Renewable energy sources can help lower emissions from electricity generation, but they have limitations when it comes to other sectors. Wind and solar, for example, can’t help much with the decarbonization of energy-intensive industries such as steel-making, marine fuels, or heavy-duty transportation. So industries and governments are looking at alternative fuels that could make those hard-to-decarbonize sectors less polluting as the world grapples with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent years, hydrogen has gained a lot of momentum. It now features in nearly every strategy of Big Oil and can be seen in many government plans for industry decarbonization.
Governments, international organizations, and oil and gas supermajors say that blue hydrogen (hydrogen plus carbon capture and storage) and green hydrogen (hydrogen made of water electrolysis using electricity from solar or wind) could be the key to helping the decarbonization of emission-intensive industries in the energy transition.
“Green Hydrogen Will Be An Essential Factor In Making The Energy Transition A Success”
Hydrogen will play a prominent role in lowering the carbon emissions from energy-intensive industries, according to German utility giant RWE, which has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040.
“What makes us so optimistic is that, currently, hydrogen is the only technical solution to decarbonize parts of… energy intensive industry, aviation, maritime, but also heavy-duty transportation,” RWE’s incoming chief executive Markus Krebber told CNBC’s Joumanna Bercetche earlier this month.
RWE is discussing a regulatory framework with the German government to potentially “kickstart” a hydrogen economy, Krebber told CNBC.
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The German utility is boosting its renewable power generation, which will - someday - help with green hydrogen production.
By the end of next year, RWE aims to expand its portfolio of wind and solar power plants to more than 13 gigawatts (GW) from over 9 GW now, the company said in its 2020 earnings release this month.
“RWE is convinced that, in addition to the further expansion of renewables, green hydrogen will be an essential factor in making the energy transition a success. The company is participating in some 30 hydrogen projects,” it said.
“Hydrogen will replace fossil fuels in many industrial processes and will be used in transportation in cases where batteries are unsuitable. This is why we are proactively developing a hydrogen economy, both in Germany and beyond,” says RWE. But RWE acknowledges that substantial investments will be needed to make green hydrogen and related infrastructure a cost-viable solution on an industrial scale.
Green Vs Blue Hydrogen
Despite the promises of green hydrogen, most of today’s hydrogen production comes from natural gas reforming and coal gasification, with significant associated CO2 emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says.
Green hydrogen is still prohibitively expensive for industrial-scale operations. Therefore, many oil and gas majors, while ultimately aiming to become green hydrogen producers, are now betting on the so-called blue hydrogen, which is still produced from natural gas, but with carbon capture and utilization or storage (CCUS) to remove the emissions from making the hydrogen.
“Coupling conventional technologies with CCUS is still the main route for low-carbon hydrogen production and will likely remain so in the short to medium term because production costs are lower than for other low-carbon technologies such as electrolysis,” the IEA said in a report last year.
Green or blue, Big Oil has recently bet big on hydrogen as part of the offering of low-carbon energy solutions to help curb emissions and decarbonize energy-intensive industries where emissions are hard to abate.
Big Oil Bets Big On Hydrogen
French supermajor Total looks to become a large producer of clean hydrogen one day, chairman and chief executive Patrick Pouyanné said at an event last month. Total and energy provider Engie have applied for subsidies which, if obtained, would allow them to build the largest green hydrogen facility in France that will use only solar power to produce hydrogen.
Engie is also partnering with Norway’s giant Equinor to explore the potential of producing blue hydrogen in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.
Spain’s Repsol, which like the other European majors has pledged net-zero emissions by 2050, said in February that it would rely on four main pillars in its transformation: energy efficiency, the circular economy, renewable hydrogen, and capture and use of CO2.
BP, Shell, and Eni are also developing green hydrogen projects.
BP said this month it had started developing plans for what would be the largest hydrogen project in the UK, aiming to produce 1 GW of blue hydrogen by 2030.
Shell is leading several hydrogen projects worldwide, including the NortH2 project in the Netherlands, expected to be the largest European green hydrogen project by 2040. In December 2020, RWE and Equinor joined the NortH2 partner consortium.
Shell also bets on hydrogen as one of the fuels that could help cut emissions in the shipping industry.
“We believe liquid hydrogen to be advantaged over other potential zero-emissions fuels for shipping, therefore giving a higher likelihood of success,” the supermajor said in its 2020 report ‘Decarbonising Shipping: Setting Shell’s Course.’
It’s not only the European majors that aim to boost their position in the emerging hydrogen economy.
ExxonMobil said on its Investor Day this month it was positioned to succeed in hydrogen, noting that low-carbon hydrogen from natural gas with CCS has cost and scale advantages versus alternatives.
Chevron is now looking to invest in low-carbon technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage in its “Plan to Deliver Higher Returns, Lower Carbon.”
Until technologies and scale allow green hydrogen to compete with other forms of hydrogen in terms of costs, the world’s top oil and gas companies are betting on blue hydrogen to potentially develop a solution for decarbonizing energy-intensive industries.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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