Shell has just flipped the switch on the biggest green hydrogen plant in the EU, and it looks like the oil and gas giant could have a hand in fostering the renewable H2 revolution here in the US, as well. It better ramp up quickly, though. Global demand for hydrogen demand has tripled since the 1970s and it has nowhere to go but up.
Shell Jumps On Green Hydrogen Bandwagon
The spiking interest in hydrogen fuel cells threatens to add more load to the global carbon footprint, despite all the good things you hear about hydrogen as a zero emission fuel.
That’s because almost all of the global hydrogen supply is sourced from fossil natural gas, through a steam reformation process. A movement is afoot to reduce the carbon footprint of hydrogen by combining steam reformation with carbon capture. However, that still leaves the carbon footprint of the rest of the natural gas supply chain to account for, including methane releases from drilling sites as well as leaks and breaks throughout the transmission, storage, and distribution network.
More sustainable hydrogen sources are finally beginning to emerge, including biomass, biogas, wastewater, waste plastic, and electrolysis, which refers to the process of teasing hydrogen from water with an electrical current.
Now that the cost of renewable energy has dropped, electrolysis is attracting significant attention from leading energy stakeholders. Shell is one of them, juiced by its interests in offshore wind.
Biggest Green Hydrogen Plant For EU, Maybe One For US, Too
Shell built its new green hydrogen plant at its Energy and Chemicals Park in Rheinland, Germany, with a healthy assist from the a consortium of hydrogen stakeholders and the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.
Billed as “the first to use this technology at such a large scale in a refinery,” the new electrolysis plant revved up last week at a capacity of 10 megawatts. Plans are already under way to add 90 megawatts more.
“The Rheinland electrolyser will use renewable electricity to produce up to 1,300 tonnes of green hydrogen a year. This will initially be used to produce fuels with lower carbon intensity. The green hydrogen will also be used to help decarbonise other industries,” Shell explains.
Meanwhile, Shell has partnered with EDF Renewables to build a gigantic wind farm off the coast of New Jersey. The project includes plans for a 5-10 megawatt electrolysis facility and it just won the green light from the state’s Board of Public Utilities.
If all goes according to plan, Shell could take credit for the biggest green hydrogen plant in the US as well as the EU, but it better act fast. The fuel cell firm Plug Power is already making some swift moves in the direction of renewable hydrogen, and energy stakeholders in several western states are organizing around green hydrogen.
In one especially intriguing indication of surging interest in the US, Texas has launched a study aimed at leveraging its wind and solar resources to produce green hydrogen at scale.
Fuel Cells Or Not, Hydrogen Demand Is Up, Up, Up
All of this is great news for decarbonization fans, except that interest in fuel cells and other hydrogen applications is growing, too. If green hydrogen can’t keep up, the growing demand for hydrogen will raise tears of joy in the eyes of natural gas stakeholders.
Last month the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy took a close look at the issue and noted that global hydrogen demand tripled after 1975, landing at 70 metric tons in 2019.
Aside from fuel cells for vehicles and stationary energy generation, the researchers noted that the top industrial applications for hydrogen are oil refining and ammonia production, with methanol production and steel making also playing a significant role in global demand.
“Hydrogen or hydrogen-based fuels can also substitute for solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels in heavy industry, including in the production of chemicals, cement, glass, and steel. Combustion of hydrogen can provide high-quality, low-carbon heat for industrial applications (e.g., melting, gasifying, drying, or catalyzing chemical reactions),” they observe.
They also take note of an emerging trend in power generation, in which gas turbines run on a blend of hydrogen and natural gas. There is also talk of blending hydrogen into the existing natural gas distribution system for residential and commercial use.
Green Hydrogen Says: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
In other words, whether or not automakers can actually make fuel cell cars work, demand for hydrogen will go up as various industrial sectors seek to shrink the carbon footprint of their operations.
With that in mind, the race is on to push the cost of green hydrogen down so far low that nobody will be interested in fossil-sourced hydrogen, even with carbon capture.
That could happen sooner rather than later. The US Department of Energy has tapped hydrogen as the first area of focus under its new “Energy Earthshots” mission, which aims to pour a torrent of American R&D resources down upon areas of urgent need. Specifically, the aim is to push the cost of “clean” hydrogen to $1.00 per kilogram by 2030, down from the current mark of $5.00 per kilogram.
Hydrogen Earthshot casts a wide net, so there is plenty of wiggle room for natural gas plus carbon capture to make an appearance.
Or, maybe not. Aside from the falling cost of electrolysis equipment and renewable energy, other renewable hydrogen resources are beginning to emerge, and activity in the US has begun to pick up in recent months. Here’s a quick lookback at CleanTechnica’s take back in May:
“Here in the US, the Wyoming firm Raven SR has hooked up on a waste-to-hydrogen plan with the New York State fuel cell company Hyzon that involves 100 hydrogen hubs scattered about the globe.
“Another US waste-to-hydrogen firm with something in the works is Ways2H. Last March the company and Japan Blue Energy Co., its shareholder and technical partner, announced that work is finished on a sewage sludge-to-hydrogen facility in Tokyo, aimed both at the fuel call and the power generation markets.”
Another development popped up last fall, when researchers at Princeton University let word slip about a method for prying hydrogen loose from brewery waste. That opens up all sorts of opportunities for the beverage and food processing industry.
The waste upcycling angle is also at work at Oxford University, where a multinational research team came up with a microwave process for stripping hydrogen from plastic waste. As an extra upcycling bonus, the process also yields carbon nanotubes as a byproduct.
In an interesting twist, the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory partnered with Texaco (remember it?) back in 1995, on a project to tease hydrogen out of municipal solid waste. No word on where that project is today, but last year LLNL produced a major report on pathways for California to achieve carbon-neutral status, and waste-to hydrogen was front and center.
“Gasifying biomass to make hydrogen fuel and CO2 has the largest promise for CO2 removal at the lowest cost and aligns with the State’s goals on renewable hydrogen,” they concluded.
Hold on to your hats!
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Photo (screenshot): Electrolysis facility for producing renewable hydrogen from water, courtesy of Shell.