and reusing it as much as possible.

This is what is happening at the Iberdrola plant, where 16 electrolyzers have been installed with a capacity to produce three thousand tons of green hydrogen per year, and which includes a water reuse circuit.

The three thousand tons of green hydrogen produced here each year represent 10% of the total needs of the company that purchases the production.

This plant also has 11 tanks that can store almost six tons of green hydrogen.

Iberdrola has invested 80 million euros in the photovoltaic plant and 150 million euros in the green hydrogen production and storage plant in Puertollano, expecting to recover between 5% and 15% of the initial investment with European funds.

This is the first phase of the project that, if it gets the conditions, it intends to develop with Fertiberia until 2027, with a total investment of 1,800 million euros to produce 40,000 tons of hydrogen per year, 20% of the goal that Spain has for the whole country by 2030.

“The increase in the scale of production, the decrease in the cost of electrolysers and renewable electricity will make green hydrogen the most competitive by the end of the decade,” reads a press release from Iberdrola, which sees this investment in Portollano, for now, according to a spokesman, as an opportunity to “learn” and gain competitive knowledge about a technology still in development.

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