The United States Congress passed a measure on February 9 that could galvanize the production of low-carbon ammonia in the U.S. The measure, included within the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, amends Section 45Q of the Internal Revenue Code, titled “Credit for Carbon Dioxide Sequestration”. That section, originally adopted in 2008, created a framework of tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration. 45Q’s impact in the intervening years has been minimal, an outcome attributed by experts to the relatively low prices assigned to CO2 sequestration and the fact that tax credits would be allowed only for the first 75 million tonnes of sequestered CO2. The new legislation increases the tax credit per tonne of CO2 placed in secure geological storage from $20 to $50, and for CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery from $10 to $35. It eliminates the credits cap altogether. With these changes, it now seems possible that low-carbon ammonia could find itself on an equal economic footing with “fossil” ammonia – and this could have consequences well beyond American agricultural markets.
Last week, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) formally adopted its Initial GHG Strategy. This means that the shipping industry has committed to "reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050," and completely "phase them out, as soon as possible in this century."
This also means that a global industry is searching for a very large quantity of carbon-free liquid fuel, with a production and distribution infrastructure that can be scaled up within decades. The most viable option is ammonia. How much would be required? Roughly one million tons of ammonia per day.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), in partnership with the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), released a report this month entitled "Renewable Energy Policies in a Time of Transition." The 112-page document is a comprehensive survey of technologies, policies, and programs that have current or prospective roles in the global transition to a sustainable energy economy.
For the ammonia energy community, one of its conclusions stands out in vivid relief:
"Developing P2X is crucial because it plays a key role in decarbonising long haul road transport, aviation and shipping sectors that are difficult to decarbonize ... The overall recommendation for developing P2X is to focus on the development of ammonia for the shipping sector as well as long haul road transport, where few or no competing low carbon technologies exist and P2X is expected to be economically viable."
On December 8, the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun ran a story about the future of coal-fired electricity generation in Japan. The story touched on topics ranging from the plumbing in a Chugoku Electric generating station to the Trump administration’s idiosyncratic approach to environmental diplomacy. And it contained this sentence: “Ammonia can become a ‘savior’ of coal-fired power.”
Clearly an explanation is in order.
This morning in Beijing, China, the International Energy Agency (IEA) launched a major new report with a compelling vision for ammonia's role as a "hydrogen-rich chemical" in a low-carbon economy.
Green ammonia would be used by industry "as feedstock, process agent, and fuel," and its production from electrolytic hydrogen would spur the commercial deployment of "several terawatts" of new renewable power. These terawatts would be for industrial markets, additional to all prior estimates of renewable deployment required to serve electricity markets. At this scale, renewable ammonia would, by merit of its ease of storage and transport, enable renewable energy trading across continents.
The IEA's report, Renewable Energy for Industry, will be highlighted later this month at the COP23 in Bonn, Germany, and is available now from the IEA's website.
On August 1, 2017 the Japan Government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) announced that it will proceed with funding for the construction of a hydrogen production plant in Namie Township, about ten kilometers from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The project’s budget is not mentioned, but the installation is projected to be “the largest scale in the world” -- in other words, a real bridge to the future and not a demonstration project.
The project no doubt has a variety of motivations, not least the symbolic value of a renewable hydrogen plant rising in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station. In economic terms, though, it appears to be a dead end. This is unfortunate because a similarly conceived project based on ammonia could be a true bridge-building step that aligns with leading-edge developments elsewhere in the world.
In the last 12 months ...
The research community has made great progress toward solving the "selectivity challenge" in electrochemical ammonia synthesis. Although, rather than an actual solution, mostly what we have is a range of sophisticated work-arounds that succeed in making this problem moot.
In the last 12 months ...
Yara's Australian unit announced plans to build a pilot plant to produce ammonia using solar power. This is a key step in Australia's efforts to develop its economy around clean energy exports, and could lead to a new system of global trade in which renewable ammonia is an energy commodity.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just published Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, the latest in its long-running annual series, subtitled "Catalysing Energy Technology Transformations."
In this year's edition, for the first time, ammonia is featured in two major technology transformations. First, ammonia production is shown making a significant transition away from fossil fuel feedstocks and towards electrification, using hydrogen made with electrolyzers. And, following this assumption that sustainable ammonia will be widely available in the future, the IEA takes the next logical step and also classifies ammonia "as an energy carrier," in the category of future "electricity-based fuels (PtX synthetic fuels)."
The inclusion of this pair of technology transformations represents a major step towards broader acceptance of ammonia as an energy vector, from the perspectives of both technical feasibility and policy imperative.
The viability of producing ammonia using renewable energy was one of the recurring themes of the recent Power to Ammonia conference in Rotterdam. Specifically, what cost reductions or market mechanisms would be necessary so that renewable ammonia - produced using electrolytic hydrogen in a Haber-Bosch plant - would be competitive with normal, "brown" ammonia, made from fossil fuels.
A number of major industry participants addressed this theme at the conference, including Yara and OCI Nitrogen, but it was the closing speech, from the International Energy Agency (IEA), that provided the key data to demonstrate that, because costs have already come down so far, renewable ammonia is cost-competitive in certain regions today.