PUERTOLLANO, Spain (AP) — In Spain, the dream of a zero-emissions future for heavy industry begins with a rugged Castilian hillside covered with solar panels and ends with an ice cold beer. When beer will be available and how much it will cost, depends on the implementation of green hydrogen intercalation.
The Mediterranean country wants to be Europe’s leader in hydrogen produced exclusively from renewable energy. With plenty of sunshine and open countryside to receive those energies, Spain’s ambition is to export gas to the rest of the continent.
Green hydrogen is created when renewable energy sources power an electric current that flows through water, splitting hydrogen and oxygen molecules through electrolysis. The result is no planet-warming carbon dioxide, but less than 0.1% of global hydrogen production is currently produced this way.
As global solar prices continue to fall, Spain is betting that it can quickly build new supply chains for sectors of the economy that need hydrogen for industrial processes and are hard to get rid of. give up more fossil fuels.
Critics of Spain’s ambitions have warned that there is not enough renewable energy capacity to produce green hydrogen that could replace natural gas and coal in the production of petrochemicals, steel and other products. agriculture.
But advocates are counting on the country’s plans to get a head start in the nascent green hydrogen economy. The International Energy Agency estimated in December that Spain would account for half of Europe’s growth in renewable capacity dedicated to hydrogen production.
“The sense of urgency is that everyone seems to be racing to be the first to export green hydrogen,” said Alejandro Nunez-Jimenez, a green hydrogen policy expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. . “Once you build the energy infrastructure, it stays there for decades. So this is really a game where first person can be locked in this situation for years,”
A glimpse of the potential of green hydrogen can be seen in Puertollano, a former mining town now home to a large industrial park, where Spanish energy company Iberdrola and fertilizer producer Fertiberia have teamed up to created the world’s first carbon-free phytonutrients. One day, fertilizer will be sprinkled on barley malt, which will then be used to make Heineken’s first “green malt” drink.
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Etienne Strijp, president of Heineken Spain, emphasized the difficulty of removing carbon from agricultural processing. “Being carbon neutral in our value chain is a huge challenge,” he said. at the announcement of the company’s green malt production plan.
The green hydrogen plant in Puertollano, Europe’s largest operating facility, is currently in the pilot phase. Iberdrola owns 100 megawatts of solar panels that power an electrolyzer to separate water from hydrogen. Huge hydrogen storage tanks will then provide pipelines that take the gas directly to Fertiberia, where it is used to produce ammonia, the basic chemical in nitrogen fertilizers.
Synthetic fertilizers are a highly polluting product. A recent study found that fertilizers emit the equivalent of 2.6 billion tons of carbon each year, or more than global aviation and shipping combined. A third of those emissions come from fertilizer production in plants like Fertiberia’s.
“We have green hydrogen for these hard-to-mitigate areas, so we can achieve our goal of a fully decarbonized economy,” said Javier Plaza de Agustin, manager of Iberdrola’s green hydrogen arm. .
The plant has the potential to reduce Fertiberia’s emissions by 10%, but most of the fertilizer company’s hydrogen is still derived from natural gas, creating so-called “gray” hydrogen. The company plans to be 100% carbon neutral by 2035.
In these early days, there are many challenges for Spain’s green hydrogen players.
The first is cost. Javier Goni, CEO of Fertiberia, said green hydrogen technology has not yet yielded a cost-effective end product.
Spanish companies are pushing for EU grants to match the recent announcement of $750 million for research and development of hydrogen projects in the United States. They argue that subsidies are necessary to develop markets, so economies of scale make carbon-free products cost-competitive.
Plaza de Agustin said: “Right now, we are in the early stages so we need help from the public authorities to make up the shortfall in funding. “There is no framework (very difficult) to invest in a plant and facility for 20, 25 years without knowing what will happen.”
The European Union’s Executive Committee has proposed that the 27 EU countries produce 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2030 and import an additional 10 million tonnes. Last month, the European Commission announced measures to create an intra-EU hydrogen market and assess infrastructure needs.
But the second problem is the EU’s promise of increased supply with little consideration of where the real demand lies, argues Nunez-Jimenez, the hydrogen expert.
“Spain and Portugal could produce a lot of green hydrogen and demand in Central Europe could materialize, but the link between supply and demand is not yet there,” he said. “Developing the infrastructure to transport that gas from the Iberian peninsula to central Europe should be a priority.”
Hydrogen, the lightest element on the periodic table, is difficult to store and transport and is highly flammable. For this reason, Iberdrola built its hydrogen plant right next to Fertiberia’s to minimize leaks. Once Iberdrola and its competitors have met Spain’s limited hydrogen demand for things like brewing, they will need to look beyond their borders to continue growing.
“Everybody wants to produce hydrogen,” says Fertiberia’s Goni. “But today, there are essentially very few companies and very few areas of activity that can absorb large amounts of hydrogen.”
Partnership is key. Ammonia generated at the Fertiberia plant with Iberdrola’s blue hydrogen can be used to transport liquid hydrogen before it is converted back to gas.
Decarbonized hydrogen for industry has taken on greater importance in Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is the world’s second-largest producer of natural gas, powering most of global hydrogen production.
Spain, France, Germany and Portugal have agreed to build a hydrogen pipeline by 2030 to transport around 2 million tons of hydrogen to France annually – 10% of the EU’s estimated hydrogen demand.
But not everyone in Spain wants a hydrogen plant on their doorstep. Land use for renewable energy installations and a 9:1 ratio of water per kilo of green hydrogen produced can be a tough challenge for regions suffering from prolonged drought.
Pere Virgili, mayor of the northeastern coastal town of Roda de Bera, rejected an initial proposal from a Danish green hydrogen developer last year that would cover 42 hectares (103 acres). ) territory with a combination of solar panels and wind turbines to provide power. its electrolyzer.
“It’s not that we’re against renewable energy, but we can have a long-term discussion about whether using a lot of water and land to create it is really eco-friendly,” he said. know that the project will only create 100 jobs.
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