Green hydrogen has potential to wean India off fossil fuels

But cost must be substantially brought down to make it affordable

PTI03_30_2022_000016B Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has been riding the Toyota Mirai for a while now and is convinced that “hydrogen car is the future of this country”. | PTI

JAPANESE CARMAKER TOYOTA and the International Centre for Automotive Technology started a pilot project a year ago to test the Mirai, a mid-size sedan powered by hydrogen fuel cells, for the Indian roads and climate. The project was launched by Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road transport and highways. Gadkari has been riding the car for a while now and is convinced that “hydrogen car is the future of this country”. Within a year, he feels, India will have cars, buses and trucks running on green hydrogen.

Gadkari’s colleague, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, is also confident of getting hydrogen-powered trains to India in 2023. The Railways had invited bids a year ago for hydrogen fuel cell trains and, initially, two diesel-electric trains will be converted to operate on green hydrogen fuel cells in the Jind-Sonipat section in Haryana.

India might have just started exploring mobility powered by green hydrogen, but the world has already been betting big on it. Last year, in the German state of Lower Saxony, the route between Cuxhaven and Buxtehude became the world’s first to be connected by trains running only on green hydrogen. Under the plan, 14 hydrogen-powered trains manufactured by the French company Alstom are replacing 15 diesel trains.

These Alstom trains are emission-free in operation and have a range of 1,000km. “Our Coradia iLint is the world’s first passenger train to run on a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electrical energy for propulsion. Specifically developed for use on non-electrified lines, this train emits only water vapour and condensation, while maintaining high performance,” said Olivier Loison, managing director of Alstom India Cluster.

A hydrogen train costs 25-35 per cent more than a diesel train. “But, there will be savings on maintenance, and the costs of fuel cells are also expected to come down,” said Loison.

The Toyota Mirai is already being sold in Japan, the US and in some European countries. It runs on a fuel cell system that produces electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. There are no tailpipe emissions other than water. It consumes about 4kg of hydrogen to travel 500km. Some other carmakers are also at it.

About 15,500 hydrogen-powered cars were sold worldwide in 2021. It is just a tiny drop in the 66 million cars sold last year. But, hydrogen car sales are growing; last year they were double that of the pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that the technology could be ready to go mainstream.

Automobiles, however, are just one of the many use cases for green hydrogen. It could be used in the petrochemicals industry; steel makers are looking at it as a means to produce green steel; hydrogen is used to produce ammonia, methanol and other chemicals; it could emerge as an alternative fuel powering the shipping industry; it could one day even be used for heating homes and powering appliances, transported through the existing gas pipelines.

But, where do you get green hydrogen from? Hydrogen is largely found in water (which is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen) or as hydrogen gas, which is combustible. Green hydrogen is produced by a method called electrolysis, which breaks down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by using electricity. This is a highly energy-intensive process. Currently, green hydrogen costs around $6 a kilo.

To produce green hydrogen on a mass scale, you need large electrolysers. They cost $600-800 a kilowatt, according to a white paper by Siemens. At this rate, green hydrogen production is expensive. Also, if much of the electricity used for the production of green hydrogen is non-renewable, it negates the very purpose of adopting green hydrogen.

Nevertheless, experts bat in favour of green hydrogen as it could be highly beneficial for developing economies like India that are heavily dependent on imported oil. “We import $160 billion worth of energy. We have to reduce that import bill. We are the world’s third-largest carbon footprint creator, because we emit about 3.6 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide. We have to bring that down. There is also this aspiration of creating 450 gW of renewable energy by 2030. There green hydrogen will play a very critical role,” said scientist Raghunath Mashelkar.

It seems some of India’s biggest corporations share the view. Reliance Industries is investing Rs75,000 crore in its new energy business. Part of the plan is setting up four giga-factories. One of these will be an electrolyser factory to produce green hydrogen and a fuel cell factory to convert hydrogen into power.

Adani Group, earlier this year, entered into a partnership with TotalEnergies of France to create what would be “the world’s largest green hydrogen ecosystem”. Adani New Industries Limited plans to invest $50 billion over 10 years in green hydrogen. In the initial phase, the company will develop production capacity of 1 million tonnes a year before 2030. Green hydrogen is a natural adjacency for the group, which is already a large player in the solar energy space as well as thermal power generation and transmission.

Tech marvel: Alstom’s hydrogen trains are emission-free in operation and have a range of 1,000km | PTI Tech marvel: Alstom’s hydrogen trains are emission-free in operation and have a range of 1,000km | PTI

India’s largest fuel retailer Indian Oil, engineering and construction company Larsen & Toubro and renewable energy firm ReNew Power also have big plans for green hydrogen. “Green hydrogen can not only help us to decarbonise various industrial sectors, but also provide energy security, which is critical to support the country’s economic growth,” said Subramanian Sarma, whole-time director and senior executive vice president (energy) at L&T.

L&T recently commissioned a green hydrogen plant at its A.M. Naik Heavy Engineering Complex in Hazira, Gujarat. The plant is designed for an electrolyser capacity of 800kW. Currently, it is producing 45 kilo green hydrogen a day, which will be used for captive consumption.

State-owned power producer NTPC is setting up a green hydrogen mobility project in Leh Ladakh. It will see five fuel cell buses running in and around Leh. The renewable energy arm of NTPC also has a pact with Gujarat Gas where green hydrogen will be produced and blended with piped natural gas and will be used for cooking in NTPC’s Kawas township.

Tata Motors, India’s largest commercial vehicle maker, has been developing hydrogen fuel cells and testing this technology for a few years. It has won an order from Indian Oil to supply 15 hydrogen fuel cell buses that are being developed. Testing of the second-phase prototypes is expected soon.

Indian Oil will be producing green hydrogen in stages. As a first step, it will be implementing a 5 KTA (40 mW) green hydrogen plant at Mathura refinery and a 2 KTA (16 mW) plant at Panipat refinery. “The company is venturing into green hydrogen production and is targeting 5 per cent of hydrogen produced by it as green hydrogen by 2027-28 and 10 per cent by 2029-30,” it told shareholders some time ago.

Tata Motors believes green hydrogen will be an important stepping stone in achieving its net-zero ambitions. “The availability of hydrogen and the cost of hydrogen are the important barriers you have to overcome,” said Rajendra Petkar, president and chief technology officer. He said getting down the costs of producing green hydrogen will determine the growth and success of the industry.

“It is evident that the cost of green hydrogen must be substantially brought down to make it affordable and realise its full potential,” said L&T’s Sarma. “Various industry players, including L&T, are working on different initiatives to bring cost competitiveness. The cost of green power generation and storage, technology advances in electrolyser manufacturing and the application of material science to indigenise supply chain components are the areas that are being worked upon.”

Cost is the key. Mashelkar, who is chairman of Reliance Innovation Council, said green hydrogen costs needed to come down to $1 to $2 a kilo from the current $5 to $6 a kilo, if it was to become affordable. He believes it is possible through research, innovation and policy changes. “Look at the electrolyser which splits water. As the size of the electrolyser goes up, the costs come down. So, with scale the costs come down,” he said. He also pointed out that after splitting water, we get medical-grade oxygen as a byproduct, which could be sold separately.

Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani believes that India can produce green hydrogen at $1 a kilo in a decade. “Although the costs of hydrogen from electrolysis today are high, they are expected to fall significantly in the coming years. New technologies are emerging for hydrogen storage and transportation, which will dramatically reduce the cost of distribution,” he said at a climate conference earlier.

Reliance New Energy Solar had signed a pact with Denmark’s Stiesdal to manufacture the latter’s hydrogen electrolysers in India. The partnership would “accelerate cost reduction and commercialisation of their pressurised alkaline electrolyser technology”, Ambani told Reliance shareholders a while ago.

It is not just the production cost. Transportation of green hydrogen is not easy and needs infrastructure development, said T.V. Narendran, managing director of Tata Steel. “Why is coal so popular in India? Because, it is easy to move. You can move it by rail, you can move it by ship, the ports can handle it. If you want to switch from coal to gas, you need the pipelines and the LNG terminals. And then if you want to switch to hydrogen then you need that. The cost and complexity of this transition needs to be thought through,” he said.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) has identified that moving to green hydrogen-based heavy industries would require a major technological shift in their core industrial processes. “The change must be led by policy makers who, through policies and regulation, can accelerate the change and drive investments in this direction,” it noted.

The World Bank says the demand for hydrogen was 87 million metric tonnes in 2020, and it is expected to grow to 500–680 million metric tonnes by 2050. However, 95 per cent of current hydrogen production is fossil-fuel based. So, it is hardly green. Green hydrogen production will need to get much of its power requirement from renewable sources.

The green hydrogen policy notified by the government this year offers waiver of inter-state transmission charges for 25 years to producers of green hydrogen and green ammonia from the projects commissioned before June 30, 2025. So, a company that is producing green hydrogen in one state could have renewable energy plants in any other state. Green hydrogen and green ammonia plants will also be granted open access to sourcing renewable energy within 15 days of receipt of application. The government is planning to set up manufacturing zones for green hydrogen and green ammonia production plants.

Storage of hydrogen is a bit tricky, as its small molecule is difficult to contain and leaks will add to green house gases. “Hydrogen itself emits no carbon dioxide when burned or used in a fuel cell. But when emitted into the atmosphere, hydrogen contributes to climate change by increasing the amounts of other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone and water vapour, resulting in indirect warming,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Ilissa Ocko, senior climate scientist at EDF.

Clearly, there is a long way to go for green hydrogen to go mainstream. Bringing down costs would be a key enabler. While companies around the world are taking big steps in green hydrogen technology and usage, there are many concerns and challenges that will have to be addressed for it to really live up to being green.