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Ammonia Covered in Forbes.com Power-to-X Review

Last week, Forbes.com published Power-To-X In The German Experience: Another In The List Of Growing Energy Transition Strategies.  The article in effect nominates ammonia as a singularly promising up-and-comer in the field of the alternative energy vectors.  Such an endorsement is heartening, but the article is notable as much for who is delivering the message – and the fact of its delivery under the Forbes masthead – as for what the message is.

One of the article’s authors, Kenneth Medlock, is a Forbes.com “contributor.” Individuals with this designation are “authorised . . . to publish straight to the Forbes website,” according to journalism.co.uk.  In his day job, Medlock is a Fellow in Energy and Resource Economics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, and Senior Director of the Institute’s Center for Energy Studies.  These titles barely scratch the surface of his CV.  Among many other things, he is “a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, holds a fellowship at King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center [in Saudi Arabia] and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Payne Institute [for Public Policy] at Colorado School of Mines” [CSM] in Golden, Colorado. His publications include “numerous scholarly articles in his primary areas of interest: natural gas markets, energy commodity price relationships, gasoline markets, transportation, national oil company behavior, economic development and energy demand, and energy use and the environment.”

The paper’s other three authors are also affiliated with CSM’s Payne Institute.  Morgan Bazilian directs the Institute and is a CSM Professor of Public Policy.  Dolf Gielen and Jeffrey Logan are both Non-Resident Fellows.  Gielen is otherwise Director of the Innovation and Technology Centre at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi.  Logan is Chief Analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the United States.

Bazilian (the first-listed author) et al. start their discussion by observing that 40% of Germany’s electricity came from renewable generation in 2018, and that this number is expected to increase to 65% by 2030.  The embrace of solar and wind in particular brings with it the need for energy storage, and after nodding at the list of pertinent technologies (pumped hydro, etc.), the authors turn to power-to-X.  The rest of the article identifies and considers the most prominent options for “X:” hydrogen, synthetic methane, methanol, and ammonia.

It is not the authors’ purpose to rigorously assess and compare the merits of each, but observations accumulate as they proceed.  “Hydrogen can be blended in relatively low concentrations (20%) with natural gas and transported in existing infrastructure” – which doesn’t speak to the greenhouse gas footprint of the natural gas remaining in the mixture.   The economic viability of synthetic methane based on electrolytic hydrogen will depend on “new ways of capturing carbon dioxide.  Moreover, CO2 is still released at the point of combustion, so the technology at best renders CO2 to be a circular feedstock.”  Methanol can be produced on a similar basis, “but, costs are high, at present around 5 euros per litre diesel equivalent.”

For ammonia, the authors point to the possibility of integrating electrolytic hydrogen with next-generation ammonia synthesis technologies.  Referring to last year’s groundbreaking Science article (Ammonia — a renewable fuel made from sun, air, and water — could power the globe without carbon), they point out that the new technologies are not yet able to compete in rate and efficiency of production with Haber-Bosch production. However, they say,

. . . if power-to-X for renewable ammonia becomes economic, it could solve many of the most vexing climate, energy and food problems. Currently, this is a big “if”, but the benefits could be enormous. One benefit of ammonia is that it can act as a zero-carbon energy carrier that can be “combusted” without carbon emissions in modified turbines or used to release hydrogen for use in fuel cells, thus providing another pathway for a hydrogen economy.

M. Bazilian, et al., Power-To-X In The German Experience: Another In The List Of Growing Energy Transition Strategies, Forbes.com, May 8, 2019

It might be possible to gather four individuals with better credentials in mainstream energy policy circles than Medlock, Bazilian, Gielen, and Logan, but it would not be easy.  Given this, it is worth noting that their treatment of ammonia energy is pitch perfect.  The assessment of the technology, its strengths vs. competing molecules, and its ultimate potential as a hydrogen carrier are all rendered judiciously, with neither understatement nor exaggeration.  It has been a journey to reach this point, and at last we are here.

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