Renewable energy chief touts ‘green hydrogen’

Source: By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Natural gas has a bleak future, and gas exporters would be wise to pursue alternatives, warns the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Francesco La Camera, director general of IRENA, made those remarks yesterday to gas-exporting country representatives at the start of the final day of an annual meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. GECF is a coalition of large pipeline and liquefied natural gas suppliers.

This year’s GECF meeting was conducted online as a precaution due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States and Australia, which have emerged as major LNG exporters in recent years, are not members of GECF, but La Camera’s comments were aimed at them as well. Norway is a GECF observer but not a full member.

La Camera spent the bulk of his presentation on the growing interest in hydrogen as a substitute for fossil fuels for use in applications where electric battery power isn’t feasible, such as heavy industry and transportation.

He said IRENA’s thinking on hydrogen has evolved and that the agency now believes it likely will become a big deal given major wealthy governments’ growing interest in hydrogen technology applications and the rising pressure faced by those same governments to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

This pressure on governments to act aggressively on climate change does not bode well for natural gas, La Camera said. He pointed to the growing chorus of nations making net-zero commitments — or pledges to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from their economies — as a troubling sign for GECF members and other gas exporters. “Natural gas cannot deliver on this,” La Camera said.

“The political pressure and the momentum for fighting climate change is growing,” said La Camera. “The world has changed.”

La Camera’s talk highlighted rising interest and investment in hydrogen produced from renewable energy-powered electrolysis, a technology used to separate hydrogen from water. Most hydrogen produced today is derived from natural gas, but he said governments have no intention of expanding the footprint of this more polluting form of hydrogen.

He said Middle Eastern nations were well-positioned to build so-called green hydrogen industries due to their abundant sunlight and close proximity to Europe. Solar power could be utilized in electrolysis hydrogen production, while markets such as Germany are poised to become major hydrogen consumers in the coming decades, he said.

He said IRENA still is evaluating the future for green hydrogen developments. But the agency sees production costs for hydrogen produced from electrolysis falling in tandem with decreasing costs for building and operating wind and solar power applications.

Initial findings from IRENA research suggest that green hydrogen has a real future, La Camera stressed.

“Its high energy density makes it more suitable than some battery applications,” he said. Green hydrogen exports “can act as a new revenue source from traditional fossil fuel-exporting countries.”

The chair of the meeting, GECF Secretary-General Yury Sentyurin, countered that gas exporters were well aware of renewable energy’s rise but that natural gas was showing strength of its own. He said gas will still have a major role to play in the energy transition, according to GECF projections, and he invited IRENA to cooperate further on this front.

“Together, natural gas and renewables will provide almost 60% of 2050’s electricity supply,” Sentyurin said. “This abundant, flexible, clean source of energy will expand across all regions, with perhaps the exception of Europe, due to the advancement of renewables as well as enhancement of environmental and energy efficiency policies in European countries. Meanwhile, the Asia Pacific, North America and the Middle Eastern markets will be responsible for more than 75% of the total gas demand growth by 2050.”