India, being a tropical country, has a significant edge in green hydrogen production due to its favourable geographic conditions and abundant natural resources. Producing hydrogen from renewables in India is likely to be cheaper than producing it from natural gas. Cheap solar tariffs mean the cost of powering the electrolysis process through surplus electricity at peak hours to generate hydrogen remains low. With abundant sunlight, it is estimated that India can generate over 1,000 GW (gigawatt) of solar energy on just 0.5 per cent of landmass and sea water from the vast coastline can be used for the process of electrolysis.
According to WHO, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India and over 50 per cent of the sites studied across India had critical levels of PM10 pollution.
Because hydrogen can be stored or used in a variety of sectors, converting electricity to hydrogen can help match the variable energy supply and demand, both temporally and geographically, alongside alternatives such as pumped-storage hydropower, solar batteries and grid upgrades.
With the world seeking ways to accelerate the pace of transformation in the energy sector, India with the right policy support is in a unique position to not only become self-sufficient in green hydrogen but also produce green hydrogen for export markets. The focus on producing clean energy through green hydrogen is in line with Narendra Modi government’s goal of producing 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030 and, in the process, achieve emission goals under the Paris Agreement and reduce import dependency on fossil fuels.
Hydrogen can be produced by the electrolysis of water i.e. using an electric current to break water, H2O, into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen. If this electric current is produced by a renewable source (e.g. solar PV or a wind turbine or hydropower), the clean hydrogen produced is known as green hydrogen.
The vast majority of industrial hydrogen, about 70 metric tonnes (MT), is currently produced from natural gas through a conventional process known as steam methane reforming (SMR) with large quantities of by product CO2. The dependence on natural gas and coal means that hydrogen production today generates significant CO2 emissions.
Currently, over 80 per cent of India’s energy needs are met by three fuels: coal, oil and solid biomass. For India’s energy transition to clean fuels, adoption of green hydrogen to generate energy would bring in significant benefits. No greenhouse gases, particulates, sulphur oxides or ground level ozone are produced from the use of hydrogen. If the hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, it emits nothing but water. The transition to a hydrogen economy will not only reduce India’s import dependency on hydrocarbon fuels but also provide clean air to its citizens, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in absolute terms, mitigate carbon emissions and fulfil the Atmanirbhar Bharat vision.
The recent successes of solar photovoltaics (PV) and electric vehicles have shown that policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries. Electricity constitutes only about 20 per cent of the primary energy consumption of India. Renewable energy has been used on the electricity side, but we have not been able to penetrate the other 80 per cent of the consumption market, which is where the hydrocarbons dominate and import dependence happens.
Hydrogen has the potential to help with variable output from renewables, like solar PVs and wind, whose availability is not always well matched with demand. Hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables and holds promising as a low-cost option for storing electricity over days, weeks or even months. Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels can transport energy from renewables over long distances – from regions with abundant solar and wind resources, such as India, Middle East, Australia or Latin America, to energy-deficient cities far away.
Hydrogen is versatile and can act as chemical storage, energy carrier as well as feedstock for industrial production. Hydrogen’s potential role in the power sector extends beyond its use as a fuel to its role as an energy carrier, enabling long-term seasonal storage and dispatch flexibility. Green hydrogen can open up plethora of options such as green ammonia in the fertiliser sector or blending with natural gas or eventually generating power on a 24×7 basis.
India can decarbonise its energy-intensive sectors such as industry, transport and power by using green hydrogen. Increased hydrogen use can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in hard-to-abate sectors, particularly steel and cement production, heavy duty transportation, shipping and aviation. Green hydrogen, particularly, has potential in the context of India’s industry sector, since it can be used in place of natural gas, coking coal or oil products. This means that steel, ammonia-based fertilisers and methanol among other products could all be produced with green emissions.
Transport has been the fastest‐growing end‐use sector in recent years and India is set for a huge expansion of transportation infrastructure — from highways, railways and metro lines to airports and ports. While transportation, particularly in long-haul, longer-range and high fuel-consumption applications, will likely be the primary application area for green hydrogen by way of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), opportunities for the use of green hydrogen exist across the entire economy. This new sector of the economy will not only play a key role in decarbonising transportation and energy but has the potential to create millions of high-quality, green jobs.
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On August 15, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of National Hydrogen Mission (NHM) with an aim to make India a global hub for green hydrogen production and export. This would not only help India make new progress in the field of energy self-reliance but will also become an inspiration for clean energy transition all over the world.
Accordingly, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has drafted a National Green Hydrogen Energy Mission document which would inter-alia aim to scale up green hydrogen production and utilisation across multiple sectors, including transportation. The draft Mission document is currently under inter-ministerial consultation.
In the recent Budget, to facilitate domestic manufacturing for the ambitious goal of 280 GW of installed solar capacity by 2030, an additional allocation of Rs 19,500 crore for Production Linked Incentive for manufacture of high efficiency modules, with priority to fully integrated manufacturing units from polysilicon to solar PV modules, will be made.
A key step that needs to be taken to speed up the rollout of green hydrogen technology is establishing a strong and sustainable domestic market for the production and use of hydrogen at home. We must create mandate-based hydrogen demand for ensuring scale. A strong domestic market will send an important signal, encouraging other countries to use hydrogen technology as well. By developing the green hydrogen market and promoting green hydrogen as a decarbonisation option, India can make a key contribution to climate change mitigation around the world.
We expect demand creation for green hydrogen to happen in the following manner: immediate demand for green ammonia, gas blending and other industrial applications, round-the-clock power by way of ammonia or hydrogen, automobile fuels, marine fuels by way of ammonia or hydrogen.
The author is Head of Research at Smahi Foundation and a public policy expert based in Mumbai. The author tweets @Ritu_twt. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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