Latin America Advisor

Energy Advisor

A Publication of The Dialogue

Does Hydrogen Fuel Have a Bright Future in Latin America?

Low-emission initiatives in Asia, Europe and California have started to make way for the deployment of hydrogen vehicle fuel stations alongside fossil fuel pumps, Cecilia Aguillón writes below. // File Photo: U.S. Department of Energy. Low-emission initiatives in Asia, Europe and California have started to make way for the deployment of hydrogen vehicle fuel stations alongside fossil fuel pumps, Cecilia Aguillón writes below. // File Photo: U.S. Department of Energy.

The debate around the global energy transition away from fossil fuels has shifted from when it will happen to what it will look like, according to a report by S&P Global Platts released last month. Among the alternatives, hydrogen could achieve emission reductions in industrial settings, as well as in residential and commercial heating and long-haul trucking, the report said. In what ways is hydrogen being developed as a clean energy carrier globally and in Latin America and the Caribbean in particular? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a potential shift toward hydrogen-based fuel, and how does it compare to other clean energy alternatives, such as biofuel? How disruptive will the energy transition be for traditional fuel refining in the region, and how can refiners prepare for it?

Ana Ángel, Latin America manager at Hinicio: “Green hydrogen (produced via electrolysis of water from renewable energies) is positioning itself as key piece of the puzzle to decarbonize sectors of the economy in which electrification has limitations, such as the chemical or steel industries and certain transport sectors. Several developed economies, including the European Union, Japan, South Korea, California and Australia, have understood this. Latin America has pilot projects in Costa Rica and Argentina, projects in an advanced state of development in Chile and Uruguay, as well as great interest from energy and hydrocarbon companies in Colombia. Green hydrogen is a molecule free of carbon emissions that can supply existing energy infrastructure, be transported in pipelines, and even by boat, as is currently done with liquefied natural gas (LNG). It allows for the storage of surplus intermittent renewables in greater capacities for much longer than batteries allow, and it can supply cars in just four to five minutes with power for more than 700 kilometers, become a solution for zero-emissions transport for long distances, heavy segments and high-intensity operations. Hydrogen is a great opportunity for the diversification toward clean-fuel production and the decarbonization of oil and gas companies. Injected into pipelines to mix to a certain percentage with natural gas, or used to supply refineries’ demand, clean hydrogen can drastically diminish carbon footprints. Although this technology has reached technological maturity, as have other innovative technologies, its initial costs remain high, so fiscal and financial policies are required to encourage its adoption. Latin America has exceptional conditions for the production of green hydrogen at highly competitive prices, such as an electricity matrix with a low emission factor, a high potential for renewable energy production, as well as a large availability of space and water sources.”

Cecilia Aguillón, director of the energy transition initiative at the Institute of the Americas: “In the near term, electrification of transportation is likely to continue, but hydrogen-based energy can also accelerate the pace of emission reductions. Several global energy companies are already investing in research-and-development and demonstration projects of hydrogen fuels around the world, including in Latin America, where hydroelectricity, solar and wind resources are abundant and cost-effective. Hydrogen production is mostly fueled with non-renewable sources, but in the race to reduce emissions, natural gas is viewed as the bridge in the transition to zero-carbon energy until the cost of producing fuel with renewables through electrolysis can be competitive. According to a report published by the IEA last June, fuel costs add up to 75 percent of the cost of hydrogen production. Policies that spur market growth will be required to reduce costs and replace diesel and gasoline for hydrogen in densely populated urban regions. Evolving policies and regulations that encourage low emission standards in electricity and transportation across the Americas are likely to compel retrofitting fuel infrastructure. Indeed, conventional fueling station infrastructure can be retrofitted and used to provide cleaner fuels to heavy duty vehicles, mass transit fleets, ships and even airplanes. In Asia, Europe and California, low emission standards and mandates have started to make way for the deployment of hydrogen vehicle fuel stations right alongside fossil fuel pumps.”

Jose Antonio Castro Nieto, chief scientist at Ad Astra Rocket in Costa Rica: “In Costa Rica, there is a strong push toward the maturation of a green hydrogen economy (hydrogen produced by water electrolysis powered by renewables). This is initially geared toward the transportation sector, but there are plans to grow it into a stationary power and back-up power generation solution as well. The Costa Rican Hydrogen Alliance, a group of mostly private companies that represent all the actors present in the green hydrogen value chain (renewable energy, hydrogen infrastructure, gas distributors, vehicle companies, etc.), are leading this initiative. Green hydrogen has the advantage of decarbonizing the light-to-heavy duty transportation sector while enabling Latin American countries to pursue a path toward energy independence. Our region profits from ample renewable energy resources and water, both key ingredients in the production of green hydrogen. If we are able to harness this potential, it could direct the region toward energy independence. Compared to batteries, hydrogen is better suited for the light-to-heavy-duty transportation sector due to its much better energy-to-weight ratio. In this sector, weight and volume are at a premium. Any clean energy alternatives directed toward this sector must not limit their cargo capacity. Hydrogen is poised to perform this task better than batteries. To compare it to biofuel, there should be a thorough analysis of what production would entail in terms of land use. Solutions with hydrogen do not put at risk the disposition of arable land that could be used for generating food. Traditional fuel refining companies already have the expertise of handling flammable fluids and handling combustion gases at high pressures. These same skill sets could be redirected toward hydrogen, given that hydrogen poses a similar level of risk, albeit with slightly different considerations.”

Hans Kulenkampff, president of the Chilean Hydrogen Association: “Hydrogen is being developed globally to accelerate the energy transition and decarbonize hard-to-electrify applications. LAC is no exception. Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana and Chile are already developing projects. Chile is speeding up in all private, public and academic sectors. The private sector, led by H2 Chile, in January launched ‘Misión Cavendish,’ an initiative to accelerate green hydrogen projects through four workshops. The event is fully booked, with around 180 attendees per workshop. The public sector, led by the Ministry of Energy and CORFO-Solar and Energy Innovation Committee, is working on different initiatives to launch the National Hydrogen Strategy in June. The academic sector is preparing the ‘Instituto de Tecnologías Limpias,’ a R&D institution with public support of $190 million for 10 years that will pilot and scale up renewables technologies in the Antofagasta desert. I wouldn’t be surprised to see, in a couple of years, a ‘Welcome to CH2ILE’ sign upon arrival at the Santiago Airport. The energy transition can’t be stopped. Hydrogen is been accepted everywhere as part of the solution, and refiners have the know-how to embrace this technology and participate in the coming low-carbon economy. Nevertheless, I do not see the region’s refining sector moving at the required speed. Today, it is the losing sector, as its clients will all look to electrification; big utility companies are getting ready for that. It has 10 years to shift from refining crude oil to solar or wind energies and embrace Power-to-X technologies. Perhaps it should look more closely at the 2050 vision of FuelsEurope, an association of 40 companies operating refineries in the European Union.”

Johannah Christensen, managing director and head of projects & programmes at the Global Maritime Forum: “Maritime shipping is emerging as a leading sector in the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy. This will happen through a fundamental shift toward zero-carbon energy sources within the next decade. International shipping must reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050. This represents a trillion-dollar market opportunity for suppliers of zero-emission fuels. The total bunker fuel consumption for shipping is estimated to be around 250-300 million tons of fuel annually. While it is often assumed that there are numerous options for marine bunker fuels, many of these can be eliminated from consideration as they are unsuitable for deep sea shipping due to technical specifications and storage constraints. Green hydrogen could play an important role in decarbonizing the international shipping sector. It can be further processed to produce green ammonia or methanol, which have the advantage of requiring minimal adaptation to use with existing ship engines. With its vast renewable resources and significant commercial maritime activity, Chile is ideally placed to become a hub for the supply of hydrogen for the maritime industry. An Environmental Defense Fund study finds that Chile has among the world’s best potential for renewable energy generation with over 1,200 GW of solar potential alone. Supplying hydrogen for all ships departing Chile’s ports could unlock around $65-$90 billion worth of investment in clean energy infrastructure.”

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