The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Switching to green hydrogen with zero emissions

George M Mangion Sunday, 15 May 2022, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Energy market developments in recent months - especially in Europe - have proven once again the essential role of renewables in improving energy security, in addition to their well-established effectiveness at reducing emissions.

As can be expected, Malta will also need to comply to become carbon neutral by 2050 and in the process needs to cut red tape, accelerate the deliveries of permits and provide the right incentives for a faster replacement of fossil fuel. The next big step is to replace pollution resulting from transport by switching to "green hydrogen". So what exactly is "green hydrogen"? The term refers to hydrogen fuel created in plants using entirely renewable energy sources.

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Key challenges to hydrogen delivery include reducing cost, increasing energy efficiency, maintaining hydrogen purity and minimizing hydrogen leakage. Further research is needed to analyse the trade-offs between the hydrogen production options and the hydrogen delivery options when considered together as a system. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles travel longer distances using less energy. One kg of hydrogen contains about the same energy as a gallon of petrol.

Today a fuel-cell electric vehicle with 1kg of hydrogen can drive approximately 60 miles, compared to conventional vehicles, which get about 25 miles on a gallon of petrol. One of the large sources for hydrogen is water, which can be split into hydrogen and oxygen by use of renewable electricity from solar and wind.

The technology that is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen is called water electrolysis. Hydrogen generated by electrolysis can be made from renewable electricity. Hydrogen can also help integrate more renewables into the energy system and can be used for things like heating homes, seasonal energy storage and running heavy industrial plants. Hydrogen helps store energy and will eventually enable a 100% renewable energy system while also powering transport.

It is a positive remark when comparing hydrogen fuel cell to electric motors since in the former storage costs are lower compared to batteries - thus hydrogen can achieve long range while enjoying an advantage that in the near future, the option of such transportation can be cheaper. Certainly, building a national hydrogen delivery infrastructure is a big challenge for small islands like Malta. It will take time to develop and will likely include combinations of various technologies.

Readers may ask what are the advantages of using green hydrogen over traditional fossil fuel for transportation. The answer is that hydrogen as an energy carrier and fuel that, when fed into a fuel cell, can power vehicles and trucks without releasing harmful emissions. Hydrogen and fuel cells can reduce emissions in heavy-duty vehicles, which are the largest contributor to mobile nitrogen-oxide emissions.

Comparing electric vehicles with zero emissions to hydrogen powered fuel-cells, one observes that in battery-only electric vehicles, electricity charges the battery directly while in hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles, hydrogen is stored as a fuel in a tank. The process involves having hydrogen flowing into a fuel cell, which then reacts with oxygen from the air and creates electricity that powers the electric motor.

The main advantage over electric cars is that a fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can use a wide range of fuels and feedstocks and can provide power for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer. Fuel cells make the vehicle more efficient and quieter, because there are fewer vibrations from moving parts.

Hydrogen fuel allows vehicles to travel longer distances with less refuelling, so it is ideal for running heavy-duty machinery and public transit buses. Another advantage is that zero-emission vehicles using hydrogen fuel cell can idle without contributing to air pollution. There are many reasons that speak for hydrogen: such as meeting climate targets for 2030 and greenhouse gas neutrality targets for 2050, energy transition or the latest pressing reason reaching independence in energy supply from Russia. Let us visit and explore what Germany is planning to meet its carbon neutrality targets. In its national hydrogen strategy of 2020, the German Federal government recognises the potential and the opportunities of hydrogen.

The core mission is to replace fossil fuels particularly gaseous and liquid energy sources, which are an integral part of Germany's energy supply. Hydrogen is seen as the key element of this energy transition, whereas only green hydrogen, which is hydrogen produced by using renewable energy, is considered to be sustainable in the long-term. Even though in initial stages hydrogen technology is expensive and not yet affordable for all, when compared to fossil energy and natural gas prices, green technologies will most likely prevail and be the more affordable solution in the long run.

Growth in hydrogen demand in Europe will require regional expansion of this infrastructure and development of new technologies, such as carriers to transport hydrogen at high density and high-throughput fuelling technologies for heavy-duty fuel cell transportation. Where the hydrogen is produced can have a big impact on the cost and best method of delivery. For example, a large, located hydrogen production facility in the Middle East or North Africa can produce hydrogen at a lower cost, but then it costs more to deliver because the point of use is farther away.

Back to the local scene, it is encouraging to read how MCAST has engaged researchers from the Institute of Engineering and Trans­­port that are conducting detailed technical research in this field and also into the efficient production of hydrogen from water. Naturally, much more research is needed to establish the viability of a hydrogen-based transport network for the Maltese islands. This is a bold and challenging task for the energy minister to effectively legislate for a dedicated hydrogen strategy.

As can be expected, the top priority is the conversion of the existing Electrogas plant currently running on fossil fuel to be converted to run on hydrogen. One hopes that future supplies of this zero emission fuel will be available once the gas pipeline to Sicily comes on stream.

 

George M. Mangion is a partner in PKF, an audit and business advisory firm


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