“In Italy the hydrogen market is struggling to take off and there is no precise national strategy”. This is what emerges fromHydrogen Innovation Report 2021, the first study thatEnergy & Strategy Group of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano dedicates to the production of hydrogen from the point of view of technologies, CO2 emissions, business models and their economic sustainability.
“We are only at the guidelines, which set the goal of 5 GW of electrolyzers capacity by 2030 with 10 billion euros of investments, but not in the enhancement of renewable energies, without which no ‘green’ hydrogen market will be able to develop. . And we need incentives ”, he begins Davide Chiaroni, Deputy Director of the E&S Group, He pointed out, however, that “the allocation of 3.7 billion euros envisaged in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (Pnrr) is positive, of which 2 for the use of hydrogen in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise”. However, upstream there are some knots to be solved, first of all the optimization of the authorization procedures to allow a true growth of renewables, without interventions on the procedures it will not be possible to develop a ‘clean’ hydrogen market in Italy.
According to the E&S Group study, today almost all of the hydrogen produced (brown or gray) has a strong and negative impact on the environment but is cheap: only 0.7% is blue hydrogen or, better yet, verde, derived from much more expensive but little or no polluting processes. Not surprisingly, the European strategy for hydrogen, released by the European Community in July 2020, it focuses on these last two vectors, in particular green hydrogen, to decarbonise the economy and achieve climate neutrality goals by 2050.
The Commission it plans to invest between 320 and 458 billion euros within 10 years, of which 220-340 billion to increase the production of photovoltaic and wind energy needed for green hydrogen, and to install 40 GW of electrolyzers capacity (currently we are less than 1) plus another 40 GW in the Middle East, so as to reach 500 GW of installed capacity in 2050. The use of hydrogen in final consumption should go from the current 2% up to 14%, involving not only thechemical and refining industry, but that too siderurgica, heavy transport by land, sea and air, urban and industrial heating.
Red II constraints
Even in this case, the study reports, however, a series of important obstacles remain, some generated by European legislation itself: the constraints imposed by Red II on CO2 emissions allowed for clean hydrogen, for example, do not allow the adoption of blue hydrogen, pending the adoption of the more ecological green hydrogen. At the moment, adds E&S Group, the European strategy has been followed by those of the main member countries, including Germany, France e Spain. In ItalyInstead, today only the guidelines of the Italian strategy for hydrogen issued by the Ministry of Economic Development last November are available, which set the goal of 5 GW of electrolyzers capacity in 2030 and indicate investments of about 10 billion, of of which 5-7 for the production of H2 (but not for the development of renewable plants at the basis of the process for green hydrogen), 2-3 for the construction of infrastructures and 1 for research. Figures not dissimilar to those of Germany, France and Spain.
Italy to 2030
The renewable energy available to theItaly to 2030 is in line with these objectives? To answer the question, theE&S Group has developed two scenarios: in the first, we consider how much more electricity from renewables is needed to cover the difference between current hydrogen consumption and those planned for 2030 (the expected 5 GW of electrolysers will be required to produce 0.2 Mton of H2 per year); in the second, on the other hand, it is assessed how much would be needed to replace 50% of non “green” hydrogen (more than double, 0.45 Mton of H2 / year). The study concludes that if in the first scenario the expected capacity of electrolysers and an additional renewable generation of 7.5 GW would be sufficient, in the second case absolutely not.
Analyzing the H2 production technologies, the study notes that today there are those for thehydrogen “Brown”, “grey”, “blu” e “verde” (e “yellow”, Which is obtained like green but using electricity from the grid). The production of green hydrogen, through the electrolysis of water obtained using electricity from renewable sources, is however the only technology on the market capable of fully respecting the emission limits imposed by Red II and is therefore the pillar on which all the European hydrogen strategy. Basically, it consists in powering a series of electrolytic cells in series, called stacks, using “clean” electricity, which consume water and produce hydrogen and oxygen. The electrolyser consists of the stacks and systems for electrical power, pumping and water treatment, hydrogen treatment and control of the entire plant.
For these technologies, the cost reduction margin is very large, in particular with the growth ofindustrialization of processes and economies of scale, but – as we have seen in recent months – much will also depend on the prices that scarce materials or those produced in limited geographical areas will take.
The study reports that there are different types of electrolysers, some already on the market and others under development: the alkaline electrolysers (Ael) they have been used for many years in some industrial sectors such as the production of chlorine-soda and have shown considerable reliability, they work for 60,000-100,000 hours and use inexpensive raw materials, but they cannot operate at low loads and have a high footprint; alternatively, polymer membrane electrolyzers (Pems) have a much more compact design, can operate at low and high loads and have a sufficiently high useful life, around 50,000-80,000 hours, but require very expensive materials such as platinum and iridium for catalysts.
L’iridium, in particular, the chemical element less present on the earth’s crust, it is feared that it could become a bottleneck: today its cost has risen by 400% compared to 2015-2020 precisely due to the importance it plays in the production of hydrogen. Both of these electrolysers operate at low temperatures, around 70-80 degrees, and suffer from a not very high efficiency, about 60 kWh per kg of H 2. The solid oxide electrolyser (Soec) instead operates at a high temperature, 700 degrees, with greater hydrogen production efficiency – and this is
particularly interesting for those sectors that have high temperature steam in their processes – but still suffer from a relatively low level of technological maturity.