As the most abundant chemical element, it is natural to think of green hydrogen as the perfect candidate to help decarbonize the economy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. However, its large-scale use poses challenges that we have to figure out. On World Hydrogen Day, held every October 8 (10-8, in honor of its approximate atomic weight), we speak with Nora Castañeda, Hydrogen Business Manager at Sener, about the future of this energy vector.
What sectors offer the greatest potential for green hydrogen? Where might it have the highest economic return?
The first thing we should ask ourselves is: Why should we consider using it, when wind and solar are more established? The answer is that despite our interest in electrifying energy consumption as much as possible, some energy consumption cannot be electrified, so we will continue to require fuels, and hydrogen can become a clean fuel, meaning it has no polluting emissions.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in nature, but it has to be extracted, since it doesn’t exist in isolation naturally. Nowadays, the most common process for obtaining hydrogen entails the use of natural gas, and thus CO2 emissions. The goal is to produce hydrogen by other means that do not generate emissions, which is green hydrogen.
Today, one of the largest consumers is the petrochemical and refining sector, and one of the biggest returns that using green hydrogen would have for them is the reduction of their carbon footprint. This is no small benefit, considering the climate emergency (according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report, 5 of the 10 greatest risks we’re facing 2 years out are environmental), and there are also applications and use cases in which green hydrogen can replace other fossil fuels, but there are still several challenges that we must overcome to make it a truly competitive alternative.
By the 2030s, it is estimated that we could be able to generate significant amounts of it, at a much higher scale than today, thus reducing its production cost.
What has to change to make it to that competitiveness horizon?
We’re on the right path. We have to work to better optimize the necessary technology and processes. Currently, the cost of hydrogen production is closely related to the price of energy used to generate it, accounting for around 70% of the total cost. The rest depends on the equipment used. There is room for improvement and we’re working on that now.
The most widespread method of producing green hydrogen is electrolysis, in which renewable electricity is used to power a reaction that breaks apart water molecules, yielding hydrogen. Electrolysis is well-known, but we want to mass produce hydrogen by scaling up the generation plants and quickly bringing down the costs of the equipment, while improving the efficiency of the process to price hydrogen as competitively as possible. Doing all this at the same time is itself a challenge, which requires a lot of R&D work, as well as partnerships between research centers, engineering, manufacturers, and end users. Our IPCEI Hy2Tech project seeks to contribute to the successful development of large electrolysis plants.
But at the same time, we have to seek more disruptive solutions, which is why we at Sener are collaborating with the UPV and CSIC to develop a pilot plant for generating green hydrogen using microwaves, seeking to provide the technology for the massive roll-out of this market.
It is an interesting line of work, since if we make sufficiently disruptive progress, we will achieve a change that is sufficiently significant to open up a new range of possibilities.
And what are the challenges in terms of its transportation and storage?
These are important factors, given that hydrogen is a dense element by weight, but not by volume. This means that projects such as major hydrogen corridors are creating both interest and possible distribution routes. Hydrogen derivatives that are more easily transportable (by sea, for example), such as green ammonia generated from green hydrogen and airborne nitrogen, which can subsequently be cracked at the destination to release the hydrogen once more or directly use this green ammonia, are also taking on importance.
How accepting of green hydrogen do you think society is? Is there enough knowledge about its potential, also among public bodies and the business world?
Green hydrogen has generated a lot of expectations, partly because of its truly great potential. It’s a good alternative to help decarbonize the economy, but, again, we have to keep working to perfect the processes and technology and establish realistic use cases that are suited to their true potential, and this requires devoting time and resources to R&D. In the case of Spain, there are many factors that position it very well within Europe in this market, but the defining time is now, when we need to lay down technological foundations with adequate safety criteria.
What are the most common or significant projects nowadays?
We are at a crucial time to acquire the knowledge that will be important in the coming stages, when we will really have the ability to produce green hydrogen on a large scale. For example, in our case, we are working to build a 2.5-MW electrolysis plant for Repsol, which will supply the Basque Hydrogen Corridor to generate the first renewable hydrogen in the region. Beyond the generation capacity, the real value lies in the lessons that such a project can teach us. The first applications are often the ones that yield the most data in terms of how we approach subsequent projects.
The European Commission is also playing an important role by promoting research and innovation in the sector. Part of this research revolves around the application of hydrogen in energy-intensive industries, such as glass manufacturing.
What is the roadmap for companies for the future? Where is the sector headed?
We are in a learning, research, and development period. I think that, from our point of view as a company, we have to engage with clients more than ever, understand their needs and decide where we want to take the technology. Thanks to projects like the ones I mentioned, we are gaining knowledge that will be crucial in the next decade to successfully undertake the first large-scale projects that are only now being imagined. It’s an exciting time.
Hydrogen Business Manager
More than 20 years of experience creating innovative engineering solutions, executing turnkey projects, seeking alliances and creating new businesses, fundamentally in the world of Energy, focusing on renewable and sustainable answers, hybridizing technologies and pioneering ideas.