By Dominic Cuthbert, ITM Power
Relying on imported gas is hamstringing our energy security and our collective efforts towards net zero.
Energy systems are in flux as global economies balance the pressing need to decarbonise with the constant requirement for heat and power. At a time when fossil fuel dependence has reached a tipping point, price volatility associated with natural gas has become untenable, and energy is being used as a bargaining chip during geopolitical crises, all nations are currently in the process of reimagining their energy systems. The challenge lies in balancing the energy trilemma of energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability, which we had all thought had gone away, but is back with a sting in its tail.
Although it can be easy to look at the climate and energy crises as a simple case of moving away from fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives, that doesn’t encompass the breadth of the paradigm shift that needs to occur. At the core of how nations are reimagining their energy systems is how they control the production and storage of molecular energy.
Simply put, molecular energy is the energy stored in chemical bonds between atoms within molecules. When a chemical reaction occurs, the chemical energy within a molecule can increase, or that energy can be released into its surroundings as another form of energy such as heat or light. On the other hand, chemical energy – such as petroleum, coal and natural gas – is energy stored in the bonds of chemical compounds. This energy is released during exothermic reactions, such as the burning of natural gas or coal, in order to be utilised, resulting in significant carbon emissions. Green hydrogen, however, is produced using renewable electricity to split water molecules into its constituent atoms. When it is then used in transport and industrial applications, the only by-product is water vapour.
As it is molecular, green hydrogen is a perfect option for energy storage. While crucial for the green transition and for maintaining a net zero world, the intermittency of renewable power leads to difficulties with supply and demand. The challenge lies in the fact that, as electrons, renewable power must be used immediately or it can only be stored for a short period of time. But by converting it into green hydrogen, it can be stored for months at a time until needed. The grid can be better and more reliably balanced, renewable power would no longer have to be wasted, and nations can be weaned away from dependence on petrostates.
As the adage goes, all dark clouds have a silver lining, and so it is with the Ukraine crisis. Although abhorrent, the actions of Russia are disrupting the status quo of an energy system dependent on fossil fuels. Following the beginning of the invasion in March, the European Union made it clear that, in response, it would be cutting Russian gas use, switching to alterative supplies, and stated that it would make Europe independent from Russian energy before 2030. This materialised in the signing of a major deal with the United States on liquefied natural gas. Specifically, the agreement will provide the EU with approximately 10% of the gas it currently receives from Russia by the end of 2022.
This is an important first step, as energy continuity must be maintained. Moving forward, the challenge becomes about gradually replacing that liquid gas with green hydrogen. Of course, doing so is easier said than done. Firstly, there needs to be significant investment and favourable policy in order to turn an admittedly niche clean alternative energy into one with a significant market share. Yet we have the means, the technology and, now, we have the global impetus.
Speaking to H2-View earlier this year on the gas crisis, Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, said: “The energy crisis in Europe has shone an important light on green hydrogen. The feedstock for green hydrogen is renewable power, which continues to reduce in price. The feedstock for grey and blue hydrogen, however, is natural gas, which has significantly increased in price. We have now achieved a price crossover, and green hydrogen is currently the lowest cost form of hydrogen in many parts of the world. But green hydrogen gives you more than just low-cost net zero energy gas. It also provides energy storage, fuel security and, when coupled with a long-term PPA, a solid price that eliminates fuel price volatility associated with fossil fuels. All of this leads policy makers to revisit green hydrogen on the basis of low cost, low price volatility, energy storage capability, and fuel security.”
The current natural gas supply uncertainties are therefore a catalyst for creating an energy system dominated by renewables and green hydrogen that is more insulated from global market fluctuations, not reliant on exports from foreign powers and vitally, fit for a net zero future.
To hear more from ITM Power, join Green Hydrogen 2022, a one-day conference focussed on accelerating the green hydrogen economy to meet these new and ambitious government targets. The event will cover the latest policy updates from BEIS as well as share practical guidance from industry on how best to deliver green hydrogen projects. As an industry at the beginning of an epic transformation, this is the place to meet, network and collaborate with policy makers, project developers, manufacturers, network operators and supply chain within the green hydrogen space. Last few tickets available, register now to secure your place.
Green Hydrogen 2022 is on Thursday 05 May at ITM’s Gigafactory in Sheffield.