Water Challenges in the Emerging Hydrogen Economy

By February 14, 2024 5   min read  (1025 words)

February 14, 2024 |

2024 02 14 09 46 00 2

Global shifts have revitalized the move toward hydrogen as an energy source. However, discussions often center on cost and technical barriers, neglecting critical questions regarding water as a feedstock in hydrogen production.

Global shifts, including geopolitical changes and the push for a fossil fuel phase-out, have revitalized the move toward hydrogen as an energy source. The European Union, along with governments in Europe and regions such as the Middle East and North Africa, has prioritized hydrogen development. Germany, aiming for a pioneering role, has formed energy partnerships with countries including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These alliances aim to drive the global energy transition, enhance international climate protection, alleviate global resource competition, and create export opportunities. However, discussions often center on cost and technical barriers, neglecting critical questions regarding water as a feedstock in hydrogen production.

Water Needs

According to hydrogen experts, freshwater is crucial in the hydrogen production process, requiring approximately nine liters to produce one kilogram of green hydrogen and 12-19 liters for one kilogram of blue hydrogen. This is particularly relevant for arid Gulf countries positioning themselves as key hydrogen hubs, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Current debates and analyses primarily focus on the economics of hydrogen, centering on factors such as cost and technical barriers, with minimal attention given to feedstock concerns for producing clean hydrogen. One notable exception is a recent discussion paper from the Germany-based Research Institute for Sustainability that asserts a significant expansion of green hydrogen production in the Gulf states is highly unlikely due to the insufficient availability of required renewable energy and water resources.

When the issue of water availability comes up, the go-to solution is expanding desalination facilities. The UAE’s hydrogen strategy, developed with input from the German Fraunhofer Institute, tackles the water challenge, noting that desalination compensates without hiking hydrogen production prices. Likewise, a study by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, Saudi Arabia’s top energy think tank, found that desalination costs don’t significantly affect hydrogen prices.

The EU and its member states have not sufficiently considered natural water availability as a prerequisite for establishing a global hydrogen economy. The benefits of producing hydrogen through methods like electrolysis gasification with carbon capture and storage lies in its potential to offer a versatile, clean energy solution, contributing to decarbonization and energy security in the transition to a sustainable future. This omission appears to be motivated by concerns that such a requirement could exclude various pertinent supply regions in the Middle East. Also, in the declarations of intent for hydrogen partnerships between Germany (as the main offtake market) and countries on the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the issue of water is not addressed.

Nevertheless, it is important that discussions about the water issue, currently relatively limited, take on a more prominent role. The Gulf countries rely on desalination for nearly all their water needs – and their hydrogen aspirations are based on continued use and expansion of desalination. In its current form, desalination is not a sustainable solution. From an environmental sustainability standpoint, desalination includes the dispersion of byproducts, such as brine and chemicals, into the seas. The majority of desalination plants are also powered by fossil fuels, so expanding desalination will increase greenhouse gas emissions. The Gulf countries are actively working on developing more sustainable desalination technologies that are powered by renewable energy and avoid brine discharge, but that does not solve the water question.

Climate Challenges

Many installed solar photovoltaic panels encounter operational challenges, with efficiency significantly decreasing above 25 degrees Celsius, a problem that might grow with accelerating global warming. Furthermore, the increase of climate-induced disasters, such as sand and dust storms, affects clean power production. For example, sand and dust particles settle on solar panels and need to be regularly cleaned with fresh water to ensure their functionality. Pure brushing without water or rinsing with seawater would scratch the coating of the solar modules. Thus, the fresh water use exacerbates the region’s chronic water challenges and escalates the demand for water for green hydrogen production and solar-powered desalination.

Worsening climate change has further consequences. Amplified salinity in the marine environment, less exchange with the Indian Ocean, and elevating sea temperatures heighten the nutrient levels of the waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. These changes in water quality encourage the proliferation of “red tide,” which is characterized by highly toxic algae blooms that can obstruct desalination plants by clogging intake filters. More frequent shutdowns due to red tide necessitate the installation of additional desalination plants, thereby perpetuating and exacerbating these phenomena through the discharge of warm, saline byproducts in an unsustainable self-reinforcing cycle.

Besides green hydrogen using renewable energy, alternative methods of hydrogen production, such as blue hydrogen (involving gasification and carbon dioxide capture) and turquoise hydrogen (using nuclear energy), require even more water resources. Moreover, the carbon sequestration essential for the production of blue hydrogen poses potential ecological hazards, including soil erosion and an overabundance of nutrients (by increasing toxicity and acidification), ultimately negatively impacting water quality and affecting ecosystems. Depending on the geological location of the stored carbon emissions, leakages may penetrate groundwater aquifers, introducing hazardous uranium and barium contaminants into freshwater resources. This would be particularly problematic for Saudi Arabia, which possesses extensive aquifer reservoirs.

Talks surrounding the development of a hydrogen economy should not only concentrate on financial and technical aspects but also integrate environmental sustainability as an important component. There is great potential for more sustainable water management in the Gulf, including through wastewater management, rainwater collection, efficiency enhancement, and innovative seawater desalination technologies. Industrialized countries that are in dire need of hydrogen imports should integrate these pertinent ecological aspects into their hydrogen partnerships and agreements and support sustainable water policies in the target countries by providing technology, knowledge, and innovation. A one-dimensional focus on the primacy of carbon dioxide reduction without considering the escalating threats of climate change and sustainable resource management is short-sighted and may potentially create more problems than solutions.


SOURCE: Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington



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