How did hydrogen come into Fernando Gutierrez's professional career?
Well, because my field is chemistry. I am a professor of Chemical Engineering... and hydrogen is chemistry. Renewables, except for biomass, where there is also a lot of chemistry, are pure physics: photovoltaic, wind... electric and mechanical energy... like the wind turbines that turn and move electric motors, but renewables now need the chemistry of hydrogen or other storages to manage their variability as their penetration in the electric system increases.
Where was hydrogen in 2006 and where is it now?
Science had already been talking about hydrogen for decades. What happened is that it was talked about in a futuristic way. If you allow me to go even further, we could go back to the 19th century, to the famous prophecy of Jules Verne, in one of his novels, The Mysterious Island. In it there is a dialogue in which it is said that water, its elements dissociated, will be the carbon of the future. That is to say, that hydrogen as a potentially very interesting vector has been talked about since at least Jules Verne. A few decades ago all this seemed very far away. And it was far away because we had cheap oil and few renewables.
Now renewables are abundant and increasingly cheaper, but they have two very important problems: they are diluted and they are random, variable, fluctuating, however you want to say it. In Spain the penetration of renewable energies is very high. In this we are world leaders in relation to our size and our electrical system. Now the penetration reaches 30, 40%, and the management of all this is solved with gas power plants, which until now are like the big brother of renewables. So, when renewables do not work because there is no wind or no sun, gas plants come in as reserve capacity. And that has worked so far.
But, of course, with an expected penetration of renewable energies in the electricity system for the year 2030 or 2040 of eighty percent, ninety percent, powerful storage elements are essential, and batteries are only good for a few hours, and hydraulic pumping, which is the simplest and cheapest form of storage, also has its limitations, because it is only useful where there are appropriate orographic conditions. Well, there is the hydrogen, a seasonal storage element, where batteries do not even come close. The hydrogene allows us to store on a large scale and in the long term: that is to say, it allows us to store renewables that are left over in summer for the winter, or vice versa.
And where are we going to store hydrogens?
There are several possibilities in this respect. Let's say that... on a large scale, if necessary, geological storage is recommended, as is the case with natural gas. On a smaller scale, for example if we want to build a self-sufficient house, far away or disconnected from the electricity grid, then on that scale a moderate pressure hydrogen storage is enough.
And in the transportation sector?
High pressures are required there so as not to penalize vehicle occupancy. Therefore, in light vehicles, hydrogen will probably not compete well with batteries. However, for heavy transport, buses, trucks, ships or airplanes, vehicles in which many batteries would be needed, that is, a lot of weight, then there the hydrogen, which has no storage problems at that scale, would not present these problems, pressurized or liquefied, problems that do present however (much weight, occupation of space) the batteries.
Is it true as it is said in some forums that Spain is a leader in terms of scientific publications related to green hydrogen?
We are not the first. The Germans, for example, publish more, and the Japanese, and the Americans. But we are in the cream. If in economic terms Spain is the twelfth, or thirteenth, or fourteenth country in the world, then in terms of publications we would be in that group or in higher positions. It is also true that scientific publications are one thing and how the Science-Technology system works in this country, where University-Company communication is still not as optimal as we would like it to be, is another. Anyway, I would also say that, in any case, we are in the cream... The last important hydrographic congresses, both world and European, have been organized, during this last decade, precisely here, in Spain. The world congress was held in Zaragoza in 2016; the last and last European congresses were held in Seville and Malaga in 2014 and 2018; the last one has just been held in Madrid, a few days ago, and the next one will be held in Bilbao, in 2024.
When Dr. Gutie?rrez began to teach, 16 years ago, the ERMA Master?s Degree module on Hydrogenetics, did you expect hydrogenetics to be in the situation it is in today?
Well... I had hoped, but that the boom in hydrogens, this explosion that has taken place since last year, would come so quickly... well, it is really... notorious. Almost everybody is seeing that renewables need a complementary element, storage, to manage. And it is true that there are other possibilities, such as demand management, but this has its limitations: we cannot expect everybody to put the washing machine on, no matter how much price signal we give, when there is a lot of wind and a lot of sun. In the end, this depends on the whimsical decisions of multiple users, and does not always serve as a robust management element. Another option is cross-border exchange. But Spain and Portugal are almost an electrical island. And in any case that is not such a robust solution either, since it can happen that on the same day there is a lot of wind in Spain, in France and in the rest of Europe. And, then, who exports to whom if everyone has enough to spare? Exports, grid extension, demand management... help to dilute geographic variability and to issue price signals, but, as a robust storage element, as a robust management element of a 100% renewable system, hydropower and its derivatives can play a great role. There are going to be many times when there will be surpluses, a surplus of renewables. And, if we keep that surplus, we will be able to manage it for when there is no surplus. It is as simple as that. There is an elementary evidence: if one seriously believes in renewables in the future, and I personally do, one has to think seriously about hydrogen, in a powerful storage element. This storage will be an essential management element if we want to reach 100% renewables.
Well, I understand that hydrogene is postulated as a storage of solar or wind electricity. But it is also always presented as a key fuel in the decarbonization of transport, isn't it?
Yes, for heavy transport, which cannot be electrified. Nobody expects an airplane to run on batteries alone, do they? Nobody expects a ship or a train to run long distances on batteries alone. Well, that's where we need fuels. And hydrogen is a fuel that, if it is green, will decarbonize sectors that are difficult to electrify. Conclusion? The combination of the two things - its capacity to store and manage dilute and random renewables on a large scale and its capacity to couple the electricity sector with the fuel sector (we produce hydrogen with electricity and we substitute fuels like natural gas or gasoline with that hydrogen)... both things make hydrogen a very, very, very, very interesting vector.
Let's go to the grid. How much hydrogen can I inject into the current gas grids?
In Spain we have one of the best gas pipeline and regasification networks, with plans to increase our connection to Europe, but the protocol that regulates the injection of non-conventional gases into the national gas network establishes that hydrogen cannot exceed 5% at this time due to transport precautions or final combustion uses (although this regulation is less strict in other countries). The problem is that the current gas pipelines are made of carbon steel, and if a lot of hydrogen circulates, that hydrogen eats away the carbon, that steel stops having carbon, and then it becomes a kind of sweet iron that may not be able to withstand the pressures. So we have to develop a network of 'hydrogen pipelines' or, as a transition, convert hydrogen by methanization into synthetic gas fully compatible with natural gas.
I understand that Spain is a leader in renewables, and that it is well positioned in the hydrogen race. What is missing for the so often announced hydrogen economy to finally emerge?
In Spain there is a great solar and wind resource; and, at the company level, at the national economy level, we are one of the world leaders in the manufacture of solar and wind components. That is an excellent starting point for us to bet now on hydrogen and try to achieve a certain leadership in this field as well. We are leaders in renewables in relation to the size of our system. Germany and the United States have much more installed gross power than we do, but as a percentage of their system, as a percentage of the size of the electricity system, we are number one in the world, tied perhaps with Portugal or with some other small country. But, among the large countries, we are one of the ones with the highest penetration in relation to the size of its system. What is wrong with the hydro? What is missing? Well, we still have many steps to take. There are still no large-scale electrolyzer factories in Spain. There are companies that manufacture small electrolyzers, for small scale applications. But we still do not manufacture large electrolyzers with our own technology. That is an important step that we have yet to take and for which there is already a large project announced in a few years. And the Next Generation funds could be a great opportunity in that sense.
The ERMA Master, which is approaching its seventh edition, has no less than 14 modules. And Energy Storage is the second of them. A lot of prominence, isn't it? What are the focuses of interest in this module?
I start at the end. In the module we touch on the different methods of energy storage, especially batteries, electrolyzers, the hydrogen? It is a full two weeks. And with respect to the protagonism... I can tell you that right now we are working at the Polite?nica de Madrid (I don?t know if we will have time to start already in the next course or it will be already in the 23-24 at the latest)... We are devising and programming -I mean- our own master, like the ERMA master, but exclusively dedicated to hydrogen and fuel cells. Because the subject is becoming so important that we believe it already deserves an exclusive master. In any case, I also anticipate that in the ERA master hydro will continue to be an essential part, because its connection with renewables is absolutely evident; it is not only a complementary element, but also an enabler of variable renewable energies.
The last one: the Government recognizes that hydropower will not be competitive until 2030. Isn't that a long time?
It would be better if it were less time. Anyway, that is the calculation that was being made a year or two ago. Now, the way things are going, the cut-off point is probably closer. Because that forecast was based on natural gas prices as they were a year and a half ago, and now those prices have increased tenfold. It will also depend on how much cheaper the electrolyzers become. Right now it is considered that in Antofagasta, in the Atacama desert, we would already be producing hydrogen, in the electrolyzers that are being deployed there, in the hydrogen valleys of that area of Chile, which is where the highest quality solar radiation in the world is, we would already be producing hydrogen at less than two euros per kilo, at one and a half euros. Here in Europe we would still be around four euros. So... competitive, not competitive... Let's see: if today, to travel 100, 120 kilometers in a vehicle with a conventional combustion engine -gasoline, diesel-, we need seven liters of fuel and this is at two euros, we will spend 14 euros. If producing a kilo of hydrogen in Europe right now costs four euros and if it is sold at seven or eight euros with the corresponding profit margins of the producer, taxes, etc., and we know that with a kilo of hydrogen we can travel 120 kilometers, then the accounts are very clear: because to travel 100, 120 kilometers with petroleum derivatives costs us fourteen euros, and the same distance with a kilo of hydrogen would cost us seven or eight euros. Now. Today. In 2030, I don't even mention it: that should be a bargain. Like charging the batteries of electric vehicles at night in the cities, which today is already a bargain, because it is cheap. Per kilometer, with off-peak energy.
Ma?ster ERMA, UPM?s own Master?s Degree in Renewable Energies and Environment