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Understanding India’s green hydrogen aspirations with Sachin Chugh from Arup

As hydrogen emerges as a critical decarbonisation solution across various sectors, India aspires to produce 5 million metric tons of green hydrogen annually by 2030. Our interaction with Mr. Sachin Chugh, Hydrogen lead for India at ARUP UK, aims to provide an overview and his expert insights into the current state of hydrogen infrastructure in India, as well as the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

In our journey, emissions are always at the crossroads of economic growth, posing a challenge for mankind. We’ve shifted from higher to lower carbon-to-hydrogen ratio fuels over time, from wood to coal, gasoline and crude oil-driven options, and now to natural gas. However, carbon dioxide emissions from combustion remain a significant environmental concern, necessitating the role of hydrogen. While previous waves of hydrogen lacked technological depth and utilization spectrum, today’s hydrogen offers promise to decarbonize challenging sectors like refineries, steel, and fertilizers. Its holistic nature facilitates integration across these sectors, providing a one-stop environmental solution. However, overcoming certain challenges is crucial for realising its full potential.

Two sectors prominently emerge if we look at the sectoral breakdown of hydrogen demand.

  • Utilities, where hydrogen plays a crucial role in desulfurising petroleum products to meet strict Bharat Stage norms, primarily through hydroprocessing and hydrotreating in oil refineries. These sectors heavily rely on hydrogen.
  • Additionally, the fertiliser sector, reflecting India’s agrarian economy, contributes substantially to hydrogen demand. Combined with steel, chemicals, food and beverages, vegetable oils, and the glass industry, the total annual demand in India reaches approximately 6 to 7 million metric tons of hydrogen. A part of this demand is generated in situ at refineries.

Hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas, supplemented by a small portion of naphtha. The production process, particularly steam methane reforming from natural gas, emits about 10 to 12 kg of carbon dioxide per kg of hydrogen produced. Unless, this Co2 is captured, the impact of hydrogen production on the environment is tremendous.

Globally, efforts are underway to transition to green hydrogen production by reducing reliance on fossil fuels or capturing and utilising carbon dioxide emissions. Countries like China heavily rely on coal gasification, prompting the need for carbon dioxide capture and utilization strategies to address environmental concerns.

Green hydrogen is produced by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable energy from solar, wind, or hybrid models. It is termed “green” as it has no carbon footprint. Currently, multiple electrolysers are operating globally, including in India, but they mostly rely on electricity from national grids. The carbon intensity of hydrogen production thus depends on the grid’s carbon intensity. While limited commercial projects are using 100% renewable energy to power electrolysers, addressing the intermittency of renewable power remains a significant challenge for round-the-clock operations. There are few commercial projects in India, but some are in the pipeline and expected to become operational within a year or two, producing green hydrogen. As of now, most electrolysers operate on grid electricity.

Particularly addressing the Indian context, there has been considerable discussion about the availability of inexpensive solar power, which can be used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, thus enabling green hydrogen production. However, the entire ecosystem involves setting up renewable energy plants, transmitting electricity to electrolyser sites for hydrogen production, and considering post-production requirements.

For industrial applications like refineries, fertilizers, or steel production, hydrogen can be used directly without intermediate pressure-boosting stages. If the end-use necessitates bottling and transportation, additional costs arise due to the need for pressure boosting, impacting net energy consumption. Moreover, storing hydrogen onboard for mobility applications requires higher pressure, typically around 350 bars.

Considering only production costs, green hydrogen currently averages approximately $5 to $6 per kg, leveraging solar power availability. However, this cost estimate excludes storage, transportation, delivery, and compression expenses. The delivery cost can be approximately $8 to $9 per kg depending on transportation distances and specific requirements. Efforts are underway to reduce these costs to achieve economic viability comparable to diesel or natural gas prices.

Correct. Minimising the movement of molecules is crucial to avoid excessive costs. However, it’s also about balancing the movement of electrons and molecules. Another trade-off involves managing the intermittent nature of renewable energy production and integrating it with continuous electrolyser operation. Achieving this balance and optimisation is essential to ensure green hydrogen availability at an affordable price for end consumers.

I believe the operational needs of industries dictate the usage of hydrogen. It’s inherently integrated into their production processes, with the cost of hydrogen already factored into the price of the final product. However, the price of hydrogen is closely tied to the cost of its primary feedstock used for its production. Whether it’s extracted from water or natural gas, the current price of hydrogen depends on the cost of the feedstock. For green hydrogen, the price is also influenced by the cost of renewable energy and electrolysers.    

We need to approach this holistically. Some countries lack renewable energy sources but have the potential to produce hydrogen, requiring them to import electrons via huge transmission lines to produce hydrogen for domestic use. Conversely, India is rich in renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, and produces green electricity at a competitive price globally. Leveraging this cheap renewable energy for green hydrogen production relies on advancements in electrolyser technology. With India’s strong manufacturing industry and abundant cheap renewable energy, we have an optimal blend to support domestic demand and potentially export hydrogen. While transmission costs will be added, it’s a matter of calculating how other countries will source their green electricity compared to India, making it crucial for Indian industries to analyse potential markets for meeting green hydrogen demand.

The challenges are numerous. We need to align the system and the ecosystem to leverage the perceived low cost of renewable energy and integrate it with the localisation of electrolyser technology in India. The government has been supportive, offering various incentivisation schemes for electrolyser production and green hydrogen reproduction. These initiatives will catalyse internal development but require robust support. Research and development programs, backed by government initiatives, are crucial. However, this journey won’t happen overnight. It demands strong coordination among policy-making agencies, central and state ministries, independent power producers, and end consumers. The goal is to reallocate renewable energy capacities towards green hydrogen production. We must also meet net emission limits set by importing countries to qualify as green hydrogen. This necessitates stakeholders coming together to strategize and collaborate.

While India addresses renewable energy availability, water availability for hydrogen production shouldn’t be overlooked. The water requirements extend beyond feedstock, involving significant amounts for cooling electrolysers and managing evaporative losses. This underscores the importance of engineering advisories and consultancies in harmonising efforts. At Arup UK, we aim to leverage our international experience to support India’s green hydrogen aspirations, including derivatives like green ammonia and methanol.

When considering hydrogen’s viability in mobility, it’s essential to compare it with other energy systems and assess the constraints and advantages of each. I often draw a comparison between hydrogen and traditional fuels like gasoline and diesel in the transportation sector. As gasoline has dominated the market for years, batteries are gradually replacing it. Similarly, hydrogen can fill the role that diesel has played, especially in applications requiring longer ranges and continuous operation. So, heavy-duty vehicles and those needing extended range and minimal downtime are prime candidates for hydrogen adoption. Think of taxi fleet operators or service providers who rely on constant vehicle availability to meet customer demand. Hydrogen’s quick refuelling time and longer range between refuels make it an attractive option for them. We can expect hydrogen to make inroads in various sectors, including shipping, aviation, and railways, particularly where electrification isn’t feasible. Long-haul freight, buses for intercity travel, and other transportation modes are ripe for disruption by hydrogen as a clean and efficient power source.

Arup is a well-established name in the industry, with a rich history of involvement in iconic infrastructure projects globally, from Sydney’s Opera House to India’s Statue of Unity. Recognizing the convergence of sectors toward achieving net-zero goals and embracing circular economy principles, Arup has positioned itself as a leader in sustainable energy solutions.

Our presence in the hydrogen space is robust, and we have a diverse portfolio of projects worldwide. We engage at various levels, from policy formulation to project implementation. This includes assisting governments in drafting green hydrogen strategies, blending hydrogen with natural gas in existing infrastructure, designing hydrogen pipelines, balancing renewable energy generation with green hydrogen production, ensuring safety in hydrogen facilities, and optimizing delivery schedules.

As India embarks on significant policy shifts and infrastructure development, our strong engineering foundation enables us to play a pivotal role in guiding and executing these projects.

Also read: Understanding Hydrogen: Alternative fuel of future.

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