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Is hydrogen the new oil?

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The Tokyo Olympics, assuming they go ahead later this month, will be powered by a fuel with ambition – hydrogen. The Olympic flame is already burning it. The Olympic village will be powered by hydrogen made at a solar power plant in the exclusion zone created after the Fukushima nuclear accident a decade ago. Toyota’s Mirai cars, which run on hydrogen-fuel cells, will provide most of the Games’ official transport.

“The 1964 Tokyo Olympics left the Shinkansen high-speed train system as its legacy. The upcoming Olympics will leave a hydrogen society as its legacy,” Yoichi Masuzoe, then governor of Tokyo, declared in 2016.

Japan, once a passionate advocate of nuclear energy, now has serious hydrogen ambitions. The country has the world’s largest network of hydrogen filling stations. It is planning to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen in heavy industries such as steel-making. And it has a head start in organising imports of the fuel. In 2019, Kawasaki Heavy Industries launched the Suiso Frontier, the world’s first ship designed to carry liquefied hydrogen. It aims to tap promised Australian hydrogen production. https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/6665561/embed

Neighbouring South Korea has similar plans. In March this year, car-maker Hyundai, the SK Group conglomerate and others announced a US$38-billion project to develop a hydrogen-based economy in the coming decade.

Wide-spread use of hydrogen, it if really happens, will have been a long time coming. The first hydrogen-powered engine was working as long ago as 1807, and people were proposing making hydrogen by electrolysing water, to replace coal as early as the 1860s. But coal and oil were always cheaper. And the Hindenburg disaster, when a hydrogen-filled airship exploded in 1937, gave the fuel a reputation as unsafe.

There is talk that a global “hydrogen economy” can emerge to save the climate from carbon emissions. Hydrogen could power trucks, ships and planes and be used to produce everything from cement to steel and fertiliser. Saehoon Kim, the head of Hyundai’s fuel cell division told a British trade association webinar last year: “In the past, our technology and industry was all about collecting oil, delivering oil and using oil. And now, in the future, it will be collecting sunshine, delivering sunshine and using sunshine – and what will make that possible is hydrogen.”

Others are much more sceptical. “It is only ever going to be a niche energy source,” said Tom Baxter, a chemical engineer at the University of Aberdeen.

With current technology, hydrogen has an advantage for fuelling industrial processes where temperatures above 400C are required, Baxter added. But otherwise, green hydrogen will usually lose out to electricity where the latter can do the job. “Green hydrogen can never be cheaper than the green electricity needed to make it,” he said.

Grey, green or blue?

Hydrogen is rarely burned directly as a fuel source. Instead it is used as a carrier of energy, made where cheap energy is available for manufacture and shipping round the world to where it is needed. Usually that means in a fuel cell inside a vehicle engine, where the gas is mixed with oxygen, releasing its energy and emitting only water vapour.

In the past two years, electric cars have stolen a march on hydrogen, with most major car makers bringing out models and some, like General Motors, promising to manufacture only electric vehicles within 15 years. They have government backing too, with heavy spending on recharging networks. But for other fossil-fuel guzzling transport systems which cannot easily plug into the mains, such as long-distance shipping and aviation, hydrogen may turn out to be the key to lowering carbon emissions.

The gas contains more energy for every tonne than any fossil fuel, and avoids the need for batteries. But manufacturing it takes a lot of electricity. So it is only as climate friendly as the energy used to produce it. Engineers thus distinguish between grey, blue and green hydrogen. Grey is made from natural gas or coal, and has a large carbon footprint. Blue is also made from fossil fuels but the carbon dioxide emissions are captured or re-used. Green is from renewable electricity and need have no carbon footprint at all.

Right now, grey hydrogen is cheapest and the predominant type for industrial uses. China produces around a third of the world’s hydrogen, largely from lignite coal. Russia is working on plans to use its abundant gas reserves to produce grey and blue hydrogen. To be a viable climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, manufacturers would have to capture the CO2 generated during production and bury it out of harm’s way. However, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is still very much work in progress.

Baxter, of the University of Aberdeen, said fossil fuel companies are behind the push to promote hydrogen as an alternative to electricity for everything from vehicle fuel to home heating. Oil giant BP is considering plans for a blue hydrogen plant on Teesside in England that it says would capture and store the resulting CO2 emissions underground.

In their long-term plans, major oil companies are looking at hydrogen as a potential source of income, once demand for petrol and diesel starts petering out. Their move towards alternative fuels has been painfully slow. BP will make a final investment decision on Teeside only in three years’ time and it doesn’t expect to start actual construction before 2027 – three years before all new cars in the UK are expected to be electric.

“For the moment, fossil fuels are cheaper and much more widely available than hydrogen. This comes in part because of large government subsidies across the globe which amount to US$400 billion. If those subsidies were removed, alternative fuels like hydrogen would stand a better chance of becoming widely adopted,” said Seifi Ghasemi, chief executive of US industrial gas company Air Products at a BNEF conference in New York this year.

The real prize, if the world is serious about developing a low-carbon hydrogen economy, would have to be the mass production of green hydrogen. Some countries already see themselves as potentially the “Saudi Arabia of hydrogen”, mass producing the fuel using cheap renewable energy. Among them are Canada and Iceland, which both have abundant hydroelectricity that could help manufacture it. Iceland also has geothermal energy. Morocco is rapidly developing solar power in the Sahara desert and has designs on hydrogen production.

Saudi Arabia has its own plans. The country recently announced that, with Air Products, it is building a US$5-billion green hydrogen plant along the shore of the Red Sea. A vast estate of solar panels and wind turbines will eventually cover a patch of desert the size of Belgium, powering what would be the world’s biggest hydrogen factory. Production is set to begin in 2025.

The project would be part of the proposed eco-city of Neom, a scheme of the country’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman. Besides supplying the eco-city, the hydrogen would be exported, one day replacing Saudi oil with Saudi hydrogen on world markets.

Neighbouring Oman has plans to go even bigger. Its proposed US$30-billion hydrogen plant on the shores of the Arabian Sea would export both green hydrogen and “green ammonia”, to replace fossil-fuel produced chemical fertilisers.

Australia has similarly ambitious plans for five giant “hydrogen hubs”. Last year it said it would turn an area of desert more than twice the size of Luxembourg in Western Australia into a green hydrogen production facility, with 10 million solar panels and 1,500 wind turbines.

The project is currently on hold after blueprints were rejected by ministers in June because of threats to biodiversity, but may ultimately go ahead. Meanwhile, there are plans for another green-hydrogen hub in Hunter Valley, a region of coal fields in New South Wales, as well as a grey hydrogen scheme, using lignite in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. All aim at exporting to Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

Who will create the Tesla of the skies?

Aviation may be the biggest prize. Airbus, the world’s second largest plane maker, last year unveiled plans for three different zero-emission “concept” hydrogen planes that it says could be in service by 2035. Meanwhile, California start-up ZeroAvia has a six-seater research plane already running on hydrogen. It took off for the first time from the UK’s Cranfield airport last autumn. The plane crashed in a field in April, but nobody was hurt, and it could yet become the Tesla of the skies. “A substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is almost impossible without hydrogen,” says Christian Bauer of the Paul Scherrer Institute, a Swiss engineering research centre. “I’d say that within the next ten years, we will see substantial developments here.”

Other deals between potential suppliers and major markets are proliferating. Danish wind-power company Orsted has signed a deal with Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping carrier, and Scandinavian Airlines to use offshore wind generated in the North Sea to produce green hydrogen for buses and trucks in the Copenhagen area from 2023, with ships and aircraft to follow.

Will all this happen? Sceptics say creating global supply chains to manufacture, ship and deliver hydrogen is too cumbersome and inefficient, especially when the infrastructure would have to be built from scratch. By some counts, around two-thirds of the energy would be lost along the way.

“Efficiency losses happen both on the supply side, in the production process of the hydrogen-based fuels, and on the demand side – a combustion engine wastes a lot more energy than an electrical one,” said Romain Sacchi, a colleague of Christian Bauer at the Paul Scherrer Institute. Even so, hydrogen could work for freight transport over long distances, Bauer told China Dialogue: “A large truck today would need to be equipped with a battery weighing a few tonnes to travel more than a hundred kilometres.”

Hydrogen’s availability is “too uncertain to broadly replace fossil fuels, for instance in cars or heating houses,” according to Falko Ueckerdt of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The world should instead prioritise applications for which hydrogen is indispensable as a source of low-carbon energy, he says. Hydrogen could be used to remove the hardest 10% or so of carbon emissions, as the world targets zero emissions.

“Primary steel and ammonia production are sensible entry points for green hydrogen,” he says. In both cases, the hydrogen can replace fossil fuels as an essential part of the process, as well as providing energy.

But he warns that rising demand for hydrogen in areas such as heating buildings could give an advantage to cheap blue hydrogen and create a “fossil-fuel lock-in that endangers climate targets.”

Fuels based on hydrogen as a universal climate solution might be a bit of false promise. “While they’re wonderfully versatile, it should not be expected that they broadly replace fossil fuels,” argued Ueckerdt.

“The hydrogen economy can establish itself only if it makes sense energetically. Otherwise, better solutions will conquer the market. Infrastructures exist for almost any synthetic liquid hydrocarbon, while hydrogen requires a totally new distribution network,” argued Ulf Bossel, a fuel cell consultant and Baldur Eliasson, researcher for ABB Switzerland, in a white paper on the hydrogen economy.

Hydrogen-based fuels will likely be scarce and not competitive for at least another decade.

From our partner China dialogue

Fred Pearce is an author and journalist based in the UK. He is a contributing writer for Yale Environment 360 and is the author of numerous books, including The Climate Files, The Land Grabbers and Water Lands. His next book A Trillion Trees will be published in 2021.

Energy

Energy transition is a global challenge that needs an urgent global response

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COP26 showed that green energy is not yet appealing enough for the world to reach a consensus on coal phase-out. The priority now should be creating affordable and viable alternatives 

Many were hoping that COP26 would be the moment the world agreed to phase out coal. Instead, we received a much-needed reality check when the pledge to “phase out” coal was weakened to “phase down”. 

 This change was reportedly pushed by India and China whose economies are still largely reliant on coal. The decision proved that the world is not yet ready to live without the most polluting fossil fuels. 

 This is an enormous problem. Coal is the planet’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, but also a major source of energy, producing over one-third of global electricity generation. Furthermore, global coal-fired electricity generation could reach an all-time high in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 Given the continued demand for coal, especially in the emerging markets, we need to accelerate the use of alternative energy sources, but also ensure their equal distribution around the world.

 There are a number of steps policymakers and business leaders are taking to tackle this challenge, but all of them need to be accelerated if we are to incentivise as rapid shift away from coal as the world needs. 

 The first action to be stepped up is public and private investment in renewable energy. This investment can help on three fronts: improve efficiency and increase output of existing technologies, and help develop new technologies. For green alternatives to coal to become more economically viable, especially, for poorer countries, we need more supply and lower costs.

 There are some reasons to be hopeful. During COP26 more than 450 firms representing a ground-breaking $130 trillion of assets pledged investment to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement. 

 The benefits of existing investment are also becoming clearer. Global hydrogen initiatives, for example, are accelerating rapidly, and if investment is kept up, the Hydrogen Council expects it to become a competitive low-carbon solution in long haul trucking, shipping, and steel production.

 However, the challenge remains enormous. The IEA warned in October 2021 that investment in renewable energy needs to triple by the end of this decade to effectively combat climate change. Momentum must be kept up.

 This is especially important for countries like India where coal is arguably the main driver for the country’s economic growth and supports “as many as 10-15 million people … through ancillary employment and social programs near the mines”, according to Brookings Institute.  

This leads us to the second step which must be accelerated: support for developing countries to incentivise energy transition in a way which does not compromise their growth. 

Again, there is activity on this front, but it is insufficient. Twelve years ago, richer countries pledged to channel US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the financial assistance failed to reach $80 billion in 2019, and likely fell substantially short in 2020. Governments say they will reach the promised amount by 2023. If anything, they should aim to reach it sooner.

There are huge structural costs in adapting electricity grids to be powered at a large scale by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Businesses will also need to adapt and millions of employees across the world will need to be re-skilled. To incentivise making these difficult but necessary changes, developing countries should be provided with the financial support promised them over a decade ago.

The third step to be developed further is regulation. Only governments are in a position to pass legislation which encourages a faster energy transition. To take just one example, the European Commission’s Green Deal, proposes introduction of new CO2 emission performance standards for cars and vans, incentivising the electrification of vehicles. 

This kind of simple, direct legislation can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and encourage industry to tackle climate change.

Widespread legislative change won’t be straightforward. Governments should closely involve industry in the consultative process to ensure changes drive innovation rather than add unnecessary bureaucracy, which has already delayed development of renewable assets in countries including Germany and Italy. Still, regardless of the challenges, stronger regulation will be key to turning corporate and sovereign pledges into concrete achievements. 

COP26 showed that we are not ready as a globe to phase out coal. The priority for the global leaders must now be to do everything they can to drive the shift towards green energy and reach the global consensus needed to save our planet.

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Energy

Pakistan–Russia Gas Stream: Opportunities and Risks of New Flagship Energy Project

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source: twitter

Russia’s Yekaterinburg hosted the 7th meeting of the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation on November 24–26, 2021. Chaired by Omar Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Economic Affairs, and Nikolai Shulginov, Russia’s Minister of Energy, the meeting was attended by around 70 policy makers, heads of key industrial companies and businessmen from both sides, marking a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad.

Three pillars of bilateral relations

Among the most important questions raised by the Commission were collaboration in trade, investment and the energy sector.

According to the Russian Federal Customs Service, the Russian-Pakistani trade turnover increased in 2020 by 45.8% compared to 2019, totaling 789.8 million U.S. dollars. Yet, there is still huge potential for increasing the trade volume for the two countries, including textiles and agricultural products of Pakistan and Russian products of machinery, technical expertise as well as transfer of knowledge and R&D.

Another prospective project discussed at the intergovernmental level is initiating a common trade corridor between Russia, the Central Asia and Pakistan. Based on the One-Belt-One-Road concept, launched by China, the Pakistan Road project is supposed to create a free flow of goods between Russia and Pakistan through building necessary economic and transport infrastructure, including railway construction and special customs conditions. During the Commission meeting, both countries expressed their intention to collaborate on renewal of the railway machines fleet and facilities in Pakistan, including supplies of mechanized track maintenance and renewal machines; supplies of 50 shunting (2400HP or less) and 100 mainline (over 3000HP) diesel locomotives; joint R&D of the technical and economic feasibility of locomotives production based in the Locomotive Factory Risalpur and other. The proposed contractors of the project might be the Russian Sinara Transport Machines, Uralvagonzavod JSC that stand ready to supply Pakistan Railway with freight wagons, locomotives and passenger coaches. In order to engage import and export activities between Russian and Pakistani businessmen, the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum with Ural Chamber of Commerce and Industry, marking a new step in bilateral relations. Similar memorandums have already been signed with other Chambers of Commerce in Russian regions.

— Today, the ties between Russia and Pakistan are objectively strengthening in all areas including economic, political and military collaboration. But we, as businessmen, are primarily interested in the development of trade relations and new transit corridors for export-import activities. For example, the prospective pathways of the Pakistan-Central Asia-Russia trade and economic corridor project are now being actively discussed at the intergovernmental level, — said Mohsin Sheikh, Director of the Pakistan Russia Business Council of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. — For Islamabad, this issue is one of the most important. Based on a similar experience of trade with China, we see great prospects for this direction. That is why representatives of Pakistan’s government, customs officers, diplomats and businessmen gathered in Yekaterinburg today.

However, the flagship project of the new era of the Pakistan-Russia relations is likely to be the Pakistan Gas Stream. Previously known as the North-South Gas Pipeline, this mega-project (1,100 kilometers in length) is expected to cost up to USD 2,5 billion and is claimed to be highly beneficial for Pakistan. Being a net importer of energy, Pakistan will be able to develop and integrate new sources of natural gas and transport it to the densely populated industrialized north. At the same time, the project will enable Pakistan—whose main industries are still dependent on the coal consumption—to take a major step forward gradually replacing coal with relatively more ecologically sustainable natural gas. To enable this significant development in the Pakistan’s energy sector, Moscow and Islamabad have made preliminary agreements to carry on the research of Pakistan’s mineral resource sector including copper, gold, iron, lead and zinc ores of Baluchistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces.

A lot opportunities but a lot more risks?

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipe Project undoubtedly opens major investment opportunities for Pakistan. Among them are establishment of new refineries; the launch of virtual LNG pipelines; building of LNG onshore storages of LNG; investing in strategic oil and gas storages. Yet, it seems that Pakistan is likely to win more from the Project than Russia. And here’s why. The current version of the agreement signed by Moscow and Islamabad has been essentially reworked. According to it, Russia will likely to receive only 26 percent in the project stake instead of 85 percent as it was previously planned, while the Pakistani side will retain a controlling stake (74 percent) in the project.

Another stranding factor for Russia is although Moscow will be entitled to provide all the necessary facilities and equipment for the building of the pipeline, the entire construction process will be supervised by an independent Pakistani-based company, which will substantially boost Pakistan’s influence at each development. Finally, the vast bulk of the gas transported via the pipeline will likely come from Qatar, which will further strengthen Qatar’s role in the Pakistani energy sector.

Big strategy but safety first

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline will surely become an important strategic tool for Russia to reactivate the South Asian vector of its foreign policy. Even though the project’s aim is not to gain a fast investment return and economic benefits, it follows significant strategic goals for both countries. As Russia-India political and economic relations are cooling down, Moscow is likely to boost ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in economy, military, safety and potentially nuclear energy, that was highlighted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during visit to Islamabad earlier this year. Such an expansion of relations with Pakistan will allow Russia to gain a more solid foothold in the South Asian part of China’s BRI, thus opening up a range of new lucrative opportunities for Moscow.

Apart from its economic and political aspects, the Pakistan Stream Project also has clear geopolitical implications. It marks Russia’s growing influence in South Asia and points to some remarkable transformations that are currently taking place in this region. The ongoing geopolitical game within the India-Russia-Pakistan triangle is yet less favorable for New Delhi much because of the Pakistan Stream Project. Even though the project is not directly aimed to jeopardize the India’s role in the region, it is considered the first dangerous signal for New Delhi. For instance, the International “Extended troika” Conference on Afghanistan, which was held in Moscow last spring united representatives from the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan but left India aside (even though the latter has important strategic interests in Afghanistan).

With the recent withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, Moscow has become literally the only warden of Central Asia’s security. As Russia is worried about the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating the Central Asia, the main defensive buffer in the South for Moscow, the recent decision of Vladimir Putin to equip its military base in Tajikistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, seems to be just on time. Obviously, Islamabad that faces major risks amidst the Afghanistan crisis sees Moscow as a prospective strategic partner who will help Imran Khan strengthen the Pakistani efforts in fighting the terrorism threat.

From our partner RIAC

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Energy

How wind power is transforming communities in Viet Nam

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In two provinces of Viet Nam, a quiet transformation is taking place, driven by the power of renewable energy.

Thien Nghiep Commune, a few hundred kilometres from Ho Chi Min City, is a community of just over 6,000 people – where for years, people relied largely on farming, fishing and seasonal labour to make ends meet.

Now, thanks to a wind farm backed by the Seed Capital Assistance Facility (SCAF) – a multi-donor trust fund, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – people in the Thien Nghiep Commune are accessing new jobs, infrastructure and – soon – cheap, clean energy. The 40MW Dai Phong project, one of two wind farms run by SCAF partner company the Blue Circle, has brought new hope to the community.

For the 759 million people in the world who lack access to electricity, the introduction of clean energy solutions can bring improved healthcare, better education and affordable broadband, creating new jobs, livelihoods and sustainable economic value to reduce poverty.

“It’s not only about the technology and the big spinning wheel for me. It’s more about making investment decisions for the planet and at the same time not compromising on the necessity that we call electricity,” said Nguyen Thi Hoai Thuong, who works as a community liaison. “The interesting part is I work for the project, but I actually work for the community and with the community.”

While the wind farm is not yet online, a focus on local hiring and paying fair prices for land has already made a big difference to the community.

“I used the money from the land sale to the Dai Phong project to repair my house and invest in my cattle. Currently, my life is stable and I have not encountered any difficulties since selling the land,” said Ms. Le Thi Doan.

Powering change

The energy sector accounts for approximately 75 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). UNEP research shows that these need to be reduced dramatically and eventually eliminated to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Renewable energy, in all its forms, is one of humanity’s greatest assets in the fight to limit climate change. Capacity across the globe continues to grow every year, lowering both GHGs and air pollution, but the pace of action must accelerate to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 °C this century.

“To boost growth in renewables, however, companies need to access finance,” said Rakesh  Shejwal, a Programme Management Officer at SCAF. “This is where SCAF comes in. SCAF works through private equity funds and development companies to mobilize early-stage investment low-carbon projects in developing countries.”

The 176 projects it seed financed have mobilized US $3.47 billion to build over one gigawatt of generation capacity, avoiding emissions of 4.68 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent each year.

But SCAF’s work isn’t just about cutting emissions. It is bringing huge benefits across the sustainable development agenda: increasing access to clean and reliable electricity and boosting communities across Asia and Africa. SCAF will be potentially creating 17,000 jobs.

This is evident in Ninh Thuan province, where the Blue Circle created both the first commercial wind power project and the first to be commissioned by a foreign private investor in Viet Nam.

Here, the Dam Nai wind farm has delivered fifteen 2.625 MW turbines, the largest in the country at the time. These will generate approximately 100 GWh per year. They will avoid over 68,000 tCO2e annually and create more than an estimated 302 temporary construction and 13 permanent operation and maintenance jobs for the local community.

Students from the local high school in Ninh Thuan Province were also given the opportunity to meet with engineers and technicians on the project, increasing their knowledge about how renewable energy works and opening up new career paths.

SCAF, through its partners, is supporting clean energy project development in the Southeast Asian region and African region. SCAF has more than a decade of experience in decarbonization and is currently poised to run till 2026.

UNEP

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