Hydrogen Plans Appear, But Where Is Ammonia?

The concept of hydrogen as the centerpiece of a sustainable energy economy continues to gain momentum.  It is the focus of recent reports from France and the United Kingdom that consider the topic from two distinct but surprisingly convergent national perspectives.  And while ammonia is not given a role in either treatment, this seems to be because the authors’ thinking has not arrived at a level of detail where ammonia’s virtues become salient.

The French Report

The French report, entitled “Plan for the Deployment of Hydrogen for the Energy Transition,” appeared on June 1.  It is a product of the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Solidarity.  In announcing it, Minister Nicolas Hulot voiced his aspiration for France to become a “world leader” in hydrogen technology.

The plan consists of 14 measures grouped under three themes: “create a carbon-free industrial sector;” develop “new prospects for storing renewable energy from remote sites;” and provide “a zero emission solution for transport.”

Strongly implied within the enumeration of the measures is the concept embraced by other jurisdictions that are ahead of France on this path.  Green hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis using renewably generated electricity.  Production of this nature can absorb excess generation when supply exceeds demand.  Hydrogen produced on this basis can be stored and used either for electricity generation when demand exceeds supply, as a fuel in applications such as transportation, or as a fuel and/or feedstock for industrial processes.

Click to enlarge.  Schema for use of waste CO2 in combination with hydrogen. “Plan for the Deployment of Hydrogen for the Energy Transition.”  Ministry of Ecological Transition and Solidarity. June 1, 2018.

However, it appears that the thinking behind the Ministry’s plan has only reached a certain point.  Measure 6 under the storage theme, for example, calls for identification of “the needs for hydrogen storage for each non-interconnected zone,” while measure 7 seeks to determine “the technical and economic conditions under which hydrogen may be acceptably injected in natural gas networks.”  It may be the case that stakeholders assigned to work on these measures will discover that hydrogen can exhibit greater versatility as an energy storage commodity if it is converted to ammonia.  They may also discover that injection of hydrogen into legacy natural gas systems can only go so far before significant infrastructural upgrades are required.  And then when they turn to the third theme, hydrogen-powered transportation – whose measures call for the deployment of “5,000 light commercial vehicles and 200 heavy vehicles (buses, trucks, regional trains, boats) and 100 fueling stations, powered by hydrogen produced locally by 2023” – they may discover that ammonia represents an economically advantaged option for moving hydrogen from production site to fueling station.  (The main options for supply of hydrogen to fueling stations are considered in an Ammonia Energy post from April 2017.)

The serious intentions behind “The Plan for Deployment” are evidenced by the stated intention to “mobilize” €100 million ($116 million) “from 2019.” As a point of comparison, as noted in a recent Ammonia Energy post, South Korea plans to spend $169 million “in 2019” on a national campaign  whose goal is to stay “ahead of the game in the global hydrogen car market.”

The British Report

The British report comes from the professional services provider Ernst & Young (EY).  Firms of this stripe typically maintain Web sites that show off their expertise in areas relevant to clients.  EY is a particularly prolific publisher of commentaries and reports under such headings as “News”, “Views,” and “Insights.”  One day recently an item was posted on EY’s UK home page entitled “How Will Ingenuity Fuel New Opportunities for Growth?”  Although it would be hard to guess from this anodyne headline, the piece is a 3,100-word analysis whose thesis is that the UK can best achieve the long-term targets in its Clean Growth Strategy via full embrace of hydrogen.

Specifically:

“We think that hydrogen could play a significant role in . . . decarbonisation, not just as a green gas to enable decarbonisation of heating, but as a means of storing carbon-free renewable power and through this linking together the decarbonisation of the power, heat and transport sectors. This conclusion is reached by taking a system wide perspective and viewing hydrogen as not just a green gas but as a controllable load and high capacity storage medium for carbon-free power generation and a carbon-free fuel for heat and transport – made possible by producing hydrogen through the electrolysis of water.”
How Will Ingenuity Fuel New Opportunities for Growth?” Ernst & Young. Accessed August 9, 2018.

In other words, EY concurs with France’s Ministry of Ecological Transition and Solidarity on the need for a buffer between supply and demand of renewably generated electricity, and sees the economic and technical virtues of doing that buffering with a commodity that can also be transported, stored, and used as a heat source (for industry and the built environment) and transportation fuel.

Click to enlarge. “Size and discharge durations by storage technology.”  “How Will Ingenuity Fuel New Opportunities for Growth?” Ernst & Young. Accessed August 9, 2018

The report includes its own version of the chart (included at right) that shows how various energy storage technologies compare on relevant dimensions.  Although ammonia appears at the top right in most such charts (typically because it excels at large-scale, long-term energy storage), it is does not appear at all on the EY chart.  The color-coded legend “hydrogen-related” appears to crack the door open, but the discussion in the report’s text refers only to “synthetic methane (and other hydrocarbons).”  The reason for EY’s omission of ammonia is not clear.  The company did not respond to Ammonia Energy’s request for clarification of this point.

One interesting feature of the EY report is its championing of wind and photovoltaic technology over both nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

On the first front, the report states that “Nuclear is still expected to play a role [in a decarbonized energy system], as evidenced by the Government’s renewed commitment to projects beyond Hinkley Point, but it is losing ground on cost and speed of deployment – with risks to public acceptability and political sentiment as a result.”  (Context for this statement can be found in a December 2017 Guardian article: “When it is finally completed, Hinkley Point C will be the most expensive power station in the world. But to reach that stage, it will need to overcome an extraordinary tangle of financial, political and technical difficulties. The project was first proposed almost four decades ago, and its progress has been glacial, having faced relentless opposition from politicians, academics and economists every step of the way.”  Électricité de France, the French state-owned utility, is the developer of the Hinkley Point plant.)

The EY report addresses the CCS topic as follows:

The Clean Growth Strategy targets CCS as an enabler for decarbonising heat and specifically industrial processes, where substituting fossil fuels is more difficult. However, given previous attempts to stimulate large scale private investment in CCS there remain major technical, infrastructure, economic and regulatory obstacles to it being seen as an investible technology.  Both previous government CCS competitions (2007-11 and 2012-15) were cancelled before they reached awarding funding, significantly denting investor confidence in the UK Government’s CCS initiatives. CCS has yet to make a convincing impact, and, in the case of power generation, has been leapfrogged by the growth and economics of renewables.
How Will Ingenuity Fuel New Opportunities for Growth?” Ernst & Young. Accessed August 9, 2018.

Uncommissioned reports written by consultants rarely have impact beyond a narrow clientele, but in the specialized environment of British energy policy, a report of this nature just may attract notice.

Yet Another Report

Hydrogen reports continue to proliferate.  Another important one was published last month in Science which calls out ammonia for an explicit role.  It will be the topic of an Ammonia Energy post later this month.

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