26 July 2019 | Sai Nandamuri
Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared 2019 a critical year for hydrogen and stated that it has a key role in a clean, secure and affordable energy future.
Hydrogen is potentially a very attractive energy source as it combusts cleanly and does not produce carbon emissions. It is also a dense carrier of energy with each kilogram containing 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas. It can be produced in a variety of ways and can be transported in gas form by pipelines or in liquid form by ships, much like liquefied natural gas (LNG). Hydrogen can be used as a storage medium for excess renewable energy (which may otherwise have to be curtailed) and finds applications across a range of sectors such as energy production, steel production, transport and heating.
Today, hydrogen is used mainly as a feedstock for industrial processes including ammonia production for fertilisers (50%), refining (35%), and food, electronics, glass and metal industries. Its adoption is gaining momentum as the need to decarbonise and improve energy security increases. A major drawback is that production is energy and cost intensive. Hydrogen is produced by chemically breaking down natural gas (steam reforming) or by splitting water (electrolysis). However, with advancements in technology, especially electrolysis, and renewable energy becoming cheaper, production is expected to become cost-effective as well as less carbon-intensive.
Many countries around the world are already accelerating their hydrogen-based energy production programmes. China has taken the lead accounting for two-thirds of worldwide hydrogen production currently. It aspires to become the world’s largest hydrogen and fuel cell market by 2030. Similarly, the UK expects hydrogen to be deployed widely across heat, transport and industrial processes by 2050. Australia is planning to release a national hydrogen strategy by end of this year. Recently, Dubai broke ground on its first green hydrogen production facility using solar power. Major energy importers such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore are signing agreements with Australia and New Zealand for setting up hydrogen export ports/ hubs. Indeed, Japan has dubbed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as the Hydrogen Olympics to showcase its expertise in hydrogen technology.
India has also recently taken a small first step towards using hydrogen. Indian Oil Corporation is carrying out a pilot project to blend hydrogen into CNG for use in 50 buses in Delhi. Recently, MNRE invited preliminary project proposals for pilot demonstration of four hydrogen fuel cell powered buses in the Delhi-NCR region. But the Indian government does not yet have a larger strategy to integrate the fuel into the energy mix. Strangely, it is the Supreme Court pushing for hydrogen usage.
Hydrogen is one of the many new energy sources competing alongside renewables, pumped storage, batteries, fuel cells and others in the race to a carbon-free world. The roadmap remains unclear and riddled with complex technical, operational and financial challenges. But there is a large prize at stake and all possible options need to be explored.