In the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), the objective is to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 20% in 2030 compared to levels recorded in 1990, which represents a reduction of more than 30%. % regarding the levels registered now. For this, it is proposed to transform the energy mix, among other things, since the electricity generation sector is responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions in Spain. At the same time, the electricity generation sector is one of the sectors with the biggest potential to reduce emissions thanks to the production of electricity from renewable sources of energy. The technologies on which the energy transition focuses in order to achieve the objective of reducing emissions are photovoltaic and wind.
In said PNIEC, it is proposed to exchange 15 GW of conventional power for a 69 GW installation of renewable power (photovoltaic and wind). However, this new renewable power installation will need backup technology due to its intermittent nature. A support that in the Plan is taken into consideration and determined that it would be formed by interconnections and water (the latter as energy storage). In relation to water, the plan promotes the reversible hydroelectric plants with new 3.5 GW that allow to manage renewable production and, additionally, can support the regulation of watersheds in conditions of extreme phenomena. The installation of up to 2.5 GW of batteries is also contemplated step by step as the technology matures.
It seems that the potential of hydrogen as a tool for storing large amounts of energy for long periods of time has not been taken into account, being able to counteract the seasonality of a large part of renewable production. The Plan only mentions hydrogen as an alternative fuel for transportation or as a technology that needs to be investigated.
From Magnus we would like to influence the contribution that hydrogen can have to reach the goal of reducing emissions by 2030.
WHAT IS THE HYDROGEN
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it is not in a free state. It occurs by forming organic compounds attached to carbon or forming water bound with oxygen. Therefore, hydrogen is not a natural resource or a source of primary energy, but an energy carrier, also called an “energy vector”. Since we cannot take it directly from nature, hydrogen, as with electricity, must be produced. To achieve this, it must be separated from the compounds of which it is a part, but for this separation process to take place, it will be necessary to provide energy (mainly in the form of heat or electricity) that must necessarily come from one of the primary sources: fossil, renewable or nuclear.
The industry is familiar with hydrogen but produced from fossils. At present, almost 96% of the world’s hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, mainly by reforming natural gas with water vapour, and is consumed as a component that is part of a multitude of conventional processes, especially (around a 72%) in the chemical and petrochemical industry (petroleum refining, ammonia, methanol, etc.). The rest is used in metallurgy, in electronics and in the propulsion of space vehicles. Only 4% of the total is produced by electrolysis of water, which is hydrogen for applications that require high gas purity. Therefore, hydrogen production technologies from fossil fuels, especially from natural gas, are proven technologies and currently in application. It can be said that hydrogen is an “old acquaintance” for the industry, nevertheless, for what at the moment it has become topical is because of its possibilities of being used as an energy vector.
GREEN HYDROGEN: ENERGY STORAGE
In Spain, entities such as Enagás, are betting on the green hydrogen production, which is produced by electrolysis of water from renewable energy sources of electricity. These production processes require electricity supply:
Source: Spanish Hydrogen Association (Aeh2)
Hydrogen, when combined with oxygen from the air, releases the chemical energy stored in the H-H bond, generating only water vapour as a product of combustion. In other words, in this process does not emit CO2 and transforms water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules using the electricity generated by 100% carbon-free sources. Its potential is based on the fact that it can serve as storage of surplus renewable energy. In a context where the increase of renewable sources in the mix of electricity generation (and its potential for future increase) will lead to large surpluses of electricity, makes hydrogen one of the most ideal ways to store them.
THE GREEN HYDROGEN: ITS POSSIBLE APPLICATIONS
Likewise, the production of hydrogen through electrolysis with surpluses from renewable sources can be transformed into various forms of energy (electricity, synthetic gas or heat) and allows different applications to be used for transport, in the industry and in the residential and commercial sectors:
- Can be used for batteries / fuel cells that are already used in vehicles (Train, bus, and car). They could also be used in the microcogeneration since the evolution of the technique already allows to work today through a system with a fuel cell from natural gas (in the future it could be from hydrogen).
- It can be stored as gas under pressure and as liquid or distributed through gas pipelines, so it is considered that it can replace natural gas in the medium-long term and reduce the import of fossil fuels.
- It can generate renewable gas or also known as “power-to-gas” (P2G). The gas sector relies on renewable gas to present it as a key to decarbonisation. Hydrogen can be combined with captured CO2 captured from industrial processes or from CO2 capture technologies directly from the air to produce synthetic methane. This methane can be injected into the same network as fossil gas, taking advantage of the more than 12,000 kilometres of gas pipelines in our country, in addition to the three underground storage facilities and the six regasification plants.
However, the lack of a political strategy that would give security to investors and companies that are dedicated to researching the potential of hydrogen makes it a long way from being a profitable technology today. We are faced with several obstacles today:
- The fuel cell models do not gain in efficiency with respect to the electric ones in the vehicles and there is no hydrogen infrastructure for the vehicles and they are very expensive both when buying and refueling.
- The normal gas network that we have only admits a small proportion of hydrogen, which above certain levels (around 10%) can damage the system, starting with the own domestic appliances that use gas as fuel (ovens, stoves, boilers, …).
- Although synthetic methane can be used in the normal gas network, today the capture of C02 from industrial processes (something that further decreases efficiency) has not started technologically at a viable scale. Or the capture of CO2 from the air is still in an experimental phase that requires significant land extensions.
Hydrogen is a non-electric renewable energy unknown in Spain but with great potential by not emitting greenhouse gases (if the origin is renewable) and can also be stored. In a context of reducing polluting emissions by the year 2050, they can be a key energy vector to achieve this goal but still require greater investments.
INITIATIVES WITH GREEN HYDROGEN IN SPAIN
The PNIEC states that: “The Government will promote, through the approval of specific plans, the penetration of renewable gas, including biomethane, hydrogen and other fuels whose manufacture has exclusively used raw materials and renewable energy.” And it is also expected that a specific regulation will be elaborated that “allows the injection of said renewable gases in the natural gas network”, taking advantage of “the storage capacity of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the Spanish plants, as well as its capacity of regasification, in order to become a physical hub at the community level, both natural gas and renewable gas or hydrogen.”
As a result, we find that many institutions and entities that begin to embark on innovative hydrogen projects to test the value of it in the energy system.
As an example of this institutional and business commitment, on January 9 the agreement between the Government of the Balearic Islands, Enagás, Acciona and Cemex was presented to develop a green hydrogen generation plant based on renewable electric energy. The objective is to use hydrogen generated as an alternative fuel, initially for a fleet of public transport buses (50 million euros).
Another example is the Renovagás R & D project pioneered in Europe based on Power to Gas technology. Companies and organizations such as Enagas, Gas Natural Fenosa, the National Hydrogen Center (CNH2), FCC Aqualia, Abengoa Hydrogen, the Higher Center for Scientific Research (CSIC) and Tecnalia want to take advantage of surplus electricity from renewable sources to produce hydrogen (1.2 million euros).
Even the initiatives come from totally private companies. It is the case of Arcelor that bets on the capture of C02, hydrogen, electrolysis and biofuels, but warns of an increase in costs. The approach is to advance on three different fronts: the ‘clean’ energies, mainly hydrogen and electrolysis; the circular carbon, with the reuse of waste; and the maintenance of fossil fuels with the use of capture and storage methods.
In the long term, the incorporation of hydrogen as a new energy vector, offers a scenario in which hydrogen can be produced from water, with electricity and heat from renewable sources, and it will be possible to use it to meet all kinds of demands, both the conventional ones of the industry and the ones in energetics in which its new role would be as energy vector. Large-scale hydrogen production will not only alleviate oil dependence but also reduce environmental pollution when fuel cells are incorporated in both automotive and stationary applications. However, let’s not focus only on the P2G and let´s avoid that electricity is being generated from fossil fuels (for example, from natural gas) and that this electricity is used to produce synthetic methane that is once again introduced into the gas distribution. It would be a meaningless energy process for the energy transition in order to reduce C02 emission.
Marta Merodio | Energy Consultant