April 25, 2023

The business section of last Sunday’s paper had a full page article about Spain’s attempt to dominate the European Union’s (EU) clean hydrogen race.  Spain is betting it can rapidly build a new supply chain for sectors of the economy that require hydrogen for their industrial processes that have been harder to wean off fossil fuels.  The potential for green hydrogen is shown in the town of Puertollano.  The energy company Iberdrola and the fertilizer manufacturer Fertiberia have partnered to potentially create the first zero-carbon plant nutrients in the world.  The green hydrogen plant is Europe’s largest functioning facility and Iberdrola owns 100 megawatts’ worth of solar panels to power the electrolyzes to separate hydrogen from water.  Storage tanks pipe the gas directly to Fertiberia where they make ammonia, the chemical foundation in nitrogen fertilizers.  The fertilizer will be scattered onto malt barley used to make Heineken’s first “green malt” beverage.  This is perfect as Heineken is often served in green bottles.

When I looked online, I found that while hydrogen is a colorless gas, scientists have assigned colors to distinguish the way it is produced.  Grey hydrogen is the most common and is generated from natural gas, or methane, through a process called “steam reforming”.  This process generates less emissions than black (bituminous coal) or brown (lignite coal) hydrogen where the CO2 and carbon monoxide generated during the process are not recaptured.  Blue hydrogen is when the carbon is captured and stored underground.  Blue hydrogen is referred to as carbon neutral as the emissions are not dispersed in the atmosphere, but some argue “low carbon” would be a more accurate as 10-20% of the generated carbon cannot be captured.  Green hydrogen, or “clean hydrogen”, is produced by using clean energy from renewable energy sources like solar or wind power to split water into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom through a process called electrolysis.  Green hydrogen currently makes up 0.1% of overall hydrogen production, but this is expected to rise as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall.

Synthetic fertilizers are a highly polluting process.  A recent study found the fertilizers emit the equivalent of 2.6 gigatons of carbon per year, or more than global aviation and shipping combined.  One third of those emissions come from the production of fertilizers in plants like Fertiberia.  Most of the firm’s hydrogen is still drawn from natural gas (gray hydrogen), but the company plans to be 100% carbon neutral by 2035.  Spanish firms are pushing for EU subsidies to match the US$750 million for research and development announced by the US.  The second problem is where the demand for green hydrogen exists.  Spain and Portugal could produce a lot of green hydrogen and a demand may materialize in central Europe, but the supply and demand do not currently exist.  Neither does the infrastructure to transport the gas from Iberia to central Europe.  Hydrogen is difficult to store and highly flammable.  That is why the two plants in Puertollano are located close to each other. 

Thoughts:  While the most abundant element on earth, hydrogen rarely exists as a gas.  That means it needs to be separated from other elements.  When hydrogen is generated using renewables can be a clean alternative to burning fossil fuels.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) says hydrogen could play an important role in our clean energy future, but it notes that to make a real contribution to the energy transition, hydrogen will need to be used in sectors where it is almost absent, like transport, buildings, and power generation.  Producing hydrogen through electrolysis requires large amounts of land for solar panels and water, something that is hard to relinquish in the current European drought.  Quick and easy solutions powered by fossil fuels are what got the world into our climate crisis.  It will take hard long term solutions to bring us out.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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