Green hydrogen to boost a sustainable economy in India

An overview of the significant challenges India is encountering on the technological and economic aspects of the transition to green hydrogen.

Dr MP Sukumaran Nair
Former Secretary to Chief Minister, Kerala and Chairman, Public Sector Restructuring & Audit Board, Govt of Kerala

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Article Summary

Hydrogen, the lightest gas and the first element in the periodic table of elements, is colourless and odourless. But the industry nowadays talks widely about grey, blue, and green hydrogen. The context is decarbonisation of human activities to save the planet from an impending climatic disaster through a transition from fossil hydrocarbons to hydrogen as a future energy carrier. The recently published 6th Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns that the goal of 1.5ËšC recommended in the Paris Agreement three years ago will be reached by 2030 — a decade earlier than announced previously — has also added a fair amount of momentum to the above.

Unlike hydrocarbons, all of which are fossil origin barring a few synthetic fuels, hydrogen upon combustion produces only water and no carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases (GHG). Here, the colour of hydrogen is attributed to its carbon intensity — a measure of emissions given out during its production.

Grey hydrogen is the gas produced from hydrocarbon feedstock, such as oil or natural gas, along with the attendant emissions of GHG, predominantly CO2. If the CO2 emitted is subsequently contained through a process called carbon sequestration — sending the compressed gas to abandoned oil wells or other mines beneath the earth, not to rise up again and cause warming up of the atmosphere and consequent climatic distortions — the hydrogen produced is termed blue hydrogen. Green hydrogen is the gas produced from electrolysis of water using renewable (green) electricity without any emissions throughout its entire life cycle, from production to end use.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier that when produced sustainably without GHG emissions is considered one of the solutions to the escalating climate change crisis. Green hydrogen is produced out of water (which contains two atoms of hydrogen chemically bonded to one oxygen atom) through an electrolytic process with the use of renewable power. The equipment used for splitting water into its elements using electricity is called an electrolyser.

Major uses of green hydrogen include power generation, as an energy carrier to power heavy industry such as steelmaking, manufacturing ammonia for the fertiliser industry, and as a fuel for hard-to-decarbonised vehicles, including aircraft and ships. Across the world, green hydrogen development efforts are gaining technical and economic importance, both in developed and developing countries. The burgeoning global green hydrogen market is projected to be worth $11 trillion by 2050, as per Goldman Sachs’ estimates.

It is widely believed that every sector in which fossil energy is currently employed will become decarbonised during the energy transition over the next decades. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, while speaking at the Airbus Summit 2021, said that while quantities, delivery mechanisms, and the price of hydrogen pose certain challenges, he is confident to deliver hydrogen-powered zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

Power generation
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021, of the 26,823 TW of electricity produced in 2020, 16,447 TW (61%) was generated from fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas. The IPCC estimates that the production of electricity emits 10 giga-tonnes, or approximately 37% of global CO2 emissions. Therefore, renewable power generation becomes a priority agenda for producers supplying power to the grid. In the transport sector, green hydrogen will also supplement electric power to replace fossil fuels.

In India, now that the commercial viability of renewable power, especially solar power, has been well established, public sector majors NTPC and Coal India are also venturing into green hydrogen, for which low cost green power is an essential requisite. NTPC have got the go-ahead from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to set up a 4,750 MW renewable energy park at Rann of Kutch in Khavada, Gujarat to become India’s largest solar park.

India’s private sector is also extremely proactive in clean energy. Major private sector companies Reliance and Adani are also focusing on the sector. Adani plans to invest $20 billion in clean energy, aiming to make it the biggest clean energy company in the world, without subsidy or viability gap funding. The company now has a cumulative 25 GW of renewable energy projects already developed and under construction.

Reliance has revealed plans to set up 100 GW of solar power-generating capacity by 2030. Being a major player in the global hydrocarbon industry, Reliance expects to make green hydrogen available at $1 per kilogram by 2030, catalysing the country’s energy transition towards zero emissions.

A relatively new entrant, ReNew Power, started in 2011 and has developed a generation base of 10 GW, with several projects in the pipeline and also under development. Tata Power currently has one-third of its generation of 13 GW as renewable power and plans to phase out coal-based capacity and expand its clean and green capacity to 80% by 2030.

Production of steel is estimated to contribute to about 9% of CO2 emissions globally and due to the high temperatures required in steel furnaces is considered one of the more difficult industries to decarbonise.

Experimentation is under way to produce direct reduced iron (DRI) from iron ore using green hydrogen instead of natural gas. According to McKinsey, hydrogen-based DRI is, therefore, expected to be a major decarbonisation lever for steelmakers, and given the announcements a number of companies have made to introduce DRI, strong growth is expected in the future. In fact, scenarios based on a carbon-neutral steel industry — a goal many major steelmakers have pledged — have DRI production tripling within the next 30 years.

In 2020, world ammonia production stood at 180 million tonnes, with China, Russia, India, and the US as the major players. Around 80% of synthetic ammonia is used for making mineral fertilisers for enhancing crops yields. Other user industries include plastics, fibres, explosives, nitric acid, and intermediates. In the future, ammonia is expected to be useful for energy storage, as well as a zero-carbon fuel and a hydrogen energy carrier for long-distance shipping in the marine sector. The International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) estimates that approximately 1.2% of the world’s energy is used for fertiliser production, of which 93% is marked for ammonia. Despite the enormous strides made by the industry in past years in reducing emissions, current ammonia production methods still contributed to 1% of total global emissions in 2019. It is generally agreed in the industry that a further reduction in energy consumption of the order of 6-7% is possible even in the most efficiently operating plants, although this would require an increased capex. Recent developments in the ammonia industry are epoch making and innovation unprecedented. The green ammonia concept fully eliminates the use of fossil fuel and feedstock and consequently wards off any emissions on that account.

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