Skepticism abounds over the green hydrogen field, and yet leading players on the global energy stage seem willing to give it a whirl. In the latest development, Sinopec has lent its financial muscle to the field. The company plans to have the proposed “Sinopec Xinjiang Kuqa Green Hydrogen Pilot Project” up and running by 2023, which will add 20,000 tons of annual output to the small but growing supply of sustainable hydrogen in the global economy.
Green Hydrogen: Finally, It’s For Real
In past years, the green hydrogen field has run afoul of the greenwashing matrix. Hydrogen itself is not “green.” Hydrogen can serve as a zero emission fuel, whether combusted or used in a fuel cell. However, the primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, and to some extent coal.
The “green” in green hydrogen has only appeared in recent years, concurrent with the falling cost of wind and solar energy. The availability of low cost renewable energy has made it possible to lower the carbon footprint of electrolyzer systems, which deploy an electrical current to push hydrogen gas out of water.
So, now the issue is not so much whether or not green hydrogen is a real thing. The question is to what extent the interest in green hydrogen will pump up the overall demand for hydrogen too quickly, enabling the supply of fossil sourced hydrogen in the global economy to go up instead of down.
Sinopec Has Big Hydrogen Dreams
That brings us to Sinopec, aka China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, the well-known Bejing-based energy firm. Though best known for its fossil energy interests, Sinopec has been dabbling in biofuels and it looks like sustainable hydrogen is next in line.
Sinopec has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to transition out of fossil-sourced hydrogen. The company currently states its hydrogen output at a total of 3.5 million tons annually. Meanwhile, its newly launched “Sinopec Xinjiang Kuqa Green Hydrogen Pilot Project” will only produce 20,000 tons annually.
That gap could grow instead of shrinking, if Sinopec follows through on a $4.6 billion pivot into natural gas and hydrogen. Also, according to the China Hydrogen Energy Alliance, the annual demand for hydrogen in China alone could grow into the range of 60 million tons annually by 2050.
Still, at 20,000 tons the new hydrogen project is nothing to sneeze at. It will be among the biggest such facilities in the world when it commences operations in June 2023, if not the biggest.
Actually, it could be the very biggest, by far. The firm Air Liquide has a large-scale electrolyzer facility up and running in Canada, but the output barely scrapes 3,300 tons annually (8.2 tonnes daily). Shell has an electrolyzer project under way in Germany that will produce 1,300 tons of hydrogen annually. If you know of any other big projects in the works, drop us a note in the comment thread.
The Green Hydrogen Economy Of The Future: The Irony, It Burns
If Sinopec calls it quits after a single 20,000-ton project, that would be the end of the story. However, the company has put out signals that the new facility is intended to provide a model for others to follow.
One signal is the scale of the company’s commitment to the sustainable hydrogen infrastructure.
“As part of the project, Sinopec will build a new photovoltaic power station with an installed capacity of 300MW and annual power generation of 618 million kilowatt-hours, an electrolyzed water hydrogen plant with an annual capacity of 20,000 tons, a spherical hydrogen storage tank with hydrogen storage capacity of 210,000 standard cubic meters, and hydrogen transmission pipelines with a capacity of 28,000 standard cubic meters per hour (including supporting power transmission and transformation facilities),” the company explains.
Another hint is the existence of a buyer. According to Sinopec, its Tahe Refining & Chemical division will use green hydrogen from the new facility to decarbonize its hydrogen production.
That brings up an interesting point about green hydrogen, which is that refinery operations account for a leading source of demand for hydrogen. So, all things being equal, green hydrogen would be deployed to enable the continued production of petroleum-based fuels and chemicals.
Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. If the Tahe deal comes through, it would follow a broader trend of deploying renewable energy to in tandem with fossil sources. Sinopec, for example, is among the energy firms that use solar panels to power their oil fields. Coal mines and other extractive sites are also increasingly turning to renewables.
The Green Hydrogen Economy: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
Sinopec also recently signed an agreement with Jinko Solar to build solar canopies at 18 Sinopec filling stations in China. That is just one of Sinopec’s growing suite of solarization projects, and therein lies another hint about the company’s green hydrogen intentions.
Last week Jinko put out the word that it has inked a major solar power deal with Sinopec Star, which plans to build “several industrial-scale solar-powered, emission-free, hydrogen production facilities across China.”
The facilities will “serve as proof of concept for the cost-competitive production of hydrogen from advanced solar technology,” Jinko added.
Earlier in December, Sinopec President Ma Yongsheng also seemed to mark a sharp pivot in Sinopec’s plans for growth in the hydrogen economy.
In recent years, Sinopec and China have been targeting conventional, fossil-sourced hydrogen as a “clean” fuel but, during a conference in Bejing, Ma Yongsheng indicated a shift in emphasis for Sinopec, towards so-called “blue” hydrogen as well as green hydrogen.
In terms of keeping fossilized carbon sequestered underground where it belongs, “blue” hydrogen is a public relations gimmick. It refers to producing hydrogen from fossil sources, in combination with a carbon capture system.
The green hydrogen track has more potential to make a planet-saving impact, partly because legacy engineering firms are beginning to fall all over themselves in pursuit of new business in the green hydrogen field.
Mitsubishi, for example, has introduced a new gas turbine designed to transition into green hydrogen as supplies become available, and Cummins is scaling up its hydrogen electrolyzer technology with a $5 million assist from the US Department of Energy. Not to be outdone, GE has embarked on a pilot project that could eventually convert the 1,100 megawatt Cricket Valley gas power plant in upstate New York to run on green hydrogen.
The green hydrogen supply chain is also maturing. One good example is Siemens Gamesa, which has hooked up with the thermoplastics firm Strohm to supply piping for a green hydrogen mashup with offshore wind farms.
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Photo: Sustainable hydrogen site prepping for construction (courtesy of Sinopec).