Will the Dream of the Green Giant Burst?

news 18-Jun-2023 Technology

High Temperatures and Little Rain: Spain Has Experienced a Record Spring. Now the discussion is whether there is enough water for the ambitious hydrogen plans.

It is seven o'clock in the morning on the premises of Palma's public transport company. Dozens of buses swarm out into the Mallorcan capital city. Five of them run on green hydrogen. For now, it comes from the mainland.

But from this summer, it will be produced directly on the island. The facility in the center of the island is ready, and Mallorca is now a place where you can see all the opportunities and problems of the "Hydrogen Roadmap" adopted by the Spanish government in October 2020.

Emissions: A Puddle of Water

On the way to the city, one driver raves about the new hydrogen-powered buses. He says they are "smooth" and have a quiet hum instead of the usual diesel chugging sound. The bus leaves behind nothing more than small puddles of water on the asphalt.

However, it is political will rather than the market that drives this bus. It consumes around 35 kilograms of hydrogen per day, which costs the operators about €350, while diesel would cost only half that. Generous subsidies - also from the EU - currently make operation possible.

Bet on the Future

A few kilometers from the city center, Álvaro Sánchez López is planning the energy transition in a beach hotel. He is in charge of climate protection for the Iberostar Group. He begins at a hotel on Playa de Palma. From March onwards, the hotel will use green hydrogen to provide heating and electricity.

It is currently not economically viable, but "this is a bet on the future. A strategy. We believe that either tourism will become sustainable soon - or there will be no more tourism," said López.

The port is also expected to receive hydrogen from the Mallorcan plant in the future. But so far, all existing customers only take up 25% of the plant's capacity. "The biggest challenge is to create demand first. We have the production, but now we need customers. There aren't many on Mallorca yet," said Enrique Iriarte Madurga, project director at operator Acciona.

The Chicken and Egg Problem

It is the fight against the chicken and egg problem: Without hydrogen, there is no demand. But without increasing demand, there will be no hydrogen because prices will remain high, and economic operation will not be profitable. Mallorca is experiencing in miniature what applies worldwide.

Nevertheless, supported by funding programs, Spain wants to become the "Green Giant," an exporter of green hydrogen. The starting conditions are good. The sun and wind provide plenty of power to split oxygen and hydrogen in the energy-intensive process. However, discussions are now underway about the raw material: Water!

Water Restrictions

In Mallorca, Margalida Ramis from the environmental protection group GOB remembers water use restrictions last year - swimming pools could no longer be filled, and gardens could not be watered. "To add such a water consumer in this situation is very short-sighted," she criticized.

The goal should be to save energy, rather than replace it, she said. On Mallorca, the facility needs about 20 liters of water to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. At the start, 300 tons are planned to be produced annually.

Dryness and Heat: Water Access Challenges for Spanish Inland Renewable Energy Production Energy expert Ignacio Urbasos from the Spanish Institute El Cano sees no production problems on the coasts where water can also come from desalination plants. However, he does see challenges in the inland areas, where there is the cheapest renewable energy available but no access to seawater and only relatively limited access to potentially usable wastewater. "There will probably be a direct water conflict in the inland areas," says the scientist. Another important Spanish industry, agriculture, consumes a lot of water here, and the past few months have been among the driest in Spanish history.

International Cooperation in Times of Instability Needed for Successful Hydrogen Projects In spite of potential water access challenges, there is enough water in Spain – even for the production of hundreds of thousands of tons of hydrogen, according to the head of the National Hydrogen Centre, José Maria Olavarrieta. Rather, the challenges are likely to come from other areas. Projects that require cooperation across many nations, he says, will need "a lot of money, a lot of personnel – and a lot of geopolitical stability, which we do not currently have."

Pure Water Required for Mallorca's Hydrogen Production The production of even local hydrogen is not without its challenges, as demonstrated by the example of Mallorca. The groundwater used in the production of hydrogen here is highly mineralized and requires extensive treatment. Even then, a basin may have to be excavated soon for the remaining waste.


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