Green energy future starts right now

Hakim Hayat

Recent international media headlines have been touting the potential of hydrogen in solving some of the key issues in the development of renewable energy (RE) and the goal of decarbonisation of emissions.

The Wall Street Journal calls hydrogen the “new wonder fuel”, while the BBC refers to it as a “tech revolution. Meanwhile, Forbes believes it to be “the crucial jigsaw piece for green microgrids”.

In short, hydrogen has been earmarked as an alternative in mitigating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the future. Now the question becomes: How can this potential be applied in Southeast Asia?

The bloc’s current power generation mix is dominated by coal, gas and hydropower. However, solar and wind power are the most abundant energy resources in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but contribute negligent amounts (1.5 per cent in 2015 and 2.4 per cent in 202) to the power mix, according to research published by the Economic Research Institute for the ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA).

An optimistic outlook estimates that the shares of wind and solar power will increase by 11 per cent by 2040.

Senior Energy Economist at ERIA Han Phoumin, in a recent interview with the Bulletin, said that many ASEAN grid operators hold misperceptions about renewable energy, although the production cost of RE, such as solar and wind, has dropped dramatically in recent years.

“Its share in the power generation mix remains small, at 2.4 per cent in 2020,” he said. “The misperceptions about RE stem from its variable and intermittent nature, which adds higher costs to grid systems because it requires back-up capacity from conventional gas power plants.”

Phoumin said while wind and solar power output do vary depending on the strength of the wind or the amount of sunshine, the risk of variable energy output can be minimised if power systems are largely integrated within countries or the region.

“The aggregation of output from solar and wind from different geographical locations has a balancing effect on the variability,” he said.

He also noted that the ASEAN Power Grid is making slow progress and an integrated ASEAN power market may remain unrealised for several reasons, including regulatory and technical harmonisation issues between ASEAN power grids and utilities.

Scalable electricity production from wind and solar faces tremendous challenges due to the current practice of system integration in ASEAN and investors in solar or wind farms will face high risks from electricity curtailment if surplus electricity is not used, he said.

The economist believes that hydrogen produced from electrolysis using surplus electricity, including surplus electricity from fossil fuels that apply carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), has many advantages that complement battery storage, as hydrogen can be stored as liquid gas, which is suitable for uses in many sectors and is easy to transport.

In many cases, he added, their development requires large investment in underwater transmission cables to transport electricity. For example, the potential for hydropower in Malaysia’s Sarawak and Indonesia’s Papua is high, Phoumin said. But electricity demand in those areas is not significant, thus the resources cannot be fully tapped for use as they are far from demand centres.

The same is true for low-ranked coal and hydropower in isolated places in Indonesia and many other island countries. In contrast, hydrogen development has the great advantage of turning these resources into hydrogen that can be easily shipped to demand centres for use in many sectors.

Phoumin believes that hydrogen is a potential game changer in efforts to decarbonise global emissions across all sectors, and other RE sources can be fully developed once hydrogen has been widely adopted.

“The more electricity produced from wind and solar, the higher the penetration of renewables into the grid, which will create surplus power during low demand periods,” he said, adding that the surplus can be used for hydrogen production.

However, he did caution against seeing hydrogen production as being challenge-free.

“Although hydrogen itself is clean fuel, its production can be an issue,” he said. “Almost 95 per cent of current hydrogen production is from natural gas, which leaves a carbon footprint.”

He added that while the gasification of coal can also be used to produce hydrogen, in term of carbon footprint however, “coal gasification emits roughly four times more CO2 per kilogramme of hydrogen compared to natural gas feedstock”.

The ideal hydrogen is ‘green hydrogen’, which uses renewable resources in the form of electricity.

Since hydrogen is a clean energy carrier and can be stored and transported for uses in many sectors, hydrogen development is an ideal pathway to sustainable clean energy systems in ASEAN as well as the rest of the world.

It is thus imperative that leaders around the world provide clear policies for the promotion of hydrogen development and adoption.

If governments around the world implement the right policies, he believes business players and other stakeholders will make hydrogen a bridging fuel to enable scaling up of the penetration of RE across all sectors, thus decarbonising global emissions.

“Within 10 to 20 years, hydrogen could be used commercially”, provided there is a right government support now, he said.