Fans of nuclear energy in Europe seemed all too happy to score points against renewables when Russia first launched its murderous rampage through Ukraine, but that was last week. Ukraine is host to the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, and this week Russian forces attacked it, touching off a potential nuclear catastrophe. If lessons are learned — and they will be — the European energy profile will continue to drift away from nuclear energy and trend towards wind and solar, most likely with a powerful assist from the green hydrogen market.
Europe Clings To Nuclear Energy
Nuclear advocates have been pressing the atomic case for a key role in Europe’s decarbonization for years. With coal out of the picture, the argument was that wind and solar are not sufficient, and that over-reliance on natural gas from Russia is fraught with geopolitical complications leading to national security risks.
That seemed to be a winning argument. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that EU regulators have been leaning in the nuclear direction, and on February 2, the European Commission took up a proposal to classify certain types of nuclear and natural gas investments as “sustainable” for the purpose of decarbonization.
The EC set a 6-month timetable to render a decision. In the meantime, though, on March 3rd, Russia bombed and overran the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. As of this writing there is still a strong possibility that catastrophe will be avoided. Still, the reckless attack underscored widespread national security risks, as every nuclear power plant in Europe is now a potential target for the homicidal dictator of Russia. In 6 months, the EC may come to a very different conclusion than nuclear energy fans appear to anticipate.
The Renewable Energy Solution, With Green Hydrogen
Meanwhile, renewable energy advocates in Europe have a new source of support, in the sudden explosion of activity in the field of green hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a combustible fuel, like natural gas. However, green hydrogen holds a decarbonization ace up its sleeve. Unlike natural gas, green hydrogen can be a powerful accelerator of wind and solar development.
Most of the activity in the green hydrogen field is focusing on water electrolysis, which deploys electricity to push hydrogen gas out of water. From a sustainability perspective electrolysis makes no sense, if the electricity is generated by a fossil power plant. The fossil calculation is moot, though, when wind, solar, and other renewables come into the picture.
That explains why green hydrogen “hubs” have suddenly begun sprouting up all over the globe. That includes Texas, an epicenter of US oil and gas production that has also become a powerhouse in the renewable energy field.
Hydrogen & The Global Energy Economy
Green hydrogen can be produced, stored, and combusted on site as fuel to run a local power plant for 24/7 grid applications. It can also be used to power fuel cells for grid or off-grid electricity generation, as demonstrated by the Extreme E electric racing series.
Battery-type energy storage can also fit some of this bill, but hydrogen has a significant transportation advantage over batteries. Green or not, electricity generation is just one hydrogen mode. Hydrogen can also be transported over long distances by pipeline, ship, highway, or rail.
The national security risk of over-reliance on imported natural gas comes into sharper focus in the context of a global economy that depends heavily on fossil gas in multiple sectors. Combustible fuel and fuel cells are just two use cases for hydrogen. The global economy also relies heavily on hydrogen in agriculture, food, pharmaceuticals and refining among other sectors. To date, almost all of that hydrogen is sourced from natural gas, and coal to a lesser extent.
The Green Ammonia Angle
Texas provides an ample demonstration of the potential for green hydrogen to scale up and decarbonize multiple industries at a hot pace, especially when paired with green ammonia production. Hydrogen is the main ingredient in ammonia fertilizer (NH3). Ammonia can also be used as a fuel, and it is being eyed as a cost-effective transportation medium for green hydrogen.
In January of 2021, the University of Texas at Austin hosted a conference exploring the potential for Texas to become the “backbone of the emerging U.S. hydrogen economy.”
Just one year and two months later, the idea is already resolving into concrete form. Last night, the startup Green Hydrogen International announced the launch of “Hydrogen City, Texas” as the biggest green hydrogen production and storage hub in the world, with a green ammonia angle.
“Hydrogen City, Texas will be an integrated green hydrogen production, storage, and transport hub growing to 60GW in size and producing over 2.5 billion kilograms of green hydrogen per year,” GHI enthused. “The project is centered around a hydrogen storage facility in the Piedras Pintas Salt Dome located in Duval County. Pipelines will deliver the green hydrogen to Corpus Christi and Brownsville.”
Instant Green Hydrogen Economy: Just Add Water
Hydrogen City is designed to showcase multiple uses for green hydrogen, including the growing market for renewable ammonia fuel in Japan and Korea. Renewable ammonia fertilizer is another angle, and GHI points out that green hydrogen can insulate fertilizer users from price volatility related to the fossil gas market.
Aviation and rocket fuels are also in the mix, along with combustible fuel for power plants. “Over 4GW of new gas power plants have been proposed in the US that can burn a combination of hydrogen and natural gas,” GHI points out.
As for the electricity for the electrolysis system, that’s where things get interesting. ERCOT, the grid management agency that serves almost the entire state of Texas, is already overloaded with renewable energy when output is high and demand is low. GHI proposes to suck up the excess renewable energy during low demand periods, and put it to use. That could open the door to even more wind and solar development in the state, enabling renewable energy to fulfill a growing portion of peak demand.
“The project will be powered by 60GW of behind the meter solar and wind power with additional renewable energy drawn from the ERCOT grid during periods of low prices,” GHI explained.
The Offshore Wind Angle
Utah, Mississippi, and California also have green hydrogen hubs in the works. In addition, the potential for co-locating electrolyzers with offshore wind turbines is coming into view.
That circles back around to Europe, where the offshore wind industry has taken off like a rocket. Signs of an H2 revolution in Europe fueled by renewable energy first sailed across the CleanTechnica radar in 2015, and renewable H2 activity is now bubbling up into the hub scale.
One way or another, Russia will lose its murderous war against Ukraine, and a new global energy economy is already poised to emerge. Nuclear energy will continue to play a role to some extent, but the warning is loud and clear: a single, psychotic human being can wreak world-shattering havoc, regardless of the potential for setting off a catastrophic nuclear disaster.
A massive humanitarian crisis is already rippling across Europe as a result of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Those with resources to help are advised to steer their donations to reliable, vetted aid organizations, lists of which have been circulating throughout global media.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Image: Hydrogen City, Texas green hydrogen hub courtesy of GHI via prnewswire.com.
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