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Energy Independence, The Risks of Green Hydrogen

Originally posted in Italian on 29th Aug 2022 on Quotidiano Nazionale

To bid farewell to fossil fuels, we need to integrate technologies and policies for renewables, starting with the installation of large solar plants in Southern Italy and offshore wind farms, coupled with the creation of storage hubs and decentralization of production. The strategy for hydrogen will not guarantee energy independence: here's why.

Energy transition and autonomy cannot compromise on two fundamental parameters, not only for Italy but for all of Europe: the actual availability of natural resources - wind, sun, and land - and the trusting relationships and strategic pacts with other countries worldwide.

Rising electricity and gas bills: The failure of assistance. Bonuses and installments are not enough.
Beginning with World War II, the exceptional industrial development was based on oil and its derivatives (and subsequently on gas), leading to the construction of a bloc of producer countries against consumer countries. Through various oil crises, price explosions, and rationing of raw material availability, consumer states have over time developed various strategies to free themselves from dependence on producer countries, primarily through the search for alternatives to oil.

With the loss of popularity of nuclear fission, due to the catastrophic events of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and the high safety levels required for such technologies, often proved uneconomical due to decommissioning costs, from the 2000s onward, advanced Western economies have accelerated planning for energy independence from fossil fuels, based on the production of electrical energy from renewable sources, particularly wind and sun.

Learning curves, financial incentives, and economies of scale have resulted in a cost reduction of around 90% over approximately 20 years, making it possible to transition from projects of a few MW to GW-scale projects (1000X scale).

The availability of large-scale photovoltaic and wind parks (Utility scale, i.e., from 100 MW to 2-3 GW) has enabled a new technological frontier: the production of green hydrogen to replace fossil fuels.

In the last 3-5 years, green hydrogen has undoubtedly taken on the role of champion of the energy transition, as a "renewable fuel" because it represents a strategy for storing renewable energy in hydrogen and oxygen, ensuring continuous energy availability.

The megatrend of decarbonization to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and the rise in temperatures has effectively triggered a long-term vision based on a hydrogen economy.
But are we certain that green hydrogen represents the only universal answer to replace fossil fuels? Energy policy must grapple with real politics: deciding whether it is appropriate to invest in cooperation with countries that possess the natural resources to produce large quantities of green energy, or instead opt for energy independence, regardless of the cost.

The point is, to produce green hydrogen, GW of renewable energy entirely dedicated to electrolyzers are needed, and consequently, an extremely vast commitment of land or marine areas, in addition to naturally good irradiation and constant wind. In Western economies, which have embraced the "Net Zero Carbon" logic by 2050, these high land consumption settlements must be added to those already planned to produce electricity in line with decarbonization goals.

A GW solar field typically requires a land area of about 16 km2, an area of approximately 4 Km x 4 Km, virtually impossible to find unless one settles in vast flat agricultural areas, after obtaining the consent of often numerous landowners.

In Europe, there are no onshore areas free from agricultural settlements and no State wants to give up its agri-food vocation, so Utility Scale plants can only be quickly realized in areas of the world where there is an abundance of surface not used for urban, agricultural, or industrial purposes.

This consideration leads us to envision, for example, European countries co-investing in neighboring North African countries, current strategic gas suppliers for Europe, to locally produce green hydrogen through mega plants located in desert areas, and then transport this precious fuel via new pipelines, or compressed within tankers.

Even if such a policy might appear technically viable, it necessitates resolving a fundamental issue: Can Europe trust these regions? After years of dependence on fossil fuel-producing countries, vulnerable to geopolitical tensions that often escalate into unpredictable, bloody conflicts, are we prepared to risk the same energy crises that we experienced for oil and gas over the next century?

What importance does the logic of "Net Zero Carbon" hold if the risks of conflict won't decrease but will instead increase in the pursuit of green hydrogen?

The analogy with the devastating events in Ukraine and the spike in oil and gas prices leaves no doubt about one crucial conclusion for immediate energy strategies: a state's energy chain must rely on maximum control of national sources and on solidarity mechanisms with allied countries.

In 2022, we are still far from a situation similar to that of the United States: The countries of the European Community will still require many years of work for effective unity of intent. The implication, unfortunately, is that every country, and consequently every industry that wants to avoid dependence on external sources, must largely rely on its own national "renewable" sources.

Therefore, it's necessary to integrate various renewable technologies to ensure 24/7 electric and thermal services, not necessarily resorting to hydrogen but directly supplying locally to industrial
production sectors.

Moreover, it is critical to create and strengthen long-term collaborative mechanisms with international allies to establish strategic agreements of mutual interest.

Each country, Italy first and foremost, cannot rely on a single Holy Grail to achieve energy independence. So what could be the long-term policies toward green energy independence?

The answer lies in combining immediate renewable energy policies that enable the production of electric and thermal energy at certain and stable costs, with long-term projects such as green hydrogen:

Installation of "large" solar plants in Southern Italy and offshore wind, strategic and public interest use of agricultural and industrial areas to be redeveloped, creation of storage hubs combining electrochemical batteries with thermal storage, pushing for the decentralization of electricity production through the mandated (incentivized) installation of solar panels on every compatible Italian roof, incentivizing Power to Heat: excess production from renewable energy is converted into heat available to industrial districts, urban heating and cooling, creating green hydrogen islands near major renewable plants, building and consolidating trustworthy relationships of mutual interest and long term with prospective green hydrogen producing countries with high political and strategic stability, such as the Gulf countries.

At Magaldi, we are working to produce the best thermal storage solution, currently only of industrial size (and not civilian), based on storing electric and thermal energy in a fluid bed immersed in sand. A simple and extraordinarily efficient solution for storing large amounts of high-temperature heat and having thermal energy (and potentially electricity) available when needed most, without burning any fossil fuels.

Additionally, the machines are designed with simple and durable materials, minimal wear and maintenance, and have lifespans exceeding 30 years. This allows the technology, known as Mgtes, to be a veritable energy infrastructure for the country, on par with energy production plants and electric and gas networks. The Mgtes thermal storage represents an infrastructural element (which contributes to a long-term utility) of high interest for any country pursuing ambitious independent energy transition policies.
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