Technology reinvented || Familiar challenges, new solutions
The war in Ukraine has not made the European Community modify its approach to the transformation of the European economy and the energy sector. The earlier ambitious plans have become even more ambitious, except that they are no longer grounded solely on the climate argumentation.
Now the leading role is played by the security paradigm, which after 24th February has surged in many European capitals. The security, especially in energy terms, has adopted the face of fossil resources – oil and gas. Europe slowly, painstakingly, but figured out how it had become dependent on fossil resources from Russia over the years. Today, this dependence is a huge weakness for Europe in its efforts to tame Russia’s imperial inclinations.
Today it is hard to imagine a world without fossil resources. Electric vehicles are only a fraction of the total number of vehicles driving on our roads, and natural gas is still the primary raw material in industry, especially heavy and fertilizer industries. The same gas was supposed to become a link between carbon-intensive coal-fired energy sector and zero-carbon Renewable Energy Sources (RES). Today, when 40 per cent of Europe’s gas supply comes from Russia and economically viable alternatives are scarce, this plan has come into question. The debate of “what should be used instead” has accelerated, and a good solution to this problem, so far, has not been developed. So how to face this challenge?
The response is trivial, yet extremely hard to implement – you have to place all your bets on the development activities. On the development of what today seems to be the distant future, but may soon become our everyday life. We are talking more and more loudly about hydrogen technologies, which, on the one hand, are emission-free (or low-emission, depending on the energy carrier manufacturing technology) and, on the other hand, unlike renewable energy sources such as solar or wind – predictable and stable. Hydrogen itself is nothing new. It has been used in numerous industries for many years now, including refinery processes during fuel production. Hydrogen is used in refineries as a compound to facilitate the processing of heavy crude oil fractions. Interestingly enough Poland is among the world’s top five producers of this energy carrier. However, practically the total output is consumed by manufacturing processes and its production itself is not low-carbon. It is commonly dubbed “grey hydrogen.” I will return to the colours of hydrogen a bit further down in this paper.
The applications of hydrogen as a fuel of the future could be manifold. In the first instance, its properties as an energy carrier can be used in industries that today rely heavily on natural gas. Large smelters, coke ovens or fertilizer production are the industries that today consume the largest share of the blue fuel consumed in Europe. Another industry is the heavy transport sector, both road and rail. Hydrogen could also displace fossil fuels in the propulsion of vessels used in shipping. The fuel, too, in the form of hydrogen cells, can be used in passenger vehicles or public transport. The discussions are also underway about the application of hydrogen in power and heating sectors. All of these applications, however, require technological refinement and large capital expenditures. Hydrogen as a gas is highly explosive. Its use in automotive applications, for instance, requires extreme caution. In the energy sector, too, the use of this energy carrier is not straightforward.
In the first row, according to the plans of energy companies, among others, mixtures of natural gas (or in the future biomethane) with hydrogen will be created. Initially, such mixtures are expected to have the percentage share of hydrogen not exceeding 5 to 15 per cent in the total mixture. The explosiveness of hydrogen is not the only challenge associated with this fuel. As the smallest atom found in nature, hydrogen requires an appropriate method of transport or transfer. Its chemical properties mean that it cannot be transported with “ordinary” steel pipes or carried in standard tank cars. This gas “volatilizes,” causing corrosion of the walls of pipes or tanks, posing a risk of explosion upon contact with atmospheric air. In order to transport this fuel safely, a transmission network has to be developed practically from scratch, which is hard to achieve from cost, organization and regulatory perspectives. Many power, transmission or distribution companies are carrying out their in-house studies on the transmission of specific proportions of hydrogen mixed with natural gas. It is the transmission of hydrogen over longer distances that is currently one of the main challenges in the development and propagation of hydrogen as an alternative energy carrier.
Another challenge is the hydrogen production itself. Here we return to the question “colouring” of hydrogen, popular in numerous circles. Colouring has come to be accepted as a classification of hydrogen based on the its production source. The hydrogen may have grey, green, yellow or purple colours. This classification, however, is not agreed on with by many supporters of this carrier. Currently, about 96 per cent of the hydrogen produced is of fossil fuel origin. The most common method of producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is called steam reforming. Steam reforming involves combining steam at 800-950°C with methane. This mixture causes a chemical reaction that generates hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The remaining carbon monoxide in contact with the steam also decomposes into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The process is highly carbon-intensive – about 12 kg of carbon dioxide is produced for approximately 1 kg of hydrogen and that is why it is currently not contemplated as an alternative to fossil fuels. However, the supporters of hydrogen implementation believe that it is not the colour classification that is important, but “whether” and “how much” CO2 is ultimately emitted into the air. In the future, when the technology to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using CCS (Carbon Capture Storage) or CCU (Carbon Capture Utilization) technology is applied, it will become possible to generate hydrogen that will have virtually no impact on air even from emission sources such as natural gas.
However, development and the desire to discontinue the use of fossil fuels means that ultimately, hydrogen production is supposed to be based on zero-emission energy sources, so that from the beginning, its production will carry no extra costs of the management of greenhouse gases produced during the process. Europe has been investing more and more into renewable energy sources. Wind farms are built onshore, and more and more are built offshore as well. The number of prosumers installing photovoltaic panels on their roofs is growing each every week. The number of large solar panel farms is also growing. The investments into RES slowly raise the challenge of managing the energy output. The unstable and uncontrollable operation cycle of RES, which also depend on metrological factors, requires that their operation be supported by sources with a stable operation cycle. As of today, only conventional fossil fuel-fired power plants offer such opportunities.
In addition, RES often generate excess energy when the energy is not needed by the national power grid. Here hydrogen can come to the rescue, produced in the manner that is most desirable, which is through the process of electrolysis. The electrolysis process involves the binding of electricity with water. During the process, the hydrogen and oxygen bonds are broken, thus creating hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen output can be stored and later used for firing /co-firing to generate electric energy in turbine generators. Unlike battery energy storage, hydrogen as an energy carrier is much more energy efficient. In addition, its application is much broader than just as a fuel for power generation in the energy sector. Once purified and loaded with fuel cells, it is an excellent method to provide electric energy in the transport sector. In addition, hydrogen, when properly treated, can be the raw material for producing, for instance, ammonia, which is a much simpler fuel for transport than pure hydrogen, and its applications are just as broad as hydrogen itself. One of the largest potential target industries for “green ammonia” is the shipping sector, which needs a fuel that is both common and safe to use, as well as the chemical and fertilizer industries. Today, ammonia is primarily made from “grey” hydrogen, which in turn is produced using steam reforming process, where methane is the main feedstock.
Also Poland is working hard to develop hydrogen-related technologies. Our plans for the energy transition, in which renewable energy sources are expected to play a pivotal role, also require efforts on the energy storage methods. The Offshore Wind Farms, which are to be built in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea, are an ideal place for the implementation of Polish plans related to the production, storage and processing of “green hydrogen.”
In late 2021, the Polish government adopted the Hydrogen Strategy By 2030, which calls for electrolysers with a total capacity of 2 GW to be installed in Poland by 2030. In addition, five hydrogen valleys are to be built to produce, store and process the green energy carrier. A few months earlier, in October, a sectoral agreement for the development of the hydrogen economy in Poland was established under the auspices of the Ministry of Climate and Environment. This strategic document defines the framework for cooperation and coordination of activities related to the development of an brand new branch of the Polish industry. The Polish energy companies are focusing just as intensively on hydrogen. One Polish entrepreneur, in early March 2022, published its own hydrogen development strategy. By 2030, the company plans to have 540 MW of low- and zero-emission hydrogen production capacity. Beyond 2030, this is expected to be exceed 1 GW. In addition, the company plans to put up 100 hydrogen stations – both in Poland and in other countries where it runs business activities.
The trend of development of alternative fuels, led by hydrogen, cannot be reversed. One can develop one’s own technologies and solutions or buy ready-made products from abroad. Fortunately, the former is happening. One should cheer on these efforts, because hydrogen does have not only the smallest atom. It is also the key to the development of further sectors of the economy – from the production of electrolysers, hydrogen cells, hydrogen-fired turbines and generators or the production of derivatives, such as the aforementioned ammonia. Hydrogen is also an opportunity for the Polish universities as well as R&D centres. The RES boom will fail if we do not have in the back of our minds what should be the next step. We cannot afford to waste electric energy that we will not be able to use, but will be produced, for example, in offshore farms in the Baltic Sea. Today we cannot afford to mismanage energy resources. And hydrogen, if everything goes well, can help us a great deal.