by Siddharth Rastogi, Executive Director, MVS Engineering
With ever-rising concerns on climate change and global warming continually driving conversations around economy and energy, the policy conundrum between achieving economic growth and ensuring environmental sustainability has only intensified further in recent years. For a developing economy such as India which is yet to ‘self-realize’ fully, this conundrum is particularly palpable. At the same time, endowed with a favourable geographical location with glorious amount of sunshine and wind backed by policy support, the country has emerged as a renewable energy producer of some consequence ranking fifth in solar and wind power in terms of installed capacity globally.
As renewables increase their footprint on the broader energy policy landscape of India, there are new challenges that are presenting themselves. When the renewable power is in excess of the demand, it has the potential for creating chaos on the grid. Conventional power from hydro, thermal and nuclear is predictable and manageable, renewable power through wind and to a lesser extent solar cannot be predicted well. Green Power producers are facing the threat of penalties if they put excess power on the grid and are being forced to look at alternative uses for the excess power. To address such new challenges, advent of green hydrogen making an appearance as an alternative energy ecosystem worldwide can’t be overlooked. At a time when India is well on its way to meet its Paris commitments for the greater cause of climate change and global warming, an accelerated uptake of green hydrogen within the country can reshape the renewable energy future of India and thereby further facilitate green growth.
What is green hydrogen?
Unlike traditional fossil fuel-based hydrogen, green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis of water using renewable power such as solar or wind which after splitting water’s two main elements hydrogen and oxygen, vents oxygen as a byproduct into the atmosphere.When modern electrolysis technologies such as Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) are used, then there is no further discharge of harmful chemicals and the technology is environmentally friendly and easy to manage.
How India consumes its energy
The industrial sector has been the largest consumer of energy in the country accounting for nearly 56% of the total final energy consumption followed by residential, agriculture, commercial& public sectors at 31% and transport sector at 10 percent. Within the industry sector, the most energy intensive industries are iron and steel at 17% of the industrial energy use followed by Chemicals and petrochemicals at 4% and construction at 2 percent. Similarly for electricity, most of it is consumed by industry at 43% followed by domestic at 24%, agriculture at 18%, commercial at 8%, and traction and railways at 1.5 percent.
How green hydrogen can lead to green consumption
Since industry is the largest consumer of energy with 60% coming from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, the pressing urgency for achieving decarbonisation of this sector cannot be denied. And green hydrogen can serve as a substitute for the high carbon-emitting resources. As such, steel which takes up maximum industrial energy as well as fertilizers which are very critical to an agricultural economy employing nearly 40% of workforce, are potential large-scale consumers of green hydrogen. In fertilizer production, ammonia produced from green hydrogen would not only replace the carbon-intensive natural gas-based ammonia but can also serve as the store and carrier of hydrogen which is further fraught with disruptive implications for nitrogen fertilizer industry. Similarly, methanol which is mainly made from methane, a major greenhouse gas, and is used for several items of everyday use such as plastics, paints, auto parts and construction materials -- can also be made from green hydrogen. Importantly, methanol is also a clean source of energy for transport. It is important to note that certain sectors such as long-distance trucking, concrete and steel manufacturing, shipping and aviation necessarily require high energy density fuel, and are therefore difficult to be decoupled from fossil fuels. Green hydrogen could serve as an option for these sectors. In fact, long distance trucking is one of the most cost-effective ways of popularizing hydrogen fueling as compared to passenger vehicles which require a much larger fueling infrastructure investment across the cities. Whereas, to serve long distance trucking, hydrogen fueling stations can have a sparser population only along major highways. With heavy-duty transport market set to expand in a big way in the coming years in India, this is a potential sector for green hydrogen consumption. Notably, hydrogen dispenses into the vehicles as regular gaseous fuel like CNG and as a result hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) can be refilled nearly as fast as gasoline vehicles as against the well over 90 minutes to 8 hours required for battery-driven electric vehicles. Green hydrogen when blended with natural gas can also be stored in existing gas pipelines to power household appliances.
Pathways for green hydrogen: staying ahead of the technology curve is the key
In view of the relatively nascent nature of green hydrogen (as opposed to carbon-intensive natural gas-based grey hydrogen) as a resource coupled with the issues of substantial technology acquisition and implementation costs at present, bringing down the costs of green hydrogen technologies and equipment must become the foremost priority for policymakers. And this can only be done by way of enhanced investment and scaling up through policy support for technologies related to the production, transportation, storage and use of green hydrogen. Both supply and demand-side policies including subsidies and tax incentives are required to propel a greater deployment and diffusion of green hydrogen technologies on the ground. Just as deployment and scaling up of plants and technologies for batteries, solar, onshore wind and offshore wind brought down their costs substantially between 2010 and 2018 – by 84%, 87%, 47% and 32% respectively – there is no reason why a similar accomplishment can’t be made for green hydrogen. It must be remembered that one of the first large scale alkaline electrolyser facilities in the world producing hydrogen from electricity was set up at Nangal way back in 1962.Although most experts are somewhat sceptic on the immediate feasibility of Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUs) technology in India, a step can definitely be taken towards ramping up of water electrolysis technology capacities. In addition, pairing of renewable power plants with electrolysers and local hydrogen storage can also be explored.
The global tailwinds for green hydrogen
On a global level, investment in green hydrogen production is set to touch upwards of $1 billion a year by 2023 itself. On the back of booming investment, the prices of electrolysers have dipped by 50% last five years. In another estimate by IHS Markit, in the last five-six years, the production costs of green hydrogen have plunged by 40% and are expected to fall by a further 40% through 2025.India needs to capitalize on these global trends.
Therefore, with the rising share of renewables, the relatively costly natural gas, the emergence of one of the lowest renewable electricity tariff regimes in the world and hosting of an extensive gas pipeline network, the country is already well placed to pursue an ambitious green hydrogen agenda. A suitable policy stimulus with a coherent roadmap for the future with an eye on integrating with the emerging global value chain is the need of the hour. The National Hydrogen Mission announced by the Government of India this year indicates that there is conviction and faith in this technology at the highest levels of government.