Hydrogen could be a key player in the recovery and resilience plan  

Commentary: Various countries are launching plans to recover from the pandemic and accelerate development and modernization. These initiatives include projects for the production of "green" hydrogen that are expected to reduce pollution and thus positively effect the economy, environment and climate in the coming years 

A hydrogen-powered boat sails from Amsterdam's harbor in April 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Thanks to the contribution of vaccines, the Covid-19 pandemic is slowly beginning to abate and gradually lose its aggressiveness, with the consequent reduction of its impact on people’s health worldwide.

However, while the health effects of the pandemic appear to be fading, the negative economic effects of a year and a half of lockdown and forced closure of many businesses are being felt heavily at a global level and seem bound to last well beyond the end of the health emergency.

With a view to supporting and encouraging the "restart" and revival  of the economy, the European Union has launched a "Recovery and Resilience Plan", allocating a huge amount of funds that shall be used in the coming years not only to help countries in difficulty with contingent measures, but also to stimulate economic and productive growth capable of modernizing production models with specific reference to environmental balance, which is increasingly facing a crisis due to the use of non-renewable, highly polluting energy sources.

Italy will receive over 200 billion euros in European funds to develop its own projects to get out of the economic-pandemic crisis and rightly wants to use them not only to plug the leaks caused by the various 'lockdowns' in the national productive fabric, but also to implement a series of strategic projects capable of making not only the productive sectors, but also the public administration and the health and judicial systems more efficient.

In short, the “Recovery and Resilience Plan” that is currently coming to the fore may prove to be a powerful driving force for Italy’s development and modernization. 

The projects submitted by Italy to the EU institutions include an initial allocation of over 200 million euros - out of the 47 billion euros planned for the next decade - to promote research and development in the field of renewable energy and particularly in the hydrogen sector.

Why Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is potentially the most abundant source of “clean” energy in the universe. It is versatile, safe and reliable; when obtained from renewable energy sources, it produces no harmful emissions to the environment.

Nevertheless, it is not available in nature in its gaseous form - which is the only one that can be used as an energy source - as it is always bound to other elements, such as oxygen in water and methane as a gas.

The traditional processes used to “separate” hydrogen from oxygen in water and from methane use up large amounts of electricity, which makes the processes not only very expensive, but also highly polluting, with the paradox that, in order to produce a clean energy source, the environment is “polluted” anyway, especially if - as has been the case until recently - the electricity needed is produced with traditional non-renewable energy sources (coal, gas and oil).

The best source of hydrogen in gaseous form is the sea. Electrolysis can easily separate hydrogen from oxygen and store it in gaseous form for use as an energy source.

The electrolytic cells used to develop the process use up large amounts of energy and, fortunately for us, science is finding a way to produce it without polluting, using solar, wind and, above all, sea wave energy.

The use of marine energy creates a sort of "circular economy" for hydrogen production: from the practically inexhaustible primary source of ocean water, hydrogen can be extracted with the energy provided by wave and tidal motion.

Forty per cent of the world's population live within 100 kilometers from the sea and this shows the potential of sea wave and tidal energy as an engine for sustainable development in economic, climate and environmental terms.

Nowadays modern, non-invasive tools are available to extract electricity from sea waves, such as the “penguin”, a device manufactured in Italy, which - placed 50 meters deep - produces electricity without harming marine flora and fauna.

Another example of Italian scientists’ intelligence and creativity is the Inertial Sea Wave Converter (ISWEC), a device housed inside a 15-metre-long hull which, occupying a marine area of just 150 square meters, is able to produce 250 megawatts of electricity a year, thus enabling to cut emissions into the atmosphere by 68 tons of CO2.

With these devices and the other ones that technology will develop over the next few years, it will be possible to power electrolytic cells for the production of hydrogen in gaseous form on an industrial scale, at levels that - over the next 15 years - will lead to the production of at least 100,000 tons of “green” hydrogen per year, thus enabling to reduce air pollution significantly, with positive effects on the economy, the environment and the climate. 

In the summer of 2020, the European Union launched a project called the "Hydrogen Strategy", with a funding of 470 billion euros, intended for research and production projects capable of equipping EU countries with electrolysis tools to produce at least one million tons of "green" hydrogen by the end of 2024.

The fight against CO2 emissions continues unabated: in the United States which, after Trump’s Presidency, has reaffirmed its commitment to reducing emissions; in China which, in its latest five-year plan, has forecast a 65% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere by the end 2030; in Europe, which has always been at the forefront in the creation of devices for producing wave and tidal energy and exports its technologies to the United States, Australia and China.

According to the Hydrogen Council, an association of over 100 companies from around the world that share a common long-term vision for a transition to hydrogen, in the future Europe and China will compete and cooperate in the production of sea wave and tidal energy and in the related production of "green hydrogen".

With its 14th five-year plan, China, in particular - after having been for decades, during its whirling economic development, one of the main sources of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and of global pollution - has undertaken the commitment "to develop and promote the harmonious coexistence between man and nature, through the improvement of efficiency in the use of resources and a proper balance between protection and development", as clearly stated by its Minister of Natural Resources Lu Hao.

It might sound like the sweet-talk and set phrases of a politician at a conference.

In the case of China and its Minister of Natural Resources, however, words have been turned into deeds.

As part of the Roadmap 2.0 for Energy Saving Technology and New Energy Vehicles, China has set a target of one million fuel cell vehicles and two million tons of hydrogen production per year by the end of 2035. 

The China Hydrogen Energy Industry Development Report 2020 forecasts that, by the end of 2050, hydrogen energy will meet 10 per cent of energy requirements, while the number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will rise to 30 million and hydrogen production will be equal to 60 million tons.

With a view to giving substance to these prospects, China has established the "National Ocean Technology Centre" in Shenzhen and developed - with the Italian "International World Group" - the "China-Europe cooperation project for energy generation and hydrogen production from sea waves and from other renewable energy sources". 

These are concrete projects in which - thanks to Italian creativity and Chinese rationality and pragmatism - we must continue to invest and work, not least to give the third industrial revolution a cleaner face than the coal-stained one of the second industrial revolution. 

These projects appear to be in line with those envisaged both at European and Italian levels by the 'Recovery and Resilience Plan', which should guide us out of the economic doldrums of the pandemic. They deserve to be financed and supported as they can not only contribute to the recovery and revival of the economy, but also to the reconstruction of a cleaner and more livable world (thus showing that good can always come out of evil). 

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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