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Rainbow, decarbonization and geopolitics on the global sustainable hydrogen chessboard

By Carlos Peixoto

The 15th and 16th centuries saw great economic progress and political turmoil in Europe, as monarchies invested in territorial expansion. It was a time of great transformations - Humanism, Protestant Reformation, Scientific Revolution and the Great Discoveries. Huge naval-military power developed. It was necessary to conquer new lands, submit and/or co-opt local resistance and bring wealth from there to feed economic development, thus maintaining the lifestyle, at any cost.

It is not possible to judge History with a retrospective look. However, it is essential to recognize and avoid errors and exaggerations that hinder a fairer distribution of dignified living conditions among the regions of the planet.

We are already in the third decade of the 21st century. The evolution of human society has resulted in the creation and maintenance of international governance bodies that encourage cooperation, sharing the efforts and benefits of economic and social development, the preservation and rational use of natural resources and the maintenance of peace, despite the tensions between different worldviews and geopolitical interests of nations.

But as always, we are experiencing a clash of forces between the regions that hold technology and financial resources and those that still have natural resources convertible into energy, but which, for historical reasons, lack political power in the same proportion. All this while we live the risk of climate chaos.

On the eve of the G7 2023 Hiroshima Summit, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued the report “Towards hydrogen definitions based on their emissions intensity”. A timely alert at a time of great international fuss that could result in a fait accompli in favor of the so-called Green Hydrogen (H2V), to the detriment of other ways of obtaining this energy vector that promises to rid us of the harmful consequences of global warming.

The use of a color palette to define the degree of sustainability of the various hydrogen production routes was of some importance in helping to disseminate knowledge, especially among the non-specialized public. It is conventional to call green the H2 produced by electrolysis of water using electrical energy from solar, wind or water sources. While Gray was the H2 produced by the steam reforming of methane (SMR), which would soon become Blue, as the CO2 released in the process was captured and stored. In a true multicolor parade that had pink, white, black, brown, turquoise, yellow, purple and so on.

However, a more accurate reading of the evolution of the facts takes us to the IRENA report published in January 2022, calling our attention to the great transformations in the geopolitical scenario, with countries disputing space, exerting influence and forging strategic alliances, while rapidly the new global energy map is drawn.

At the end of the day, nations aim for security, developing their own production or through agreements in the fields of food security, politics, energy, etc., but above all in the field of modern technologies that transform knowledge and human well-being.

The increase in international awareness about the risks resulting from the climate crisis has led countries to dedicate heavy investments to the decarbonization of their economies. In other words, replacing fossil sources that, when consumed, release greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, which are the main cause of global warming.

European countries, for example, do not have an abundance of natural resources necessary for the urgent energy transition, such as water, land, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, water, biomass, etc. They are large consumers and natural importers of energy. Let us remember that in the past they were great importers of precious stones and natural resources and in the post-industrial revolution period they became avid importers of food and other commodities, including oil and natural gas.

But in most cases it is not possible to import electricity, sun, wind and water. Hence, Hydrogen, an energy vector of great transversality, has been pointed out as the solution. This molecule can be obtained by several technological routes and its energetic power can be used in almost all activities necessary for human development, ranging from food production and processing to the production of steel, cement, chemicals, plastics, cooling and heating of buildings, fuels for air, sea and land transport, etc.

Today, around 100 million tons/year of hydrogen are produced globally, almost entirely by the SMR route without carbon capture. And its use is virtually restricted to petroleum refining, ammonia production, with only 4% being used in other processes in the food and chemical industries. It is estimated that due to the investments currently underway, we will reach a production of 500 million tons/year around 2050, with a sharp expansion of its use for energy purposes and increasing substitution of fossil sources (IEA, 2023, 2022, 2021; IRENA, 2022).

This is where the issue of hydrogen certification comes in. Consumer countries seek to define not only the specifications of the hydrogen they wish to import, but also its technological production route. In some cases, they aim to impose, through complex certification rules, the origin of the energy that will be used in the production of hydrogen. An example of this is Green Hydrogen, which has been defined as that generated by electrolysis with electricity from an exclusive solar/wind source, that is, the generating plant must be directly connected to the electrolyzers without going through the distribution network. Worse, the plants must be new, that is, they cannot be more than three years old (under the concept of additionality).

Now, for a country like Brazil, which recently reached the peak of 92% of renewable sources in its electrical matrix, this does not make any sense. The H2 produced with electricity from the European grid is not sustainable, but in our case, it is sustainable and low carbon, yes. The European owner of an electric car that charges its battery from the grid is pretending to decarbonize, as its electricity is mostly generated from fossil sources.

But the IEA report mentioned at the beginning of this short article makes us pay attention to the importance of the Carbon footprint of each technological route of H2 production, not its color that does not define anything and leaves us at the mercy of somewhat nebulous concepts (IEA, 2023 ). The new international rules currently under discussion (where Brazil is the protagonist), advocate a classification of Hydrogen according to the amount of carbon equivalent per kg of hydrogen produced in the life cycle concept, not really mattering the technological route adopted. It is worth investigating the matter.

Although we must not give up the massive investments currently planned for this sector, mainly in the H2 production fronts for export via Ammonia, we cannot remain hostages of the electrolysis lobby, when we have at our disposal a myriad of renewable energy sources such as biomass , organic waste, ethanol, etc. We must not even miss the opportunity to monetize our natural gas reserves (with CCS, please). Finally, we have at our disposal, right here or in international markets, a wide range of high-tech equipment manufacturers to produce low-carbon H2 through various technological routes.

Furthermore, a recent study by CEBRI, an important Brazilian think tank in conjunction with EPE/BID/CENERGIA, indicates that Biomass will be the energy source that will gain the most relative share in the Brazilian energy matrix between now and 2050. biofuels presents itself as a relevant contribution in the decarbonization process of our transport sector, insofar as the use of BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) in the replacement of Diesel and QAV results in negative emissions (CEBRI, 2023). Not to mention ongoing investments in the development of other alternatives such as the PDI by Innovatus, a Brazilian startup that produces carbon negative H2 in biomethane pyrolysis using microwave-induced plasma and the electrolysis of sea water without the need for desalination, whose viability has already been proven by Eletronuclear in Angra dos Reis.

The National Hydrogen Program, PNH2, whose Triennial Plan was the public consultation this year, is very clear in defending our neutrality regarding the technological routes for the production of sustainable, or renewable, Hydrogen. We do not want to pick winners a priori or establish technological lock-in. This and other relevant issues will be discussed at the 3rd Brazilian Hydrogen Congress, to be held in the municipality of Maricá-RJ at the end of May. It's worth keeping an eye on.

Our commitment is to decarbonization. Now, we need to evolve in the elaboration of a regulatory framework that reinforces this position. But that is a subject for a future article.


Carlos Peixoto is co-founder and CEO of H2helium Projetos de Energia, member of the British Chamber Energy Committee (Britcham) and Head of Marketing for the Brazilian Association of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS Brasil). The opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the author.



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