Ireland needs renewable boost to be a green hydrogen contender

26 May 2023

Kim Gunnelius, head of Verne Global’s operations in Finland. Image: Verne Global

Verne Global’s Kim Gunnelius discusses the big global players in green hydrogen, the advantages Ireland has in this field and the need for Government subsidies to boost renewable production.

Hydrogen has been building up steam in recent years, being discussed more frequently as a potential green source of fuel and as a means of energy storage.

The potential has been noted globally, with companies and countries making plans to invest further into green hydrogen. There are estimates that the global market reached $676m last year and will rise to more than $7.3bn by 2027.

Ireland has been highlighted for its potential in creating green hydrogen. A report in March by Aurora Energy Research claimed Ireland could become a “powerhouse” in this sector, with the ability to produce the cheapest green hydrogen in Europe by 2030.

But there are roadblocks for Ireland to reach its full potential in green hydrogen production.

Kim Gunnelius is the head of Verne Global’s operations in Finland. He told that, compared to other countries, Ireland’s green hydrogen economy is “still in the early stages”, but noted its potential to grow.

“To generate green hydrogen, you first need renewable energy sources, and Ireland’s off shore wind potential places it at an advantage over other countries,” Gunnelius said.

“There’s also political will. The country’s Climate Action plan incorporates targets for green hydrogen and recognises its role in providing cheaper, cleaner and more predictable power across the country.”

The lack of ‘green’ in the hydrogen market

Hydrogen can be created in various ways, with green hydrogen being made through a process called electrolysis – splitting hydrogen from water using electrolysers.  To be considered ‘green’, this requires the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Gunnelius said there are estimates that only a tiny portion of the world’s hydrogen production is made using renewable energy, with 98pc produced by “less sustainable methods”.

“The most common form is grey hydrogen, which is produced using natural gas, but there is also brown hydrogen, which is derived from coal,” Gunnelius said.

But there are reports – such as the DNV’s Hydrogen Forecast to 2050 – that predict green hydrogen will eventually account for a majority of the global hydrogen output in the future.

Green energy storage

Green hydrogen supporters claim the fuel has several advantages over other forms of energy, including other renewable sources. Gunnelius said it is known for being “energy dense”, which makes it a “popular option for industries with high power demands”.

“Early adopters include the transportation sector, which is actively exploring how green hydrogen can be used as a zero-emission fuel,” Gunnelius said.

“Energy intensive sectors – particularly oil refineries, fertiliser producers and steel plants – are also significant users, as they seek to remove fossil fuels from their production processes.”

But one of the biggest advantages green hydrogen has might be its use as energy storage, particularly to support the renewable energy sector.

One of the current disadvantages renewables have is that it’s harder to manage the energy output of these energy sources compared to combustible options like oil. If the energy levels get too low, non-renewables are currently used to balance the grid.

Meanwhile, some renewable sources have to be reduced in the event of overproduction, due to a lack of energy storage. But Gunnelius said green hydrogen has the potential to fix these issues.

“When renewable energy generation outstrips demand, the surplus can be stockpiled as hydrogen,” Gunnelius said. “These stores can then be used to balance the grid at times when renewable energy production is low, for example, when the sun isn’t shining, water supply is low or the wind isn’t blowing, or to meet spikes in demand.

“In short, it is the ideal complement to intermittent renewable power sources, so it is an increasingly important part of the green energy ecosystem.”

Gunnelius also said Verne Global is currently trailing the concept of using green hydrogen fuel cells as a form of back-up power in Iceland.

The need for Government support

Gunnelius said China is currently the world’s largest producer of hydrogen and has goals to greatly expand its green hydrogen output each year. The US Department of Energy is also pumping millions into a batch of projects, as part of the country’s Hydrogen Energy Earthshot.

Europe has also been working to create a green hydrogen ecosystem over the years, forming the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance in 2020 and the Clean Hydrogen Partnership in 2021 to support the deployment of clean hydrogen tech.

Ireland has been laying the groundwork to develop green hydrogen. Last September, Irish green energy company EIH2 signed a deal with the ports of Cork and Amsterdam, creating a supply chain for green hydrogen between Ireland and Europe.

Last year, GenComm programme manager Paul McCormack said Ireland is at the “epicentre of the hydrogen revolution” with a number of national and international projects underway in this sector.

But Gunnelius said the growth of Ireland’s green hydrogen economy is tied to its focus on renewables, as there needs to be an “overall surplus of renewable-generated power” for there to be a benefit.

“Otherwise the hydrogen production process will just use up green energy that would otherwise feed the main grid,” Gunnelius said. “Ireland is not yet in a state of surplus.”

“To reach ‘powerhouse’ status, significant subsidies will be required.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic