Greek Business File, September-October 2020, No 127

by Symela Touchtidou

Renewable hydrogen, electrolysers, electrolysis, fuel cells, metal hybrid tanks… All Greek to you?

Probably. Yet these terms will soon become part of the mainstream Green Energy agenda

A few years ago, just a handful of “heretics” would advocate the idea of renewable hydrogen as a promising “green energy solution”.

Now, the European Union is stepping up and places hydrogen in the heart of its “green mix” to fight climate change.

“Hydrogen is a vital missing piece to help us reach decarbonization and reach it at a lower cost for people” E. Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, says in the video presenting the EU Hydrogen Strategy, formally adapted by the college of European Commissioners on the 8th of July, 2020.

“The new Hydrogen Strategy will explore the potential of clean hydrogen to help the process of decarbonising the EU economy in a cost-effective way, in line with the 2050 climate-neutrality goal, set out in the European Green Deal” the European Commission says in its statement, adding that “The Commission’s economic recovery plan ‘Next Generation EU’ highlights hydrogen as an investment priority to boost economic growth and resilience, create local jobs and consolidate the EU’s global leadership.”

To get the best of both worlds, the Commission stresses that “the Hydrogen Strategy, through supporting investment in clean hydrogen, will be critical in the context of the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis by creating sustainable growth and jobs.”

How does it work?

So, what is renewable (or green) hydrogen and how does it work?

Hydrogen is the simplest of all the elements and the most abundant in the universe.

In a “pure form”, it burns very clearly. Its only combustion product is water vapor.

But there is one problem with it. We never find it alone, in a “pure form”. On Earth it is only available in “compound forms”, i.e. in complex molecules with other atoms. Like water, for example (H2O).

So hydrogen must be abstracted from different sources. Some are non-renewable (coal, natural gas) and the process (called gasification) is highly carbon-emitting. This is “grey hydrogen”. The other source is water. Hydrogen is abstracted with the help of electrolysers (the process is called electrolysis) and electricity coming from renewables (hydro, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal). This is “green hydrogen” and it is precisely what EU is looking for.

Once separated, hydrogen can be used along with oxygen from the air in a fuel cell to create electricity (reverse electrolysis) through an electrochemical process. Fuel cells can be installed in cars, buses, trucks, marine vessels, etc. So, hydrogen is suitable to replace fossil fuels in transportation.

Hydrogen is also ideal to store excess electricity generated from Renewable Plants. It can effectively be stored in metal hydride tanks or as compressed gas and making possible the full use of Renewable Plants’ production capacities.

It is important to understand that hydrogen is not a primary source of energy, but rather a means of storing, transporting and releasing energy.

Greece: from energy consumer to energy producer?

Could it ever become a reality? Now that the wheel is turning and fossil fuels are sidelined, the energy of the future will come from renewables. In this industry, Greece can be a key player.

This is the firm belief of Thanos Stubos, Director of Research at National Center for Scientific Research (NCSR) “Demokritos” and Greece’s representative to Brussels in matters of hydrogen strategy.

“We can become a hydrogen producing country. We possess rich renewable energy resources (i.e. wind, sun). Moreover, Greece has abundant and high-quality human resources in this field. Probably this is the result of pure coincidence, not of an organized plan. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in Greece, top level researchers in matters of hydrogen are active.

The country stands out in Europe for its research achievements and the market products coming out. Greece has the chance to become dominant in sectors like the production of hydrogen, production of electrolysis equipment, production of fuel cells and the rest of the equipment necessary to convert hydrogen back to energy.

Many labs in Greece are active in this area. Plus there are successful spin-off companies (USOs) by the Universities of Patras, Thessaloniki and the Demokritos Research Center that produce such equipment and export it. In Greece, there are no such uses currently in the market, partly because there is no legal framework in place.” For example, Stubos explains that if someone brings a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) in Greece, there is no station to charge it with green hydrogen. The Greek Ministry of Environment and Energy is speeding up, to include the hydrogen alternative in the decarbonazition process that has already began.

The Western Macedonia case

If there is one person in Greece that is entitled to feel his efforts are rewarded, it is George Kassapidis, governor of the Region of Western Macedonia.

His region is facing economic havoc due to the decarbonization process accelerated by the Greek government. Western Macedonia used to thrive thanks to the coal-fired power plants producing electricity for the Public Power Corporation SA. These factories are shutting down one after the other. In two years, there will be only one left. More than 25,000 jobs will be cut and the local GDP is expected to lose €2.5 billion yearly.

Kassapidis believes that his region can build on the energy expertise it has acquired the past decades and move on to a “Clean Energy Economy Profile”. He believes “grey” energy can be replaced with “green” energy and hydrogen can be a vital part of it.

One year ago, in collaboration with Hydrogen Europe, he laid the groundwork for a project under the much promising name “White Dragon Project”. The purpose of the “White Dragon” is to bring “large-scale production of renewably produced hydrogen in a project integrating several modern technologies.

“The site will cover some 1.5 million square meters in Western Macedonia. The goal is to produce more than 9,000 tons per year hydrogen – for multiple uses, triggering an investment of €2.5 billion and creating a total of 5,000 direct jobs” explains Manolis Stamatakis, member of the Hydrogen research team at NCSR Demokritos and head of the “White Dragon” proposal preparation team.

“When we first presented the idea, one year ago, people were making fun of me” Kassapidis remembers. “But I didn’t care. My sole interest is what is best for my region”.

The full proposal will be presented in autumn. The “White Dragon Project” will seek funding under the Important Projects of Common European interest (IPCEIs) umbrella. It aspires to be one of the four such projects the European Commission will choose to support.

Α green solution to the islands problem

The first Green Hydrogen station, a charging point for electric cars in Greece is expected in Evia island, in the Municipality of Mantoudiou, in autumn. Green hydrogen will be produced from renewables and used to power up electric cars.

Sofoklis Makridis, Associate Professor at the Environmental Engineering Department of the University of Patras and owner of the H2E Group has taken up the project.

The H2E Group is also in talks with the Chamber of the Lefkada island to create the first hydrogen network to provide electricity to buildings, mostly hotels.

“An innovative Renewable Hydrogen system has been developed to solve today’s main challenge in developing residential or industrial stand-alone settlements in remote areas” Makridis explains.

“Clean energy of zero lifecycle emissions is urgently needed to keep the global warming under control. An Energy- Water-Waste nexus approach with smart standalone microgrid is a technoeconomically viable solution to reduce the cost of energy and eliminate emissions. Makridis’s H2E Group designed and evaluated a 100% renewable energy integrated model for a standalone hybrid microgrid where hydrogen is the backbone for energy storage and distribution. A module of a hybrid PV-Battery-Hydrogen system to serve one hundred dwelling (400-500 dwellers) with 2 MWh of average daily energy demand has been modeled and simulated, in comparison with conventional use of Diesel fueled energy generation that many Islands in Greece are used i.e. Rodos. Water is generated by solar or wind desalination and condensation from the humid atmospheric air. A bio-waste and waste-water recycling plant is an essential additive to reduce the environmental impact and save water as well as to generate power and gas. The energy model techno-economic simulation shows a considerable reduction in the cost of energy by up to 53% and elimination of 6-ton CO2 per capita per year. The project can achieve a payback in 5.45 years depending on Diesel costs and an effective Carbon Tax. The Modular design can be replicated. This project can create energy-water autarky smart cities in the isolated or remote areas generating electricity, gas and water supply from 100% renewable resources. This will make Greece a Hydrogen Energy Hub as well as overcoming the national policy barriers.”

The pioneers

More than twenty years ago, he started researching the possibility of producing hydrogen from biofuel crops to provide “green” energy for the Greek islands. Back then, many thought he was out of place. But Xenophon Verykios is not the kind of man to be discouraged easily.