By Afriyie Ankamah
As the world moves towards cleaner and more renewable energy in the bid to decarbonise, the current renewable electricity supply may not be enough (at least in the short term) for all competing end uses. With transportation, industry, and domestic users all demanding clean energy, there might not be enough supply to keep up. This is argued by a group of researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, led by Dr. Falko Ueckerdt.
Figure 1: A simple explanation on how green hydrogen is produced from renewable energy sources
Before we delve more into the discussion, let’s check out some numbers on primary energy consumption (which is essentially the total energy demand). This information is for 2020 and provides a perspective of the percentage shares in the energy mix per sources.
On the Global Stage
- Renewables accounted for less than 6% share of the world’s primary energy consumption
- Fossil fuels, on the other hand, occupied over 80%, with oil as the largest contributor followed by coal and natural gas.
- The Middle East was the region with the highest reliance on fossil fuels, which made up over 95% of their energy mix.
- Europe and South and Central America led the share of renewables with both regions having slightly over 10%
In the UK
- According to BPs Statistical Review of World Energy, the UK’s share of renewables in the primary energy consumption was 17% while that of fossil fuels were over 76%.
- The share of the energy sources in electricity consumption changes across the 24-hour daily period based on the demand, with renewables reaching peaks of 40%.
The percentage of renewables and fossil fuels in the energy consumption mix varies based on demand. It also shows that currently, the amount of renewable energy in the consumption mix is very small—just 6% globally. This is the same pool of electricity from which green hydrogen will be tapped.
Could there be any issues with the overall decarbonization when the push for green hydrogen production speeds up?
Issues With the Massive Push for Green Hydrogen Production
- Right now, demand is heavily supported by fossil-fuels, as renewable capacities are still not sufficient to entirely decarbonise the grid as argued by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
- According to the IEA, achieving net zero by 2050 requires over 300 million tonnes of green hydrogen each year. This will require about 14,500TWh of electricity, or 20% of the global electricity supply
- The Guardian newspaper quotes Falko Ueckerdt saying, “If we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up burning further oil and gas”.
- The introduction of new end uses such as green hydrogen without a similar pattern of renewable electricity generation is likely to put a strain on current renewable electricity supplies. At the same time, the pace required by the net-zero emissions scenario may be limited by inadequate renewable electricity generation.
- If 20% of the global electricity supply is diverted to hydrogen production, this will result in very much needed renewable electricity being diverted from the grid to power these electrolysers for hydrogen production.
- The push for green hydrogen production can jeopardise the quantity of renewable electricity to the grid, causing a reliance on fossil power in the short term.
The Push for Green Hydrogen
But it is not all doom and gloom:
- To decarbonize the grid and other sectors while supporting green hydrogen production, there should be enough renewable electricity generation capacity installed.
- International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recommends adequate renewable electricity should be made available for both hydrogen production and for other end uses.
Figure 2 below shows the targets set by the EU member states for renewable capacity.
- Similarly, IRENA has recommended targets to be set for electrolyser capacities as part of policy support for green hydrogen production. An example of such is the 80GW target to be achieved by 2030 set by the European Union.
- They argue this approach should be similar to the one used for incentivising investments like the renewable energy targets.
- If the rapid push for green hydrogen production is not strategically aligned with the supply of adequate renewable electricity, the amount of electricity available for other electrification sectors will diminish.
- This will create a scenario where fossil-based electricity will have to be relied on to meet the electricity demand.
- Green hydrogen production targets should be strategically set alongside renewable electricity generation targets to create a healthy balance in supply and demand of renewable electricity.
- Specific areas with over supply of renewable electricity could be a focus when choosing a location for electrolysers for green hydrogen production.
- This will help to mitigate losses from the curtailment of renewable electricity in these areas while at the same time the excess electricity generated is diverted to produce green hydrogen.
- The development of renewable electricity capacity should be an important focus for policy makers and ambitious targets should be set for these projects.
bp global. 2021. Primary energy | Energy economics | Home. [online] https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy/primary-energy.html
BP, 2021. Statistical Review of World Energy – 2021. UK’s energy market in 2020. BP, pp.1-2. https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2021-uk-insights.pdf
the Guardian. 2021. Using hydrogen fuel risks locking in reliance on fossil fuels, researchers warn. [online] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/06/hydrogen-fuel-risks-reliance-on-fossil-fuels
IEA, 2019. The Future of Hydrogen. Seizing today’s opportunities. IEA. https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/9e3a3493-b9a6-4b7d-b499-7ca48e357561/The_Future_of_Hydrogen.pdf
IEA, 2021. Renewables 2021. Analysis and forecast to 2026. IEA, pp.35-83. https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/5ae32253-7409-4f9a-a91d-1493ffb9777a/Renewables2021-Analysisandforecastto2026.pdf
IRENA, 2020. Green Hydrogen. A guide to policy making. Abu Dhabi: IRENA, pp.1-52. https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/Nov/IRENA_Green_hydrogen_policy_2020.pdf
Recharge | Latest renewable energy news. 2021. A net-zero world ‘would require 306 million tonnes of green hydrogen per year by 2050’: IEA | Recharge. [online] https://www.rechargenews.com/energy-transition/a-net-zero-world-would-require-306-million-tonnes-of-green-hydrogen-per-year-by-2050-iea/2-1-1011920
Ueckerdt, F., Bauer, C., Dirnaichner, A., Everall, J., Sacchi, R. and Luderer, G., 2021. Potential and risks of hydrogen-based e-fuels in climate change mitigation. Nature Climate Change, 11(5), pp.384-393.