Hydrogen Hope

India explores the potential and scope of the technology  

The use of hydrogen for industrial purposes is common in India. It is already being produced and consumed by the petroleum, chemical, glass, semiconductor and food processing industries. However, most of the hydrogen consumed in the country is made through a process that involves natural gas (methane). This process results in substantial carbon dioxide emissions, and is thus referred to as grey hydrogen. These emissions can be captured using carbon capture and storage technologies. The hydrogen thus produced is called blue hydrogen. Hydrogen can also be produced through electrolysis, which involves splitting the chemical components of water using electricity.

In a bid to make the production of hydrogen more environmentally sustainable, governments and industry stakeholders around the world have started to discuss the potential of using renewable energy for this purpose. Consequently, the concept of green hydrogen has emerged. The production of green hydrogen makes commercial sense as well. The continuous fall of renewable energy tariffs brings with it the possibility of reducing the cost of producing hydrogen. Moreover, the price of imported natural gas is volatile and heavily dependent on geopolitics in the Middle East.

There are other benefits with respect to grid stability as well. By using the excess renewable energy generated for the production of green hydrogen, the curtailment of power can be avoided. This “power to gas”’ concept is increasingly being used in Europe. The hydrogen produced by this process can be integrated with the natural gas grid, thereby making the entire power grid more interconnected and robust. Moreover, hydrogen can be used for energy storage. However, despite these known benefits, the current uptake of green hydrogen remains low, mainly due to cost considerations.

Policy framework in India

India has mooted the idea of shifting to a hydrogen dependent economy for a long time. In 2006, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) approved the National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap. The roadmap set ambitious targets for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and hydrogen-based power generation. It also identified some pilot projects and different areas where research and development (R&D) related to hydrogen production, storage and application should be conducted. Following the release of this roadmap, the MNRE supported a number of R&D and demonstration projects. These pilot projects included the production of hydrogen from biomass and materials for hydrogen storage. The demonstration projects also included vehicle prototypes (motorcycles and buses) that could run on hydrogen-blended compressed natural gas (H-CNG) as well as hydrogen-diesel dual-fuel vehicles.

In 2016, the MNRE published a report that laid out a comprehensive plan for increasing R&D activity in the hydrogen segment. The report proposed a significant increase in funding for different electrolyser technologies and their integration with renewable energy sources.

Uptake in India

While the uptake of green hydrogen in India is low and limited to small-scale demonstration projects, the focus on the use hydrogen fuel cells as a clean fuel alternative has increased over the years. Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) has been at the forefront of assisting this transition. Currently, IOCL is collaborating with the Delhi Transport Corporation in the demonstration of about 50 H-CNG buses in Delhi. In 2019, Tata Motors launched a hydrogen fuel cell-powered bus in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation and IOCL. These buses underwent limited field trials at IOCL’s hydrogen dispensing facility in Faridabad, Haryana.

IOCL has been proactively promoting the adoption of hydrogen technologies in India. Its R&D focus has been on new technology solutions in hydrogen production, storage and infrastructure. It has had a positive experience with different hydrogen production technologies, including hydrogen from biomass, methane reformation, electrolysis and photolysis (photoelectrical water splitting). Recently, it has announced plans to establish a hydrogen production station, which will test three different electrolyser technologies. In the hydrogen storage space, IOCL has developed a high pressure hydrogen cylinder in collaboration with IIT Kharagpur. This technology has helped increase the energy storage density. The company is also focusing on the development of material-based hydrogen storage.

IOCL owns and operates hydrogen dispensing terminal infrastructure across New Delhi. These are located in the company’s R&D centre in Faridabad and in its fuelling station in Dwarka. IOCL is also carrying out research to create customised hydrogen fuel cells that can be used with less pure hydrogen, thereby expanding the scope of their usage and lowering the cost of operation. It has also floated a tender for 15 fuel cell buses, which is part of a Rs 3 billion demonstration project for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Jumping onto the bandwagon, NTPC Limited too is trying to capitalise on the enormous potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology. It has plans to introduce hydrogen-fuelled vehicles in Leh and has recently floated a global tender for the same. Green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy generated in Leh, will be used for this project. NTPC has also suggested that the excess renewable power generated in the country should be utilised for the generation of not only green hydrogen but also green ammonia, green methanol, green chemicals, etc.

Indian Railways is also planning to introduce a hydrogen-powered suburban train for short distance travel. It has invited expressions of interest for this project. The hydrogen required for running the train will most likely be sourced domestically.

The contribution of academic institutes in this space has been significant. The National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE), in particular, has played a key role in the promotion of green hydrogen in the country. In 2014, it commissioned a hydrogen production-cum-storage and dispensing facility, powered by a 120 kWp solar system. This facility has been used for field trials of hydrogen-diesel dual-fuel vehicles manufactured by Mahindra & Mahindra. NISE has also installed some fuel cells for demonstration purposes.

Hydrogen fuel cells can be used for power generation as well. Using this technology, Intel has set up a MW-scale fuel cell-based power generation unit in Bengaluru. Meanwhile, IIT Delhi and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) have developed a small-capacity ICE-based genset that uses hydrogen. BHU has also developed metal hydride-based hydrogen storage systems for two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Meanwhile, IIT Madras, in collaboration with the Centre for Fuel Cell Technology, Chennai, has developed carbon-based hydrogen storage materials.

Key challenges and the way forward

The cost of green hydrogen production in the various demonstration projects carried out in India has been quite high. The imported electrolyser technology is a major reason for this. Going forward, domestic production of this technology is expected to reduce production costs. Costs are also expected to fall with economies of scale, greater utilisation of hydrogen production-cum-dispensing facilities and the falling costs of setting up solar projects.

Even so, the high costs should not deter the government and the industry because hydrogen (its various applications and green hydrogen) is being viewed as the next big opportunity in the energy space. India missed the bus for solar manufacturing and should not repeat the mistake in the hydrogen segment. The government should, with the help of public sector undertakings, -set aside a budget for investing in each segment of the hydrogen value chain to avoid import dependency for components.

Apart from the supply-side push, the government can give an initial impetus to demand creation by floating tenders. A long-term and somewhat rigorous approach could be to set up green hydrogen purchase obligations. However, capacity addition targets set by the government alone will not give a fillip to the sector. A favourable regulatory environment is equally important. In particular, regulations need to be updated to permit the safe use of hydrogen at high pressure for different applications.

Overall, the use of hydrogen fuel cells will be a game changer for India. The country imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil demand. Therefore, even if domestic manufacturing of hydrogen fuel cells is less viable at the moment, there should be no  reservations in importing these technologies.

Until now, progress in this space has been dismal. The National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap of 2006 had set a target to demonstrate 1 million hydrogen vehicles and set up 1,000 MW of hydrogen-based power generation capacity by 2020. But as of 2020, the country is nowhere close to these goals and the number of hydrogen dispensing facilities can be counted on one hand. Therefore, going forward, the promotion of this sector should be given strategic importance and work needs to be carried out on a war footing. Every government agency-owned petrol pump should plan to set up a hydrogen dispensing facility. This may sound too ambitious, but disruptive policies are needed to capitalise on this opportunity and gain an edge over other countries.

Last but not the least, more international cooperation is required in this space. India is already a founding member of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE), which was created to facilitate and accelerate the transition to clean and efficient energy and mobility systems through the use of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. As for bilateral cooperation, India has collaborated with a number of countries including Germany, Japan and the US for R&D on hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

With hydrogen often being called the energy source of the future, India should continue its efforts to make this technology cheaper and more efficient. Taking a step further and focusing on green hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells will help not only in achieving energy security but also in reducing the country’s carbon footprint.

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