Are we a step closer to achieving the 'green hydrogen economy'?
Paint and chemicals giant AkzoNobel has unveiled plans to build Europe's largest "green hydrogen" production plant, with the company's energy director telling edie of the technology's potential to enable the decarbonisation of the UK economy.
While the notion of a hydrogen-based economy has been around for decades, it has so far failed to fully transpire. Most hydrogen produced today is used in the petrochemical industry and for manufacturing fertilizers, with virtually all of it deriving from fossil fuel reform, meaning that the climate benefits have been limited at best.
But a scalable and low-carbon alternative is available through water electrolysis, and numerous attempts are now being made to apply “green hydrogen” to applications such as energy storage and industrial feedstock for fuel cell vehicles.
The latest attempt was announced last week, when AkzoNobel revealed it had teamed up with gas network operator Gasunie to build a 20MW water electrolysis unit in the Northern Netherlands. The businesses say that the plant will convert excess renewable electricity such as wind and solar power into 3,000 tonnes of green hydrogen a year, which can then be used by Akzo’s speciality chemicals division or be sold to third parties, such as public transport firms using hydrogen buses.
The eventual aim is to be able to build units of up to 100MW that can store hydrogen - significantly larger than the largest planned electrolysis unit in the Netherlands, which has a 1MW capacity.
“Here we are building a completely renewable carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels,” AkzoNobel’s energy director Marcel Galjee told edie.
“The interesting thing is that when you bring this to the chemicals industry, you will require really large quantities, so building up now to this 20MW plant is first step in building scale and reducing costs, creating an opportunity to larger potential to get competitive green hydrogen towards the chemicals industry and also towards the mobility sector.”
Price-competitiveness has proved a major stumbling block for electrolysis production. Costs of production are linked to electricity prices, which has thus far prevented widespread application.
But with the cost of renewable electricity plummeting, as illustrated by the recent UK record-low offshore wind strike prices, the avenues for hydrogen are increasing.
Industrial factories in the Netherlands currently use more than 800,000 tonnes of hydrogen produced by natural gas each year. Galjee predicts that replacing this by sustainably produced hydrogen will reduce CO2 emissions by seven million tonnes.
One of the most energy-intensive companies on the continent, Akzo sees the project as a crucial step in reducing the emissions necessary to help it in its aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
The business has years of experience with electrochemical production of hydrogen, an asset which complements Gasunie’s vast expertise in gas transport and storage.
Collaboration with new partners will be crucial for the development of the green hydrogen economy, highlights Galjee, who envisages the potential for new value chains and revenue models to emerge across a range of sectors.
“We want to be a front runner and start from a leadership position,” he said. “The interesting thing is that we are setting up value chains here, and we are setting up new chemical routes, and most of these chemical routes are with start-ups and in the bio-based economy.
“So it is not only something for the large industrials but also an enabler to building to chemical and industrial sectors for surrounding SMEs.”
Hydrogen for the UK?
The Northern part of Netherlands is seen as an ideal location to develop a green hydrogen economy, due to the large-scale production and import of green electricity, the existing chemical industry, the existing gas transmission infrastructure, as well as the knowledge and expertise of companies such as Akzo and Gasunie.
Galjee believes the potential for the green hydrogen economy lies much further than the Netherlands. Indeed, the AkzoNobel project will see the interconnection between chemical clusters in Delfzijl and Hamburg, Northern Germany, as well as the German H2 mobility initiative.
The technology is already being explored as a sustainable energy source in the UK, where oil giant Shell has launched its first fully-branded hydrogen refuelling station. London unveiled the world’s first double-decker hydrogen bus towards the end of 2016, while Leeds has proposed converting its natural gas grid to a hydrogen grid by 2026.
Galjee noted that hydrogen could help to harness the UK’s burgeoning offshore wind sector, providing flexibility for the grid via conversion of excess electricity from renewables to hydrogen and back to electricity.
“Green hydrogen is not only a Dutch agenda,” Galjee said. “There will be potential for places where you have large-scale electricity production to turn that electricity into valuable products which you can store.
“You have a lot of offshore wind programmes ongoing in the UK. The big problem is the connection to land and the transportation inland where you have large users.
“This is where hydrogen can play an important role. Both in swinging the ups and downs, producing hydrogen at moments when electricity is abundantly available without the need of building a lot of very expensive transportation capacity, to places where you would need it.
“You could create a chemicals building block that will help you a sustainable industry. This is what we are trying to do in the Netherlands but a similar setting is possible in the UK.”