Argentina , Chile , Mexico and Brazil

How to ensure green hydrogen is really green

Bnamericas Published: Friday, January 06, 2023
How to ensure green hydrogen is really green

As Latin American countries are creating green hydrogen roadmaps, several pilot projects are emerging with a view toward large-scale initiatives.

German safety, certification and inspection firm TÜV Rheinland is advising multiple companies in the region on hydrogen and desalination, a key component of green hydrogen production.

BNamericas talks to Manuel Díez, member of the company's hydrogen committee, and Vanesa Schmitz, who heads the industrial services line in Chile, about development prospects, the certification process and more.

BNamericas: What is your experience in the hydrogen and desalination market?

Díez: We have been involved in hydrogen for a long time. It is not a new gas, it is not a new topic, but now it is being used as energy storage and as a replacement for other fuels.

Our role is to monitor and ensure the quality of facilities related to hydrogen production, transport and use. One of our most important services in this area is the creation of our internal green hydrogen standard, which establishes how and when to certify the green origin of hydrogen. It can also be applied to other origins, but we prefer to focus on the green origin for sustainability and efficiency reasons.

We published this standard in mid-2022, and we have eight examples of green hydrogen certifications ranging from southeast Asia to the Middle East. We also now have Brazil, where we have been the first green hydrogen certifier. And we hope to start in Chile very soon.

Regarding desalination, to get hydrogen, the first thing you need is freshwater, although not necessarily potable. When this is not available, desalting is an option. Chile, for example, has a tremendous amount of renewable power and can use some of that energy to desalinate water, which can be used for both mining and hydrogen production, either as a primary resource or as a byproduct.

BNamericas: How does this hydrogen certification system work?

Díez: The definition of green hydrogen is clear: it is hydrogen that has been generated in an electrolyzer using renewable energy, basically wind and/or photovoltaic. We verify that this renewable energy is actually being produced and used in the hydrogen production process.

This can go further, depending on the company that accesses our service. It can include transport, for example. Typically, they are hydrogen producers using renewable energy from primary and secondary sources, depending on the purpose, but which would otherwise likely be lost. Using that energy to produce hydrogen is one way to conserve it.

BNamericas: Does this also work for projects that connect to the transmission network?

Díez: It can be done, as long as the energy generated really corresponds to the energy consumed. Once fed into the grid, it is impossible to differentiate if it is of green origin. But sellers and buyers can be established, and if this sale is unique and unidirectional, that is, it’s only sold in one market, it would fit our internal certification standard.

BNamericas: How is the desalination market evolving?

Schmitz: It's going down in price. Chile has 26 desalination projects. Most are multipurpose and include uses such as human consumption, agriculture and mining. Clearly, to produce hydrogen, we need freshwater, and that forces us to go further in this area. It is a projection that is being seen today.

We are consulting on desalination plants to see the programming from the technical part. We see a great opportunity there, since hydrogen and desalination plants will go hand in hand.

Díez: Freshwater is becoming a scarce commodity, and this proven technology will see a price drop in coming years because of increased competitiveness of the manufacturers of these components.

BNamericas: How does industrial green hydrogen development differ among Latin American countries?

Díez: Brazil is the big market in South America due to the country’s size and the ability to attract investment. But Chile is very interesting for us, and we have been present there for years. In Argentina, we have a good personal and technical base and we hope to be involved in the first green hydrogen projects in that country, although I think it is a bit lacking, independent of political and social issues.

I think the difficulty is that when a country has oil and gas available, the orientation toward renewable energy is different. We see that in Chile, which does not have access to hydrocarbons, so the evolution of the generation market has been very different.

We have agreements with a company both in Peru and Colombia, and we have a work base in Mexico from Central America to the south and helps us complement our services. We would like to be in more places than Santiago and São Paulo and Brazil’s northwest. We have a good plan to grow in South America, and I think green hydrogen will help us.

BNamericas: Will green hydrogen development in Mexico advance in line with the rest of the region, considering the US moves in that direction?

Díez: Right now, most hydrogen is produced in and transported through the Gulf Bay. In this area, expertise exists and has existed for a long time. True, Mexico depends and clearly focuses on hydrocarbons, but even if it will only serve to store energy a little more efficient than today, hydrogen will also become interesting to Mexico.

At least for the moment, however, I don't see it that way. This is a problem with many countries that exploit oil fields. They have another orientation toward renewable energy, basically because they don't need it. We hope to see hydrogen use, which can help internationally to reduce the carbon footprint.

BNamericas: You are also working on adapting infrastructure to hydrogen use.

Schmitz: We are doing this kind of work in Germany.

Díez: About two years ago we started with an ad hoc project, creating an internal, multinational and multicultural committee of experts with experience in hydrogen, and we are attacking several fronts, from electric stations combined with hydroelectric stations, to the production and generation of hydrogen, either with electrolyzers or through chemical processes. 

The original objective was to verify energy efficiency of final combustion devices. But for some time now, customers have been approaching us to ask what percentage of hydrogen would be the maximum that can be used in certain burners without making major technical changes to the combustion equipment. Five months ago, we have expanded the laboratory and quadrupled capacity to meet the high demand.

Today, customers are asking about the effects of switching to 100% hydrogen combustion, ditching natural, liquefied or other gas. This applies to industrial and commercial applications. At the domestic level, the issue is different, because the network would have to receive certain adaptations.

BNamericas: And is this process of adapting infrastructure advancing in Latin America?

Díez: It is in the making. Hydrogen is a somewhat new topic in South America. Nor are there so many gas pipelines capable of transporting hydrogen from the place of generation to its final use. Almost all gas pipelines are designed with hydrocarbons in mind, and it is not clear these are suitable for hydrogen.

Also, we see that green hydrogen specifically is being subsidies in many economies, yet blue or gray hydrogen does not receive these incentives.

Schmitz: I was in contact with people in the field of green hydrogen in Chile, and we detected several shortcomings in feasibility studies, regarding machinery or electrolyzers that did not meet the climatic requirements of the area, for example.

On the other hand, training is a great shortcoming. There is much ignorance regarding what the hydrogen certification system implies and the safety measures necessary to deal with this material. Knowledge regarding the design processes of a plant is also lacking and several uncertainties exist from the risk prevention perspective.

In Chile, we are developing with some academics several courses to gradually take on all these issues and contribute to the people who are getting involved in hydrogen at all levels to provide more complete knowledge. We help investors in the green hydrogen value chain. It is about those who seek to invest gaining a holistic vision of the processes and achieving a successful result.

BNamericas: What is a key focus governments and companies should adopt to realize the potential of green hydrogen?

Díez: It is very important to train people in all areas, both in use and in initial production and transport. It is a flammable and explosive gas, which entails known risks, but which the entire value chain must take into account. It is about handling it safely for workers, for the environment and the facilities. It must be stressed that all these facilities put safety first.

Schmitz: For that, the fundamental role of the government is to start taking the regulations of other countries, for example from Germany, and start to create a regulation. [Chile] has gas regulations, but they are not specific. I think the government should develop there, and the private sector is willing to collaborate.

Díez: We are collaborating with [German development agency] GIZ, which seeks to break down technical barriers between countries to create specific regulations for the new uses of hydrogen, which is a variation that was not commercially sustainable before.

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