Why green hydrogen presents both major opportunities, significant challenges

GS Paper III

News Excerpt: 

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has announced a Rs-496-crore (until 2025-26) scheme to support pilot projects that either test the viability of green hydrogen as a vehicle fuel or develop secure supporting infrastructure such as refueling stations.

About Transport sector scheme 

  • The MNRE will implement pilot projects for replacing fossil fuels in the transport sector with Green Hydrogen and its derivatives. 
    • These pilot projects will be implemented through the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the Scheme Implementing Agencies (SIAs) nominated under this Scheme.
  • The scheme will support the development of technologies for the use of Green Hydrogen as a fuel in Buses, Trucks, and 4-wheelers, based on fuel cell-based propulsion technology / internal combustion engine-based propulsion technology. 
    • The other thrust area for the scheme is to support the development of infrastructure such as hydrogen refueling stations.
  • The scheme will also seek to support any other innovative use of hydrogen for reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector, 
    • Such as blending of methanol/ethanol based on green hydrogen and other synthetic fuels derived from green hydrogen in automobile fuels.
  • The use of Green Hydrogen in the transport sector, via the proposed pilot projects, will lead to the development of necessary infrastructure including refueling facilities and distribution infrastructure, resulting in the establishment of a Green Hydrogen ecosystem in the transport sector. 
  • With the expected reduction in the Green Hydrogen production cost over the years, the utilization in the transport sector is expected to increase.
  • The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways will appoint a scheme implementation agency that will invite proposals for pilot projects.
    •  The selected company or consortium will be the project’s executing agency.
  • Based on the recommendation of a Project Appraisal Committee, 
    • The MNRE will approve viability gap funding (VGF) for the project. 
      • The VGF amount will be finalized after considering “specific needs, merits, and feasibility of each project”
      • The executing agency will be required to complete the pilot project within two years.

Objectives of the scheme:

  • To support the deployment of Green Hydrogen as fuel in buses and trucks, in a phased manner on a pilot basis.
  • To validate the technical feasibility and performance of Green Hydrogen operated vehicles under real-world operational conditions
  • To evaluate the economic viability of hydrogen-based vehicles
  • To assess the effectiveness of hydrogen refueling station
  • To evaluate the performance of hydrogen-bas improvement vehicles and identify the areas for improvement
  • To demonstrate safe and secure operations of hydrogen-based vehicles and hydrogen refueling stations.

About Green and grey hydrogen:

  • Hydrogen is colourless, and green hydrogen is ‘green’ only by virtue of the way it is produced, and the source of the energy used to manufacture it
  • Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen that is produced from the electrolysis of water splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen using an electrolyser powered by renewable energy. 
    • This is considered to be a virtually emission-free pathway for hydrogen production 
    • it is ‘end-to-end’ green because it is powered by green energy
    • Uses water as feedstock, and emits no carbon on consumption.
  • Currently, most hydrogen produced for industrial consumption and applications is ‘grey’ hydrogen
    • It is produced from natural gas through energy-intensive processes, 
    • It has high carbon emissions
  • Except for a difference in the production pathway and emissions,
    • Green hydrogen is essentially the same as gray  or hydrogen categorized by any other colour.

Opportunity for Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

  • A hydrogen internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle utilises hydrogen through combustion which is similar to cars running on diesel and petrol, except there are no carbon emissions.
  • A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) utilizes hydrogen electrochemically by converting hydrogen stored in a high-pressure tank into electricity, leaving water as the byproduct. 
    • Even though hydrogen ICE vehicles do not emit carbon, research suggests that burning hydrogen is far less energy efficient than converting it into electricity in a fuel cell.
  • Compared to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), in which the battery is the heaviest part
    • Hydrogen FCEVs are typically much lighter because :
      • Hydrogen is a light element, 
      • A fuel cell stack weighs lesser than an electric vehicle (EV) battery.
  • This makes hydrogen fuel cell technology a viable alternative to EV battery technology,
    • Especially for heavy-duty trucks that can benefit from an increased payload capacity without coughing clouds of smoke from burning diesel.
  • Research shows that long-haul FCEVs can carry freight amounts similar to diesel trucks, 
    • whereas long-haul BEVs have a weight penalty of up to 25% due to heavier batteries. 
    • Given the need to cut carbon emissions in the transportation sector while ensuring there is no loss in revenue-generating payload capacity, green hydrogen holds promise.

A number of challenges:

  • There are significant challenges to the large-scale use of green hydrogen in the transportation sector. 
    • The foremost among these is the prohibitive cost of production, followed by challenges of storage and transportation at scale
    • With more innovation in technology and scaling-up of production though, costs are likely to come down in a few years.
  • Green hydrogen-powered vehicles are not yet seen as a suitable alternative to four-wheel BEVs due to challenges arising from fuel costs and building supporting infrastructure. 
    • Shell, a pioneer in hydrogen refueling technology, 
      • last month announced it was shutting all its hydrogen refueling stations for cars in California due to “supply complications and other external market factors”. 
  • For hydrogen FCEVs to compete with BEVs, 
    • Green hydrogen needs to cost between $3 and $6.5 per kilogram by 2030. 
      • For perspective, retail green hydrogen prices in California touched $30 per kilogram in 2023. 
      • Also, the California Transportation Commission estimates that building a hydrogen truck fuelling station costs up to 72% more than the cost of building a battery electric truck fuelling station.
  • The MNRE plans to convene a meeting with stakeholders to discuss the development of specialized cylinders to store green hydrogen after manufacturers of commercial vehicles flagged challenges related to high-pressure storage cylinders.
    • Currently, most cylinders manufactured in India are designed to carry compressed natural gas (CNG). 
    • But hydrogen is stored at a much higher pressure, and CNG cylinders cannot carry hydrogen. 
    • For cylinders to carry a high mass of hydrogen, the carbon fibre needs to be stronger, 
      • which makes high-pressure hydrogen cylinders expensive. 
    • This is a key barrier to the adoption of hydrogen as a transport fuel. 
      • For the same reason, the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure is also not seen as viable.
  • Hydrogen is extremely flammable
    • It means that special care would be needed in handling the fuel at retail stations compared to diesel, petrol, or even CNG. 
    • Robust and fool-proof handling and safety standards need to be developed before pushing large-scale adoption.
  • Finally, as advancements in battery technologies continue to reduce the overall weight of EV batteries,
    •  The long-term viability of green hydrogen-powered heavy duty commercial vehicles could also come under pressure.

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