Why Green Hydrogen Is A Distraction

Why Green Hydrogen Is A Distraction
A few months ago, the media reported the signing of an MOU among five energy companies of Pakistan, mostly PSEs, for pursuing “green hydrogen” opportunities. On first glance, the step seems quite revolutionary; especially, when the given energy source is yet to secure any sizeable foothold in the energy mix of even the developed world, and hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels hardly account for 0.1% of the total global energy consumption.

As it does not release any greenhouse gases when burnt, hydrogen gas is the cleanest fuel for transportation and power generation.  When the source for the electricity used to produce this gas is a fossil fuel; the product is called ‘grey hydrogen’, which currently accounts for 98% of the aggregate annual global production of hydrogen. Generation of each ton of grey hydrogen releases 11 tons of carbon dioxide. If the process also involves capture and storage of this carbon dioxide, instead of its release to atmosphere; then, the product is called ‘blue hydrogen.’ So far, hardly 0.1% of the globally emitted volume of ~37.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide is being captured.

As to green hydrogen; it is obtained through electrolysis by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen by passing electric current through the same. The said current is sourced from renewable sources – those not involving greenhouse gas emissions at any stage.

The foremost challenge in establishing a viable value chain of green hydrogen is the associated capital and operating costs. The production cost of green hydrogen, currently ranges between 3 to 6 USD per kilogram; while that of grey between 0.5 and 1.7 USD per kilogram. To reduce it to around 1.5 USD/kg, amongst other steps, the cost of industrial scale electrolyser's needs to be reduced by at least fourfold. Also, through electrolysis, 9 kg of water produces one kg of hydrogen. Hence, the arrangement of this water can also be a challenge. Furthermore, based upon the currently available commercial electrolysis process’s efficiency; the power requirement for producing 1 kg of hydrogen would at least be 50 kWh. Thus, the economical generation of electricity from alternate sources is also pivotal for the given business case. Another major cost addition is the enormous infrastructural cost. Hydrogen pipelines can be 10-50% more expensive than those for natural gas; while the storage tanks can cost even higher. The factor which plays no mean role in the same is the low energy content by volume of hydrogen. Thus, it takes about 3.3 CF of hydrogen to deliver the same energy as 1 CF of natural gas. This makes hydrogen’s storage, transportation and especially compression far more cost intensive. Compression alone requires almost three times the energy to compress the same quantity.

At present, hydrogen is a luxury which only countries equipped with deep pockets, a rigorous industrial safety regime, proven commitment to environment and a penchant for R&D, can afford.

In addition, the associated safety aspects alone should suffice for us to avoid any experimentation along this avenue at this stage. Hydrogen, having a much wider flammability band than natural gas, is prone to ignite much more easily when mixed even in small amounts with ordinary air, which mandates very stringent safety requirements for associated equipment and operations, both. Furthermore, in lieu of its around ~10 times lesser specific gravity vis-a-vis natural gas, its storage requires very stringent sealing mechanisms, including specialized cost intensive sealing materials and leak detection systems; especially when its flames cannot be detected with the naked eye. What further complicates the scenario is that the exposure of certain materials to hydrogen, such as steel and iron can cause their embrittlement and failure.

What is to be done?

At present, hydrogen is a luxury which only countries equipped with deep pockets, a rigorous industrial safety regime, proven commitment to environment and a penchant for R&D, can afford. As to Pakistan; our circular debt in the energy supply chain, T&D losses and abject lack of any strategy for oil and gas reserves’ replacement should be sufficient to define our priorities. Thus, instead of venturing into any exotic avenues, keen focus on conventional renewable capacity seems essential. We are targeting producing 60% of our aggregate electricity through renewable  sources by 2030. Actually, so far out of the approximately 39,722 MW installed capacity, 63% is generated by fossil fuels.  In hydel alone; while the potential is at least 60,000 MW, we have reached only 9,000 MW over the past 76 years. As to solar, which is targeted to be 8% of the aggregate be 2030; the currently installed capacity is 430 MW. All signs are there that we will miss all the targets even on this conventional front by big margins, which needs immediate intervention.

Around 4 TCF of proven low to medium BTU natural gas lies stranded in various fields in Pakistan. Efforts need to be undertaken to harness these reserves for economic development. Various options can be considered for the same including establishing mini processing and LNG plants and then transporting this gas to industrial outlets through trucking or mixing it with high BTU gas in the grid. Trucking would not only save infrastructural costs but also the enormous T&D losses. Pakistan’s daily requirement of HSD is around 120,000 BPD and the requirement is mostly fulfilled through imports; whereas, based on the availability statistics of waste edible oil, we can extract ~20% of our HSD requirement from the same as biodiesel.

In hydel alone; while the potential is at least 60,000 MW, we have reached only 9,000 MW over the past 76 years.

Our major challenge lies in execution and the associated failure is driven by the lethal mix of two culprits - incompetence and poor governance. Its impact on the energy sector can be immediately quantified by the ever-soaring energy imports. Though PSEs are a living example; however, with few exceptions, the sickness appears quite rampant in the private sector too. Probably due to the all-encompassing stranglehold of feudalism and associated ethos, sycophancy, cronyism, mediocrity, subservience and conformance, in various shades, largely appear to be holding their sway in this sector too. Such cultures may occasionally produce task masters; but they mostly fail to produce leaders imbibed with the required entrepreneurial spirit and capacity. If this country has to progress; then, this anomaly needs to be addressed as a priority and, of course, in a holistic manner.

Thus, it is evident that the subject option, which may take another few decades even for the developed world to assume the shape of a sustainable value chain, is definitely not an option for us.

The writer can be reached at shahbaz.khan_2006@yahoo.com