Monday, April 22, 2024

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Fire up for a hydro-gen economy

There is hydrogen, then there is green hydrogen, grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen, and even turquoise hydrogen! What? Yes, you read it well. All the color coded names mentioned above are the derivatives of artificially produced hydrogen. So how does hydrogen, mostly known as a component of water (H20) suddenly become an element with varied names?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the human body and universe, and third most abundant element on earth. On earth it actually exists bonded to other atoms such as oxygen (like in water) and carbon. Despite being a naturally occurring element in the universe, and mostly as a gas, hydrogen needs to be produced to reach viable commercial amounts.

“Why not just suck it from the air?”, You may ask.

Hydrogen is a lightweight gas. So light that traces of it in the atmosphere quickly escape into outer space and thus other means have to be invented to collect it.

There are two major pathways for industrial production of hydrogen: combustion of fossil fuels and electrolysis. Over 95% of the hydrogen consumed is produced using the former method. Nevertheless, this chemistry hardly stirs away our first question, where do the color-coded hydrogen forms come from, and what are they anyway?

Apparently, green hydrogen is, in short, the ‘cleaner’ produced form of hydrogen. As we had mentioned earlier, a majority of artifically produced hydrogen is from fossil fuel combustion. ie. reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam. The antithesis of this fossil-fuel produced hydrogen is green hydrogen. The electrolysis method for producing green hydrogen is zero-carbon since the by-products are only hydrogen and oxygen. However, if par-adventure the source of the electricity for this electrolysis process is from a fossil fuel-based plant, even if it’s intermixed with renewable energy, the green hydrogen ceases to be ‘green’.

Conversely, grey hydrogen is the opposite of green hydrogen. Grey hydrogen is produced by mixing methane with high-temperature steam to produce the gas. Blue and turquoise hydrogen are each a slight deviation from grey hydrogen’s manufacturing processes. For blue hydrogen, the carbon emitted from grey hydrogen production processes is captured and stored permanently underground. Turquoise hydrogen on the other hand uses methane pyrolysis to split methane into hydrogen and solid carbon.

Despite hydrogen holding high potential for a net-zero carbon emission economy, it is a highly flammable gas to just be integrated into our normal everyday life absent-mindedly. If there is no proper regulation in its commercialization, it is akin to playing with your gas cooker while it is on, and you get the picture the need for a planned approach. For example, expensive methods are put in place to ensure hydrogen cars do not become literal ticking time bombs, more so because hydrogen in vehicles has to be stored under high pressure and using special materials. Furthermore, most of the storage and transport infrastructure for hydrogen gas is neither cheap nor convenient for the public masses and still remains as something to be handled with ‘special care’. So why are we considering hydrogen as a panacea to the clean energy problem and climate change despite all these risks?

For one, it is abundant.

Though large quantities of water and energy are required for green hydrogen production, sea water stands as a cheap alternative and partially offsets the high energy costs.

Secondly, if hydrogen were to be upscaled such that it significantly replaces the current conventional fuels used in transport, it would hasten achievement of 2050 net-zero goals. It is estimated that 7.5 Gigatonnes of CO2 could be abated by 2050 if the world could fully transition to a hydrogen economy.

Thirdly, global climate agreements are tightening the screw on phasing out fossil fuels. There’s gotta be a replacement–and hydrogen–alongside renewable energy and electric vehicles pose the greatest potential.

Finally, hydrogen technology has a wide range of uses. Not only is it used in the transport industry (as a fuel) or for electricity generation, but it is also a raw material for manufacture of various products such as fertilizers, electronics and metals. It is even used in the food industry! Your margarine must have incorporated hydrogen at some point. In other words, the market is there.

Below are some of the co-benefits that will arise from large-scale hydrogen production.

  1. Hydrogen can help increase energy security - Green hydrogen can be stored for long periods of time and used when there are shortages in other forms of energy. This is helpful to those nations that rely on fossil fuels to run their grids. Green hydrogen posits as a potential substitute for unforeseen fuel shortages and as a booster to Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) systems such as wind and solar energy.
  2. Hydrogen is a multiple-use product - hydrogen serves as a raw material for other uses, such as production of fertilizer and manufacture of fuel cells.
  3. Promotes industrial development - hydrogen, as a raw material or critical component in the manufacture of certain products will promote not only industrial growth, but also actualize closed loop systems where industries are interdependent on raw-materials or by-products from each other. For example, fertilizer industries could be dependent on hydrogen producing plants for the raw material of hydrogen gas.

There is a proverb in the local Kikuyu local dialect that says no good thing comes out of a good place. The maxim means that some struggle is involved in getting something worthwhile. Though hydrogen could be touted as the energy of the future, mainstreaming it to daily living activities will by no means be hustle-free. Below are some of the challenges to anticipate.

  1. High production costs - production of green hydrogen is up to 3 times more expensive than its grey hydrogen counterpart.
  2. Lack of dedicated infrastructure - lot’s of technology and finance has been put into development of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines and fuel refilling stations. Now with the dawn of the hydrogen age, similar and/or perhaps more ambitious investment is needed to modify or add to the current infrastructure but reconfigured for hydrogen distribution. The good news is, natural gas pipelines can be repurposed to deliver hydrogen.
  3. Energy losses - both the generation and use of hydrogen incurs energy losses of 10 - 50% depending on the stage of the value chain. Ironically, it is not the production stage which generates the most losses (30 - 35%), but rather the end use! The 2020 IRENA report puts the use of hydrogen in fuel cells as having 40 - 50% energy loss.
  4. Need to ensure sustainability - as mentioned earlier, the use of renewable energy is the dividing line between green and grey hydrogen. The production of green hydrogen is twice more energy intensive than that of grey hydrogen, and this is a disincentive to those who would like to venture into its production especially in developing countries where reliable renewable energy is still a problem. Even if the electrolysis was partly fed by fossil-fuel energy sources, as is the case in most national grids, the hydrogen would still be considered ‘grey’ and not ‘green’.

Now, having seen the pros and cons for this element, its not a matter of if, but when it shall be adopted in any country. For one, Kenya has demonstrated the interest, and the rest is to see if the will and political support will follow suit. On January 2022, the Ministry of Energy published a report on the viability of hydrogen power in the country, entitled ‘Baseline Study on the Potential for Power-To-X/Green Hydrogen in Kenya’. On a positive, note, due to Kenya’s abundance of renewable energy sources, particularly geothermal, wind and solar, Kenya stands a good chance to venturing into commercial production of green hydrogen without ‘harming the availability and price for the demand of the current electricity consumersIbid pp.3. Furthermore, the report already identified three areas with highest potential to act as the hydrogen production centres.

  1. Mombasa and surrounding area
  2. Wider Nairobi region
  3. Wider Olkaria area

Conclusion

Though we are adopting a prepare-wait-and-see attitude, Kenya should not refrain at the slightest opportunity of embarking to be the continent’s hydrogen economy giant. No-regret work, such as pilot projects to test viability of the hydrogen market should be underway. If local demand is not yet sustainable, we could prioritize on export of the product. Currently, Angola is angling for this position and already contracts have been signed for the country to be delivering green hydrogen to Germany from 2024. They say fortune favours the brave. Will Kenya step up into this new era or will it stare green with envy at her peers? The cut-back on oil imports in the EU due to the ongoing Russian-Ukraine war offers some food for thought.