India’s plans to produce so-called ‘green hydrogen’ — where the gas is produced without resulting in fossil fuel emissions — might end up worsening pollution if proper checks and balances are not in place, according to a study by environmental and energy think-tank, Climate Risk Horizons (CRH).
India’s National Green Hydrogen Mission, piloted by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) expects to manufacture five million tonnes by 2030. This would require the installation of renewable energy capacity worth 125 GW (1 GW is 1,000 megawatts) and the use of 250,000 gigawatt-hr units of power, equivalent to about 13% of India’s present electricity generation.
As of August 2023, India’s total renewable energy (RE) capacity (excluding hydropower dams bigger than 25 MW) stood at 131 GW; the 2030 green hydrogen plan thus envisages adding an equivalent RE capacity by 2030. This is over and above the 500 GW of RE capacity that India has committed to install by 2030 as part of its Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. To put that in perspective, India installed only 15 GW of new solar and wind capacity in 2023, against the 45 GW per year needed to reach the 2030 target.
Using coal-based power
The MNRE has defined green hydrogen as hydrogen produced in a way that emits no more than 2 kg of carbon dioxide per kg of such hydrogen. Currently, producing 1 kg of ‘grey hydrogen’, as it is known, ends up emitting 9 kg of carbon dioxide. “While a detailed methodology is awaited, the definition as it stands leaves a lot to interpretation,” said CRH’s chief executive Ashish Fernandes, in the report released on Thursday.
The main concern is that if electrolysers, which split water to produce hydrogen and oxygen, were run 24x7, they would be expected to operate even at night when no solar power is available. This would then mean tapping into conventional coal-fired electricity.
“Where will the electricity come from? If it comes from India’s coal-powered grid in general, it will in fact increase carbon emissions, since about 70% of the electricity on the grid is coal-generated — more in non-daylight hours when solar generation is nil,” the report notes. “The vast majority of projects have not disclosed their source of electricity. It is also not clear if those few projects that have committed...to meet 100% of their requirement from these sources.”
Another challenge is that India’s standards allow the use of biomass — which also results in carbon emissions when burnt — for the production of green hydrogen, the report said. Moreover, diverting scarce renewable energy capacity towards the production of green hydrogen might mean inadequate clean electricity being made available for consumers.
“India’s ambitious renewable energy target of 450 GW by 2030 already requires huge investment. The green hydrogen mission will require an additional 125 GW of RE. The MNRE needs to guard against the risk that finance for RE projects that would otherwise decarbonise the electricity grid will instead be diverted to produce green hydrogen. This would delay India’s journey to net zero, undermine a nascent industry, and deny States and electricity consumers the cost benefits that cheap renewable energy has to offer,” Mr. Fernandes said.
Several large power utilities in India — including Reliance Industries, the Adani Group, and the National Thermal Power Corporation — have announced ambitious plans to scale up green hydrogen production. The Centre’s green hydrogen mission has committed nearly ₹20,000 crore to develop and expand the industry.