The Next Step Forward
By Keith Boyfield*
*Keith Boyfield is a Senior Fellow of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre.
The Ukraine crisis — now developing into a long drawn out and gruelling conflict — has transformed the energy market and added a major impetus to the search for reliable sources of renewable power. While we are familiar with hydro-electricity, nuclear, solar and geo-thermal energy, not so many of us are conversant with ‘green hydrogen’, an energy source that is poised to play a pivotal role in the energy landscape. So what is ‘green hydrogen’? And why is there so much interest in it?
Hydrogen can be burnt to generate both heat and energy. ‘Green hydrogen’ refers to the process by which water molecules are split by electrolysis to produce energy which can be stored in fuel cells or converted to green ammonia and then transported in tankers (Figure 1 below illustrates the extended period for which hydrogen can be stored). The fuel produced can be used to power vehicles, buses, ships and planes. What is more, the only emission is water, which makes it an environmentally friendly option.
‘Green Hydrogen’ Promises to Be a Game-Changer
The last few years have seen innovative strides in lowering the price of the electrolysis process required to generate ‘green hydrogen.’ Electrolysis, as the term suggests, refers to passing an electric current through a substance in order to break it down into simpler substances. Crucially, over the next few years, electrolysers are predicted to fall in price through a combination of innovation and economies of scale.
‘I am very excited by the emergence of “green hydrogen,”’ observes Marcus Edwards-Jones, Chairman of AIM[i] listed Phoenix Copper Ltd. ‘It will be particularly successful in large scale industrial projects such as fertiliser plants, and in heavily polluting industries such as shipping. Witness the projects underway in Morocco and Mauritania, where the unique combination of strong sun and clear skies during the day, and strong winds at night, has created a near perfect environment for economic renewables projects.’[ii]
Gulf economies are set to reap immense benefits from this new technology and source of reliable energy. As the Stiftung Wissenshaft und Politik (SWP) pointed out in a recent analysis, ‘Abundant funding, direct decision-making, and existing infrastructure make the GCC economies excellent hydrogen first-movers.’[iii]
The allure of ‘green hydrogen’ is that renewable sources can be employed to power electrolysers, so Gulf countries will be able to employ high solar yields and land to produce it. This power source is set to become a key asset in future decades, since hydrogen is abundant and environmentally sustainable. It can be employed across a wide spectrum of activities, including feedstock for industrial processes, and as a fuel for larger vehicles, such as buses. Investment is now pouring into developing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which offer cost advantages over battery powered electric vehicles (BEVs). This is particularly true where there is a demand for longer daily driving distances and higher utilisation. This demand derives principally from larger and heavier vehicles, notably trucks, buses and industrial equipment including forklifts. FCEVs score points in terms of quicker battery recharging, lower battery weight and a significantly improved driving range. Consequently, they promise to be particularly attractive to taxi fleet operators.
The Gulf Advantage
GCC economies are increasingly committed to ‘green hydrogen’ technology. The driving force behind this commitment are the Energy Ministries of the respective GCC member countries, especially in the case of Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. This initiative has triggered an array of alliances and committees to coordinate and develop delivery programmes.
Saudi Arabia is determined to rank as the world’s largest hydrogen producer, a goal confirmed in October 2021 by Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy.
Meanwhile, the UAE is working on a “Hydrogen Roadmap,” aimed at establishing the country as one of the leaders in hydrogen technology and applications in order to carve out 25% of the global hydrogen market. To deliver this vision, the government is busy creating an appropriate regulatory regime with clear standards.[iv] The last twelve months have witnessed a wave of activity. In January 2022, Engie, a French energy company, announced a tripartite collaboration with Fertiglobe, a joint venture between OCI NV and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Masdar, an Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy company. This new initiative plans to invest $5 billion (USD) in the development of the UAE’s ‘green hydrogen’ sector. The goal is to co-develop a globally cost-competitive ‘green hydrogen’ industry with a capacity amounting to 200 megawatts.[v]
Six months after Engie’s announcement, three South Korean companies signed an agreement to build a $1 billion green hydrogen and ammonia production plant in collaboration with the UAE’s Petrlyn Chemie. This plant, located in the KIZAD Industrial Area near the capital Abu Dhabi, will be constructed in two phases with the first expected to generate 35,000 tonnes of green ammonia.[vi] For distances over 1,800 kilometres, transporting hydrogen in the form of green ammonia is the most efficient option, whereas for shorter distances pipelines are more economical.
In the case of Oman, a national hydrogen strategy was announced in February 2020. A new body, EJAAD, was established as a collaboration platform between the Ministry of Oil and Gas, the Research Council, and Oman’s state-owned oil company, Petroleum Development Oman. EJAAD will coordinate development work on hydrogen energy technology and delivery. And, in August 2021, the “Hy-Fly Alliance” was set up to deliver the national hydrogen strategy.
The Kingdom of Bahrain has commissioned feasibility studies for a domestic hydrogen powered economy in November 2020. This was followed up a year later by an announcement from Abdulhussein bin Ali Mirza, President of Bahrain’s Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA), on plans to build a four megawatt plant to produce ‘green hydrogen.’ This facility will be one of the first in Gulf region and the estimated cost is budgeted at $150 million.
Kuwait has been paying increasing attention to a national hydrogen strategy. As a study by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and the King Abdullah University for Science & Technology underlines, Kuwait is well positioned to capitalise on the latest hydrogen energy technologies.[vii] In terms of renewable power, the country boasts one of the best solar resources in the world, with 5.2 KWh/m2 per day and over nine maximum sun hours a day.[viii] The report adds that significant investment will be required to stem inflationary prices in the electricity sector, and to ensure adequate capacity with respect to electrolysers.
In contrast, Qatar has opted to rely on its immense supplies of gas and its role as one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It has no plans to develop hydrogen production, preferring to export LNG and leave it to importers to produce ‘blue hydrogen,’ rather than foster its own domestic expertise and experience. This appears a rather short sighted approach, and one which the country may come to regret.
Delivery is Well Under Way
The latest surveys indicate that no less than 46 green hydrogen projects are currently being developed in the Middle East and Africa.[ix] Over the next eight years, more than 40 investment projects worth over $20 billion are under construction across the Gulf with some others in Africa.
The map below shows GCC states are already implementing their commitment to rapidly evolving hydrogen technologies. Saudi Arabia has announced several major hydrogen projects, the most notable being the ambitious plan to develop a state of the art hydrogen plant for the new futuristic city of Neom, alongside the Red Sea coast. This specific project will generate a maximum of four gigawatts of renewable energy, which can then be utilised in the form of green ammonia. In January 2022, Riyadh announced additional eight hydrogen plant projects, which will prove pivotal in the switch to hydrogen powered vehicles.[x]
Dubai has built the first solar-powered ‘green hydrogen’ plant in the Gulf in collaboration with Siemens Energy, the German technology giant, connected to supply the Al Maktoum Solar Park (see map).[xi] Other projects focusing on land and air transport are also well under way. In August 2021, Helios Industry, the Emirates special purpose vehicle company, which specialises on renewables, announced a feasibility study for the production of green ammonia. As was pointed out above, this initiative has already led to a joint venture between the UAE’s Petrlyn Chemie and three Korean companies, namely Samsung, Korea Electric Power Corporation and Korea Western Power.
Meanwhile, in Oman, OQ, an oil investment concern based in Oman, has entered into a joint venture with Hong Kong-based International Energy to build a 25 gigawatt wind and solar plant designed expressly to power a state of the art electrolyser dedicated to producing ‘green hydrogen.’ Moves to develop hydrogen technology in Oman have been backed by several agreements signed with Saudi Arabian partners. These developments followed a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Oman in December 2021.
The Challenges Remaining
While tremendous progress has been made in the last few years with respect to creating a carbon neutral energy economy, utilising the very latest hydrogen technology, it has not all been plain sailing.
As Marcus Edwards-Jones, Chairman of Phoenix Copper Ltd pointed out, ‘The main problem with hydrogen is the expense of getting it safely to the consumer, as reflected in the problems with hydrogen gas street lighting in the 19th century.’ In this context, he added, ‘The role of copper will become increasingly important. After decades of steady demand erosion due to ‘micronisation’ – hifi systems being replaced by mobile phones, wire-based systems being replaced by wifi, thicker wires will be needed for a variety of applications as the grid is upgraded for a variety of electricity sources, including power generated by hydrogen.’[xii]
In order to build and operate hydrogen energy facilities one needs abundant supplies of fresh water; a scarce commodity in the Gulf. To produce sufficient fresh water, one needs to invest in desalination plants – an expensive business which requires billions of dollars in upfront investment. Fortunately, with the surge in revenues from oil and gas exports, capital is something countries such as the Emirates and Saudi Arabia can afford, and their sovereign wealth funds are taking a leading role in channelling funds into this industry of the future. In this context, the preparatory work being undertaken at Neom is perhaps the best illustration of how plans for large-scale green ammonia plants are being taken forward.
There also remains the need to further improve the efficiency of hydrogen technologies. Producing large quantities of hydrogen, storing it and using it to generate electricity — known in the jargon as ‘power-to-gas-to-power’ — remains an expensive business. The electricity generated at the end of the whole process may be less than 40% of that used at the start.
To succeed, Gulf economies will need to use a range of renewable sources to convert ‘green hydrogen’ into green ammonia. This will lower transportation costs and enable GCC countries to supply large export markets in the European Union (EU) – rapidly switching from Russian natural gas – as well as the expanding economies of the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. While technically proven, green ammonia production is not yet operating on a fully industrial scale, so the demonstration plants so far constructed will need to convince sceptics that they can deliver.
On an optimistic note, the evidence to date indicates that commercialisation is imminent and offers the opportunity to produce ‘green hydrogen’ without engaging in the expensive and energy intensive Haber-Bosch process.[xiii] Such applications will boost the capacity for long term storage — a tremendous prize when one considers renewable sources of power, such as solar and wind, cannot be stored, nor do they generate electricity on a 24/7 basis. In practice, there is significant downtime with these renewable sources. However, surplus renewable sources of energy can be employed during periods of slack demand to power electrolysis machines to make hydrogen – a store of carbon free energy to be tapped when demand is at its highest.
This may prove to be hydrogen’s key appeal. If renewables emerge as the predominant source of power in Western economies in the 2030s and 2040s, there will be remorseless demand for long-term storage. And that is precisely what hydrogen offers, either in the form of stored energy through fuel cells or green ammonia.
23 September 2022
[i] AIM (formerly known as the Alternative Investment Market) is a sub-market for publicly quoted companies of the London Stock Exchange.
[ii] Author’s interview.
[iii] Dawud Ansari, ‘The Hydrogen Ambitions of the Gulf States,’ Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 21 July 2022, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/the-hydrogen-ambitions-of-the-gulf-states.
[iv] Further details are available on the UAE’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on the United Nations Climate Change Registry, seehttps://unfccc.int/NDCREG.
[v] Masdar, ‘Masdar and ENGIE sign collaboration agreement with Fertiglobe to co-develop green hydrogen,’ 19 January 2022, https://news.masdar.ae/en/News/2022/01/19/13/12/Masdar-and-ENGIE-sign-collaboration-agreement-with-Fertiglobe-to-co-develop-green-hydrogen.
[vi] Reuters, ‘South Korean companies to build $1 billion green hydrogen plant in UAE,’ 3 June 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/south-korean-companies-build-1-bln-green-hydrogen-plant-uae-2022-06-03/.
[vii] Manuel Shehabi and Bassam Dally, ‘Opportunity-and-Cost-of-Green-Hydrogen-in-Kuwait: a Preliminary Assessment,’ Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, 7 April 2021, https://a9w7k6q9.stackpathcdn.com/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Opportunity-and-Cost-of-Green-Hydrogen-in-Kuwait-A-Preliminary-Assessment.pdf.
[ix] Pierre Samatiies, ‘MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA SET TO SUPPLY GREEN HYDROGEN TO THE WORLD,’ Roland Berger, 28 July 2022, https://www.rolandberger.com/en/Insights/Publications/Middle-East-and-Africa-Energy-Transition-Readiness-Index.html.
[x] Angie Bergenson, ‘Saudi Arabia sets sights on hydrogen fuel cells and sustainable fuels,’ Hydrogen Fuel News, 26 January 2022, https://www.hydrogenfuelnews.com/hydrogen-fuel-cells-saudi-arabia/8551038/.
[xi] Siemens Energy, ‘DEWA Green Hydrogen Plant: The Middle East’s first solar-driven hydrogen electrolysis facility,’ n.d., https://www.siemens-energy.com/mea/en/company/megaprojects/dewa-green-hydrogen-project.html
[xii] Author’s interview.
[xiii] Ulrich Koegler, James Thomas and Susie Almasi, ‘How the GCC can become a force in global green technology – the green ammonia supply chain,’ Strategy&, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), https://www.strategyand.pwc.com/m1/en/reports/2020/how-the-gcc-can-become-a-force-in-global-green-hydrogen/how-the-gcc-can%20become-a-force-in-global-green-hydrogen.pdf.