‘Crazy and unnecessary greenwash’: Japan to spend $ 242 million to mix hydrogen-derived ammonia with coal in power plants

The Japanese government will spend 27.9 billion yen ($ 242 million) in grants for two demonstration projects to burn at least 50% ammonia (produced from hydrogen) with coal at power stations in ‘by 2029.

Japan’s largest power producer, JERA, will invest an additional 17.3 billion yen ($ 150 million) in emission reduction projects of 45.2 billion yen ($ 392 million).

Last year, JERA – a joint venture between electricity providers Tokyo Electric Power and Chubu Electric Power – began adding small amounts of ammonia to a 1 GW unit at its 4.1 GW Hekinan coal-fired power plant. in central Japan as part of a plan to achieve 20% ammonia co-combustion by 2025. As part of the new funding, JERA and its partner IHI Corp plan to increase this rate to 50 % by March 2029.

According to Reload calculations, based on the average capacity factor of coal-fired power plants of 53.5%, this would require 1.2 million tonnes of ammonia per year, or nearly 0.7% of the current annual global supply.

The second project aims to achieve the same level of co-combustion in two unidentified power plants with different types of boilers produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, also by March 2029.

Ammonia, which is mainly used today for the production of fertilizers and chemicals, is currently produced by combining gray hydrogen derived from unreduced fossil fuels with nitrogen from the air in a process energy guzzler known as Haber-Bosch. The JERA does not specify whether the hydrogen used for its ammonia will be gray, blue (gray but with carbon capture and storage) or green (derived using renewable energies to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen).

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Burning ammonia (NH3) does not produce carbon dioxide, but results in substantial emissions of nitrous oxide (NOx), which is a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2 – although these emissions can be captured in the flue gases with commercially available technology.

While it is possible to produce ammonia from green hydrogen and power the Haber-Bosch process with renewable energies, this “green ammonia” hardly exists outside of laboratories and pilot projects.

In fact, global ammonia production of around 176 million tonnes per year generates around 620 million tonnes of CO.2 every year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) – about 1.7% of global emissions.

Replacing this “gray ammonia” with the green variety would therefore be extremely beneficial for the planet, but would require enormous amounts of renewable energy.

According to Reload Calculations, each tonne of green ammonia would require 8.85 MWh of renewable energy to produce the required green hydrogen, and an additional 5.53 MWh to power the Haber Bosch process with electricity alone. Thus, simply replacing today’s gray ammonia with green would require 2,530 terawatt-hours (TWh) of renewable energy, or 30% of the global renewable energy supply (8,300 TWh) expected by the IEA in 2021.

Yet some countries, like Japan and South Korea, as well as the shipping industry, are looking to increase demand for green ammonia by using it as a fuel, in large part because it is easier to transport than hydrogen and contains much more energy by volume. .

Yet while a ton of green ammonia requires 14.38 MWh to be produced, it only generates the equivalent of 5.16 MWh when burned, which comes down to 1.96 MWh in a power plant. electric coal by assuming a steam turbine generator efficiency of 38%, making it an incredibly inefficient method of generating electricity.

Japan wants to import large amounts of hydrogen and ammonia as part of its goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, simply because the island nation doesn’t have many alternatives – it does not much land available to generate wind and solar power, and its isolated position and the surrounding deep waters make it difficult to import electricity via cables.

But Paul Martin, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, says the $ 392 million plan is “unnecessary green laundering” and “crazy.”

“The Japanese are clearly in dire straits in a carbon-free future and desperately trying to solve their energy import problems – but ammonia? This will be at least five times the cost, per joule, of the energy that their economic competitors use to power their economies, ”he wrote in a post on LinkedIn.

“Using ammonia as a fuel is possible, but for stationary applications like power plants that have to be used more than occasionally as an emergency back-up fuel, it’s highly questionable. Co-feed it to inefficient coal-fired power stations? It’s just crazy.

He adds that it would make sense to produce ammonia from green hydrogen “in places with high capacity renewables and no local electricity market”.

“But it should be used to replace the black [ie, grey] ammonia, which is all you can buy today – it should NOT be wasted as fuel! “

JERA, along with Tepco and fossil fuel engineering firm Chiyoda, will also invest an additional 24 billion yen – of which 20 billion yen will be provided by the Japanese government – to develop new ammonia synthesis catalysts to ” improve the efficiency of current catalysts. used in the Haber Bosch process.

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