Commentary: The revolutionary strategy based on the use of ‘green’ energy to produce adequate quantities of hydrogen at an acceptable cost can help bring the world out of the pandemic crisis with positive impacts on the environment and on climate
“Once again in history, energy is becoming the protagonist of a breaking phase in capitalism: a great transformation is taking place, matched by the digital technological revolution”.
The subtitle of the interesting book (“Energia. La grande trasformazione“, Laterza) by Valeria Termini, an economist at the Rome University “Roma Tre”, summarizes – in a simple and brilliant way – the phase that will accompany the development of our planet for at least the next three decades, A phase starting from the awareness that technological progress and economic growth can no longer neglect environmental protection.
This awareness is now no longer confined to the ideological debates on the defence of the ecosystem based exclusively on limits, bans and prohibitions, on purely cosmetic measures such as the useless ‘Sundays on which vehicles with emissions that cause pollution are banned’, and on initiatives aimed at curbing development – considered harmful to mankind – under the banner of slogans that are as simple as they are full of damaging economic implications, such as the quest for ‘happy degrowth’.
With “degrowth” there is no happiness nor wellbeing, let alone social justice.
China has understood this and, with a view to remedying the environmental damage caused by three decades of relentless economic growth, it has not decided to take steps backwards in industrial production, by going back to the wooden plough typical of the period before the unfortunate “Great Leap Forward” of 1958, but – in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2020- 2025) – it has outlined a strategic project under the banner of “sustainable growth”, thus committing itself to continuing to build a dynamic development model in harmony with the needs of environmental protection, following the direction already taken with its 13th Five-Year Plan, which has enabled the Asian giant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12% over the last five years. This achievement could make China the first country in the world to reach the targets set in the 2012 Paris Climate Agreement, which envisage achieving ‘zero CO2 emissions’ by the end of 2030.
Also as a result of the economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Europe and the United States have decided to follow the path marked out by China which, although perceived and described as a “strategic adversary” of the West, can be considered a fellow traveler in the strategy defined by the economy of the third millennium for “turning green”.
The European Union’s ‘Green Deal’ has become an integral part of the ‘Recovery Plan’ designed to help EU Member States to emerge from the production crisis caused by the pandemic.
A substantial share of resources (47 billion euros in the case of Italy) is in fact allocated destined for the “great transformation” of the new development models, under the banner of research and exploitation of energy resources which, unlike traditional “non-renewable sources”, promote economic and industrial growth with the use of new tools capable of operating in conditions of balance with the ecosystem.
The most important of these tools is undoubtedly Hydrogen.
Hydrogen, as an energy source, has been the dream of generations of scientists because, besides being the originator of the ‘table of elements’, it is the most abundant substance on the planet, if not in the entire universe.
Its great limitation is that in order to be ‘separated’ from the oxygen with which it forms water, procedures requiring high electricity consumption are needed. The said energy has traditionally been supplied by fossil – and hence polluting – fuels.
In fact, in order to produce ‘clean’ hydrogen from water, it must be separated from oxygen by electrolysis, a mechanism that requires a large amount of energy.
The fact of using large quantities of electricity produced with traditional -and hence polluting – systems leads to the paradox that, in order to produce ‘clean’ energy from hydrogen, we keep on polluting the environment with ‘dirty’ emissions from non-renewable sources.
This paradox can be overcome with a small new industrial revolution, i.d. producing energy from the sea, the sun and the wind to power the electrolysis process that produces hydrogen.
The revolutionary strategy based on the use of ‘green’ energy to produce adequate quantities of hydrogen at an acceptable cost can be considered the key to a paradigm shift in production that can bring the world out of the pandemic crisis with positive impacts on the environment and on climate.
In the summer of last year, the European Union had already outlined an investment project worth 470 billion euros, called the “Hydrogen Energy Strategy”, aimed at equipping the EU Member States with devices for hydrogen electrolysis from renewable and clean sources, capable of ensuring the production of one million tonnes of “green” hydrogen (i.e. clean because extracted from water) by the end of 2024.
This is an absolutely sustainable target, considering that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the “total installed wind, marine and solar capacity is set to overtake natural gas by the end 2023 and coal by the end of 2024”.
A study dated February 17, 2021, carried out by the Hydrogen Council and McKinsey & Company, entitled ‘Hydrogen Insights‘, shows that many new hydrogen projects are appearing on the market all over the world, at such a pace that ‘the industry cannot keep up with it’.
According to the study, 345 billion dollars will be invested globally in hydrogen research and production by the end of 2030, to which the billion euros allocated by the European Union in the ‘Hydrogen Strategy’ shall be added.
To understand how the momentum and drive for hydrogen seems to be unstoppable, we can note that the Hydrogen Council, which only four years ago had 18 members, has now grown to 109 members, research centers and companies backed by 70 billion dollars of public funding provided by enthusiastic governments.
According to the Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council, Daryl Wilson, “hydrogen energy research already accounts for 20% of the success in our pathway to decarbonization”.
According to the study mentioned above, all European countries are “betting on hydrogen and are planning to allocate billions of euros under the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan for investment in this sector”:
Spain has already earmarked 1.5 billion euros for national hydrogen production over the next two years, while Portugal plans to invest 186 billion euros of the Recovery Plan in projects related to hydrogen energy production.
Italy will have 47 billion euros available for “ecological transition”, an ambitious goal of which the government has understood the importance by deciding to set up a department with a dedicated portfolio.
Italy is well prepared and equipped on a scientific and productive level to face the challenge of ‘producing clean energy using clean energy’.
Not only are we at the forefront in the production of devices for extracting energy from sea waves – such as the Inertial Sea Waves Energy Converter (ISWEC), created thanks to research by the Turin Polytechnic, which occupies only 150 square meters of sea water and produces large quantities of clean energy, and alone reduces CO2 emissions by 68 tons a year, or the so-called Pinguino (Penguin), a device placed at a depth of 50 meters which produces energy without damaging the marine ecosystem – but we also have the inventiveness, culture and courage to accompany the strategy for “turning green”.
The International World Group of Rome and Eldor Corporation Spa, located in the Latium Region, have recently signed an agreement to promote projects for energy generation and the production of hydrogen from sea waves and other renewable energy sources, as part of cooperation between Europe and China under the Road and Belt Initiative.
The project will see Italian companies, starting with Eldor, working in close collaboration with the Chinese “National Ocean Technology Centre”, based in Shenzhen, to set up an international research and development center in the field of ‘green’ hydrogen production using clean energy.
A process that is part of a global strategy which, with the contribution of Italy, its productive forces and its institutions, can help our country, Europe and the rest of the world to recover from a pandemic crisis that, once resolved, together with digital revolution, can trigger a new industrial revolution based no longer on coal or oil, but on hydrogen, which can be turned from the most widespread element in the universe into the growth engine of a new civilization.
Giancarlo Elia Valori