Whether they are exporters or importers, Middle Eastern countries remain, even today, very dependent on oil. Driven by the best intentions in the world in this regard, they have all or almost all integrated into their state strategies measures that should enable them, in the long term, to overcome or, failing that, reduce this dependence, particularly through the development of so-called "renewable" energies. What about the place of hydrogen in this equation?
Can hydrogen become the new oil? While it does not yet have the answer to this question, Saudi Arabia seems optimistic on the subject. Judging by the shipment of “blue ammonia” (a chemical that can be used to produce clean energy for industrial and domestic consumption, and whose main ingredient is hydrogen), shipped from the port of Al-Jubail this summer to Japan, both countries firmly believe in the potential of the material.
#ICYMI: Could hydrogen be key to fighting climate change and meeting the Paris Agreement goals? #SaudiArabia, despite being the world’s biggest oil exporter, has natural advantages in the race to find an alternative to hydrocarbon. pic.twitter.com/I0KDwcDErg
— Arab News (@arabnews) October 17, 2020
At about the same time, on the other side of the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia was brandishing another proof of its faith in hydrogen as a reformer of the energy mix with a $5 billion plan focused on NEOM, the ultra-modern megalopolis planned as part of the Vision 2030 strategy dear to Mohammed Ben Salmane, to develop “green” hydrogen (there are several colors, we will come to that) as its main energy source. A huge project developed in collaboration with Saudi and international energy companies, NEOM also aims to export green hydrogen. Undeniably, on the Saudi side, we are betting heavily on its use to succeed in escaping the dictatorship of black gold.
Hydrogen, the “ideal son-in-law” of energy
In fact, it has been used as fuel for a long time. In aerospace, for example, hydrogen in its liquid form has a place of honor in the hearts of engineers. In freight transport, it is still in its infancy, but is increasingly becoming part of the so-called “energy mix”. And the States, moreover, to encourage the sector with a great deal of support and subsidies.
You can see why: on paper, it offers unparalleled possibilities! A huge energy potential with little or no emissions – enough to make more than one Minister of Transport drool, and make Greta Thunberg want to go back to school, go to physics class, and find out more about the famous H₂.
Too good to be true?
But here’s the thing: Hydrogen does not exist in nature as a self-contained chemical, so it has to be extracted from various compounds, often using energy-intensive processes. In fact, hydrogen is not clean energy in itself. It is not even, strictly speaking, a source of energy. Rather, it is a way to store energy that has been produced beforehand, and that can be used later. Therefore, its carbon footprint depends essentially on how it is produced.
There are several types, classified by color: gray, blue and green.
Today, 95% of the world’s production is generated from the steam reforming of fossil fuels: this is known as “gray” hydrogen, whose global CO2 emissions are extremely high! Not so ideal, therefore…
The aim is to promote “green” hydrogen. That is to say, hydrogen produced from renewable energies (mainly wind and photovoltaic). Here, the rub is unequivocal: the production cost is between 1.5 and 5 times higher than hydrogen produced from gas. But when it comes to energy, it’s a question of being pragmatic: efficiency as the only watchword. Nevertheless, it is the most promising type of hydrogen, and one in which investments must be sustained.
A report by IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) also mentions so-called “blue” hydrogen. This is produced from fossil fuels but with a CO2 capture and storage device. An interesting methodology, which nevertheless comes up against technical obstacles.
In the Emirates, players in the reflection phase
Observing the private sector is generally an excellent way to measure a country’s commitment to a value chain. However, if you consider that giants like Air Liquide are collaborating with Al Futtaim Toyota and the prestigious Abu Dhabi-based Khalifa University, which specializes in science, are collaborating on the subject, you can assume that the UAE takes the subject seriously. In January 2019, these three actors published a joint study on the “medium and long term development of hydrogen mobility in the UAE”. It found that hydrogen mobility in the UAE has substantial potential to become a major economy for the country, and can contribute to achieving the country’s clean energy goals in line with UAE Vision 2021. The transition would thus start with the public (buses, trains, etc.) and private (vehicle fleets) transport sectors to generate enough demand to rationalize production. As a reminder, Air Liquide and Al-Futtaim Toyota inaugurated the Middle East’s first hydrogen station in Dubai in October 2017.
An ideal geographic location
As mentioned above, not all Middle Eastern countries are major oil producers or exporters. In the case of Jordan, for example, it relies at 96 percent on imports of the precious hydrocarbon for its operations. Therefore, it makes sense to think about alternatives and hydrogen is almost self-evident for two reasons: a very high rate of sunshine, and easy access to water. According to an article in the International Hydrogen Journal, published on Science Direct, which took an interest in the issue, the city of Ma’an would be ideally located to house a plant because it would be supplied with water by the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal. And, since the product is energy-intensive, it would be appropriate to accompany the plant with a solar energy production unit with photovoltaic panels accompanied by an electrolyzer to produce abundant green hydrogen. Rome, on the other hand, was not done in a day. The study states that for the infrastructures to be operational in 2020, it would be necessary to wait until 2060 before hydrogen represents a significant part of the demand for energy.
An economic stake
This is not the only finding. A similar situation can be found in Egypt, where Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world, provides mankind with some 120 million cubic meters of fresh, renewable water, with an annual sunshine rate of 2500 kWh/m². These are simply perfect conditions for the development of the industry and its infrastructures. In addition, the distance between Lake Nasser in Alexandria is about 900 km, crossing the western desert of Egypt. It is a flat and empty desert, with no geographical or geological barriers. Hydrogen could be easily transported and then sent across the Mediterranean Sea by direct pipelines to many places in Europe. This would be a considerable strategic advantage for a country that is still highly dependent on tourism.
A truth that also applies to the Maghreb. On July 8, the European Commission presented a plan for the development of green hydrogen for the countries of the Union that could rely heavily on North African production. In order to decarbonize sectors with high strategic and environmental stakes, such as transport or steel industry, the Old Continent is relying heavily on hydrogen. Morocco, for example, a historical partner of the Union, is therefore in an interesting position, favored by its considerable solar and wind energy capacities. As such, Morocco has signed a number of cooperation agreements with Germany, providing, among other things, for the construction in the Kingdom of a green hydrogen production unit, which would be the first on the continent. “The creation of a national commission on hydrogen, a number of agencies such as MASEN (Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy) and IRESEN (Research Institute for Solar Energy and New Energies) or the work of the EESC (Economic, Social and Environmental Council) on the potential of Green Energy in Morocco reflect the Kingdom’s desire to become a world leader in Green Energy,” also reads the economic magazine Challenge.
If we can indeed already consider that the machine is launched, the hydrogen industry is struggling to find its cruising speed and remains a shy competitor to oil. Driven by its desire to free itself from the latter, the Arab world is listening attentively, but perhaps still too hesitantly, as it presents all the components that will enable it to compete with powers such as Japan, the United States and the Scandinavian countries, where investment in hydrogen is already at an advanced stage.