Why, it seems like only yesterday that ExxonMobil was forecasting a rosy scenario for fossil gas in the sparkling green economy of the future. Now along comes rival BP with a deep dive into green hydrogen. Renewable energy is already threatening gas in the power generation market, and if all goes according to plan renewable H2 will push gas out of the coveted industrial energy marketplace, too.
The Fossil Gas & Hydrogen Connection
For those of you new to the topic, the huge global market for hydrogen overlaps with fossil gas, aka natural gas. Hydrogen doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It has to be produced, and right now the main source of hydrogen is fossil gas.
All sorts of hydrogen-reliant industrial activities, from fertilizer and food to fuel and pharmaceuticals, have been pushing the market for gas.
Gas is also being touted as a cleaner alternative to coal, for steel-making, and for other industrial processes that require heat. This is all on top of the electricity generation sector, in which low cost fossil gas has successfully squeezed coal to second-rate status while laying dubious claim to the “cleaner” title.
No wonder ExxonMobil has continued to envision a strong position for fossil gas. In a report dated August 28, 2019, the company’s energy demand forecast for 2040 leaned on growth in both the industrial and electricity sectors to conclude that “natural gas grows the most of any energy type, reaching a quarter of all demand” by 2040.
From Fossil Gas to Green Hydrogen
Dream on, Klingon. Even before the COVID-19 crisis upended the global economy, the threat of green hydrogen was already looming on the horizon
Green hydrogen, also referred to as renewable hydrogen, can be produced from water by applying an electrical current. Source the electricity from renewable energy, and there you have sustainable hydrogen from renewable resources.
Green hydrogen has yet to plant its feet in the commercial market, but the technology has been improving and costs have been coming, partly because the cost of renewable energy has been dropping.
Back in 2017, BP revived its once-dormant interest in solar power by forming a 50/50 partnership with the solar company Lightsource to form Lightsource BP, and it seems that the partners are already looking beyond clean power to dip into the renewable hydrogen field.
Last week BP Australia announced that it has been greenlighted to explore the idea of producing ammonia with renewable hydrogen at a facility in Geraldton.
Ammonia is currently made from fossil gas and other gassified fossils. It is mainly used as a fertilizer but it has many other applications in manufacturing as well as refrigeration and water purification. Cutting fossils out of that market would be a big deal — and the Geraldton project is aimed at the global market as well as sales in Australia.
The water-splitting part of the equation would be handled by a new 1.5 gigawatt renewable energy project, which is where Lightsource BP comes in. In addition to solar, the feasibility study may also include wind.
How Now, Brown Coal?
As for that global market, BP is eyeballing Western Australia because of its renewable energy resources and its existing port infrastructure, but plenty of other locations have similar qualities.
The main difference is location, location, location. Western Australia is just a hop away from leading global markets in Asia including China, Japan, and South Korea.
In a press statement, BP emphasized Geraldton’s “proximity to large, long-term markets for green hydrogen.”
Interesting! That could mean a few different things, including markets for renewable hydrogen, markets for green ammonia, and markets where it would make sense to produce green ammonia in one place, transport it to another, and then extract the hydrogen.
If that last item doesn’t seem to make sense, it might. Depending on the situation, it may be less costly to deploy ammonia as a hydrogen carrier rather than trying to ship large quantities of hydrogen.
In any case, all of this means more trouble for Australia’s brown coal stakeholders, who have been weirdly banking on a coal-to-hydrogen export project for salvation.
It also helps pull the rug out from ExxonMobil, which has been clinging to fossil gas even while BP and other legacy oil and gas stakeholders hedge their bets with a sharp pivot into renewable energy and clean technology.
If the Geraldton project pans out, it will help spark interest in other sectors. Several hydrogen demonstration projects are already taking shape in the metals industry, and there is also some interesting activity under way in the trucking and energy storage fields, to name a few.
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Photo: Solar farm in Kansas courtesy of Lightsource BP.