Participants at a recent ‘Future Energy Summit’ in Abu Dhabi discussed the problem of integrating variable renewable energy into electricity grids. Despite the significant challenges, an upbeat mood pervaded the conference. As one panelist, Mahmoud Hanafy, Senior Vice President at Siemens, put it, “The Middle East is a blessed region for energy.”
All seemed to agree, and they weren’t thinking about oil and gas.
That the energy transition is good news for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), that renewables could become a new source of export income, growing even as income from hydrocarbons declines, was an important insight that emerged.
Indeed, pilot projects now being launched thousands of miles away in the Pacific, and planning in Europe, could hold great significance for MENA. They concern the so-called ‘green hydrogen’ produced from renewable energy.
Getting started with hydrogen
It is widely agreed that a post-carbon future will be much more electrified. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) foresees the share of electricity rising from 20% of final energy consumption today to almost 50% by 2050. Renewable power will provide the bulk of it, with conversion of the transport sector and the heating and cooling of buildings to electric power.
To help facilitate this change, IRENA sees a significant role for hydrogen as a store and means of transporting excess renewable energy, as well as a feedstock for industrial processes. The agency calls for getting started by finding niches where it makes sense to support commercial-scale hydrogen pilot projects. Related: The 3 Hottest Inverse Energy ETFs
The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its landmark report on hydrogen last year, also sees it as a leading low-cost option for short- and long-term storage of renewable energy. The IEA sees hydrogen facing an uphill climb with a need for governments and companies to cooperate, building on existing infrastructure such as natural gas pipelines. They should also try to launch the first international shipping routes for hydrogen, with governments working in coordination to scale up clean hydrogen trade.
This work is beginning now with important pilot projects in Asia, which may be harbingers of new opportunities for the Middle East.
Starting a hydrogen road
Japanese companies and development agencies are now advancing on two ways to ship hydrogen over long distances to Japan.
One, a ‘cryogenic’ method that moves liquid hydrogen at very low temperature, is led by Kawasaki. The company is creating a ‘Hydrogen Road’ connecting Australia to Japan, deploying proprietary technology at facilities now under construction. Hydrogen production is not from renewables but from ‘brown coal,’ with gasification and gas refining in Latrobe Valley in the state of Victoria, and liquefaction and loading at Hastings near Melbourne.
Shipment will occur on a new liquefied hydrogen carrier – the world’s first – the Suiso Frontier. The vessel built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries was launched last December. It will traverse a nearly 6,000 mile journey to Kobe Port in southern Japan, where a special storage tank will maintain the fuel at minus 253 degrees C (minus 423 F), which is 91 degrees C below that of liquid natural gas (LNG at minus 162 C).
The hydrogen will be combined with natural gas to fire a turbine supplying heat and power to an area near the port. Kawasaki has developed a gas turbine that can run entirely on hydrogen fuel.
Another Japanese-led hydrogen supply chain pilot project is now producing hydrogen from LNG in Brunei, converting it to a stable liquid that can be carried by more conventional shipping on another long journey to Japan. The project will carry some 200 metric tonnes of hydrogen to Japan to fuel power plants during 2020.
The demonstration project is occurring through collaboration of Kawasaki and Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and a consortium of Japanese companies, with strong support from the Sultanate’s government.
MENA is well positioned
Japan, one of the largest importers of the Middle East’s energy, is planning to deploy hydrogen as a clean energy source on a large scale by 2030. It’s conceivable that a Hydrogen Road could open in the shipping lanes to the Middle East, carrying the region’s vast potential stores of renewable energy to Japan and other East Asian countries.
One Middle East energy expert who is watching closely is Frank Wouters, head of the EU-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Clean Energy Network. He sees several potential ways to ship green hydrogen from MENA to East Asia. Related: Has U.S. Electricity Lost Its Spark?
“You can make ammonia from hydrogen completely green, no carbon, for shipment to Japan,” says Wouters. “A coal-fired power plant can be fueled with up to 20% ammonia, and over time fueled completely with ammonia.” He notes that Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems has developed a gas turbine that can run on 100% ammonia.
In a report, ‘The New Oil, Green Hydrogen from the Gulf,’ Wouters and Dr. Ad van Wijk calculate the cost of producing green hydrogen in the GCC countries and sketch a roadmap for its export. They see an advantageous cost structure for the Gulf countries to become global leaders in the production of green hydrogen for export in liquid form to Asian markets.
Wouters sees possibilities especially for Saudi Arabia. “Green hydrogen can be an important hydrocarbon export replacement, the numbers are convincing,” he says. “The opportunity is massive in the Kingdom’s northwest with its strong wind and high solar irradiance, where thermal winds are related to sunlight (i.e., sun goes down, winds pick up).”
From North Africa by pipeline
Another large energy importer, Europe, offers a vast potential export market for North African clean hydrogen, specifically in the form of gas by pipeline.
Wouters has coauthored several research papers including ‘A North Africa – Europe Hydrogen Manifesto’ (Wouters, et. al., Dii Desert Energy, 2019), in which the authors argue for a joint hydrogen strategy between Europe and North Africa, to help build a European energy system based on 50% renewable electricity and 50% green hydrogen by 2050.
The authors have estimated production capacities and mapped the pipeline infrastructure that could be used for hydrogen gas, connecting the solar and wind resources of North Africa to Europe. Morocco leads the way in research and planning for green hydrogen at its Institut de Recherche en Energie Solaires et Energies Nouvelles (IRESEN).
In another report published on-line called ‘Hydrogen, the final fuel?’ Wouters notes that a main advantage of hydrogen is relatively cheap transport by existing pipeline infrastructure.
He asserts that moving hydrogen through existing natural gas pipeline is highly feasible and that Europe's existing natural gas grid can be converted at very low cost. He refers to recent Dutch studies that conclude that the existing grids, both on- and offshore, can accommodate up to 100% hydrogen without major modification to the actual pipelines.
In a sign that this hydrogen route is being looked at seriously at the highest levels, the EU Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans recently mentioned importing hydrogen from North Africa during questioning at the European Parliament.
So it could be that countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which have long enabled the world’s economic development with low cost hydrocarbons, will see emerging opportunities to provide carbon-free energy to the world. Europe and Asia could become lucrative new markets for the MENA countries, should they become major hydrogen producers in a bid to replace declining hydrocarbon exports.
By Alan Mammoser for Oilprice.com
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