Why green hydrogen holds a lot of potential for Trinidad & Tobago

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Green hydrogen is the new product on the market, but does it live up to its promised hype? These questions and more were explored at the Hydrogen Research Collaborative hosted at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine campus in Trinidad on September 21, which featured research into hydrogen conducted by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) and UWI postgraduate students.

What is green hydrogen exactly? It is an innovative way to continue harvesting and using hydrogen without relying on fossil fuels. Philip Julien, chairman of Kenesjay Green, an indigenous project development company dedicated to the creation of decarbonisation projects on an industrial scale, explains it very simply: “It is created by electrolysis of water. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. If you pass a stream of electricity through water, it breaks bonds and creates hydrogen and oxygen. If you use a low-carbon source of electricity, then the hydrogen you produce is ‘green.’”

Kenesjay Green masterminded the creation of NewGen Energy Limited to develop a proposed carbon-neutral/green hydrogen production facility, whose output will feed into ammonia production at Trinidad Nitrogen Company facilities at the Point Lisas Industrial Estate in south Trinidad. Hydrogène de France (HDF) acquired a 70 percent majority stake in the NewGen project in 2022 through its local branch, with Kenesjay Green retaining the remaining 30 percent stake.

A study developed by the National Energy Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago with support from the Inter-American Development Bank reinforces the sentiment of the massive potential for green hydrogen in the Caribbean twin-island nation. In a country which already has the building blocks to position itself as a regional green hydrogen and ammonia/methanol trading, storage and production hub for the Americas, green hydrogen is considered the next step, and a viable decarbonisation option for the power and industrial sectors.

Ammonia markets

Maintaining its status as a global exporter of ammonia, in 2021, Trinidad and Tobago exported USD 1.74 billion in ammonia, making it the second largest exporter in the world. With a market shift towards low-carbon ammonia, however — at present, local ammonia production uses natural gas as a feedstock — this eminent status has come under threat.

A report by S&P Global Commodity Insights forecasts the global ammonia market to triple by 2050 as the demand for low-carbon ammonia “transforms the market”:

Driven by improved economics resulting from decarbonisation policies, low-carbon ammonia is expected to grow from its current nascent state to 420 million tons—two thirds of the total market—by 2050. […]

The new strategic report, Low-carbon Ammonia: Facilitating the Transition to a Sustainable Future says that the potential use of low-carbon ammonia as a marine bunker fuel, industry feedstock and as a carrier for hydrogen used in power generation represents a profound shift for the industry—from one geared primarily towards fertilizer production to one driven by energy markets.

In the European Union, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) has been adopted by the European Commission as a “landmark tool to put a fair price on the carbon emitted during the production of carbon-intensive goods that are entering the EU, and to encourage cleaner industrial production in non-EU countries.”

Vice-president of HDF Caribbean, Thibault Ménage, cites the CBAM as an incentive for Trinidad and Tobago to move towards this trend of decarbonising the ammonia industry, saying, “Europe is a big importer of [Trinidad and Tobago's] ammonia … we could lose the European market if we fail to decarbonise.”

Anticipating this, NewGen Energy Ltd. has pursued carbon certification for its ammonia through TÜV Rheinland at a threshold of <1kg CO2/kg H2, allowing ammonia produced for the international market which was made with NewGen hydrogen to be safely exported.

Declining natural gas and the potential for local economic development

The local arm of Hydrogène de France's investment in the NewGen project is also an investment in Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking on behalf of HDF, Ménage said he sees great potential for the local hydrogen market, but NewGen “needs to be a success” before HDF will consider further investment into other green industry projects in Trinidad and Tobago.

The forecast is, however, positive. Ménage is of the view that NewGen offers Trinidad and Tobago a global competitive advantage because of the demand for green hydrogen, which would be well supported by the country's history as an energy economy and vast experience with the petrochemical industry. Just “one successful project,” he says, will demonstrate that Trinidad and Tobago has “the capacity and skill.” Meanwhile, Kenesjay Green chair Philip Julien, in his opening speech at the hydrogen symposium, posited that the Caribbean is the game changer for hydrogen (as opposed to the other way around). The abundance of wind, solar, and geothermal resources across the Caribbean positions the region as ideal for growth in hydrogen production.

Once the hydrogen facility is up and running — the estimated start date is in 2025 — NewGen will be the largest and most advanced of its kind in the world, running at full capacity at all times and producing roughly 20,000 tons of green hydrogen annually, which amounts to five percent of the Point Lisas deficit of 400,000.

This is a low estimate, however, as some of the plants on the Point Lisas estate currently do not run at full capacity because of the lack of natural gas. In fact, The New York Times reported that “gas production has declined 40 percent since 2010, forcing the country to close one of its four export terminals for liquefied natural gas and three of its 18 petrochemical plants.” With the writing very much on the wall, Ménage urged the government to look at all opportunities to decarbonise Trinidad and Tobago's energy industry so that natural gas use can be freed up.

The role of sustainable development

On the heels of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, which took place in New York in September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that the world has only achieved 15 percent of the SDGs at the halfway mark to 2030. Indeed, in Trinidad, the SDGs have faced significant setbacks. The SDG Index/Sustainable Development Report ranks many of the country’s SDGs as “moderately improving” and “facing challenges,” including Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), and Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure).

As per Trinidad and Tobago's commitments under the Paris Agreement in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), the nation must commit to a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from three main emitting sectors (power generation, transport, and industry) by 2030.

Of all the carbon emitted by the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago makes up roughly 40 percent. NewGen estimates its contributions to the NDC as an annual 165,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in the industrial sector. Rointra Hosein, an MSc student at the University of Trinidad and Tobago who presented her research at the symposium, estimated that by replacing all of the country’s grey hydrogen (produced with natural gas) with the production of green hydrogen, the country could see emission savings of up to 2.1 million metric tonnes per year.

Locally, green hydrogen creates an additional alternative feedstock to bolster diminished supplies of natural gas to the downstream ammonia and methanol sectors — an opportunity that catalysed the development of NewGen — but the potential for clean hydrogen extends way beyond. It can be a clean alternative fuel for many end uses, including power, transportation, and petrochemicals. According to Julien, “All [these] things that we currently depend on from a fossil fuel base can theoretically be substituted, replenished, enhanced, with a fossil-free source of energy called hydrogen.”

Christianne Zakour is an alumni Caribbean Energy Reporting Fellow with Climate Tracker.

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