Ambani, Adani in India’s green hydrogen rush but hurdles remain

Read Time:5 Minute, 42 Second

Hydrogen packs a lot more punch than lithium-based batteries. India’s federal minister Nitin Gadkari (second from left) seen here launching the country’s first green hydrogen-based advanced fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), Toyota Mirai, at his residence in March.

Hindustan Times | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

The sun’s searing heat can be punishing on summer days and India’s enormous coastline makes it a challenge to defend. But vast amounts of water and abundant sunlight have opened a path to green energy that could slake India’s vast appetite for fuel.

Indian companies have pledged to commit billions of dollars to green hydrogen projects — but experts caution that the technology is still very new and its commercial viability unproven.

Green hydrogen is a clean fuel that’s produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, using renewable energy such as solar power. When burnt, it emits no exhaust, only water. Environmentalists claim it can help decarbonize heavy industries like oil refining, fertilizers, steel and cement, as well as help cut emissions globally.

“At this point, the technology is not mature or cheap enough to be used widely,” Amit Bhandari, senior fellow, energy and investment at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think tank, told CNBC. He pointed to the example of solar energy which took about a decade to become viable.

The green hydrogen industry is still in its infancy and pilot plants to study the technology and costs will take at least five years to show results, Bhandari said.

“Ten years ago, if you had asked me if solar energy is viable, I would have said ‘no,’ even though solar power potential was known and technology was available. It took off only when the cost became comparable to traditional energy sources over a long period of time,” Bhandari said, adding that he was reluctant to write off a new technology.

Renewables currently account for almost 40% of total installed capacity in India, the world’s third largest crude oil importer after China and the US

But without large-scale energy storage, renewable energy cannot become a viable alternative to traditional power sources.

Lithium batteries cannot store energy at a large scale even though they are widely used to power electric vehicles. Green hydrogen, which can be stored in large amounts, can power heavy vehicles such as trucks over long distances.

India’s government last year announced a national green hydrogen policy with a target of producing 5 million tons of the fuel annually by 2030. In February, it provided tax breaks and allotted land to set up plants to boost the investment.

Right now, India is vulnerable to all manner of external and geopolitical shocks. With green hydrogen, that vulnerability will reduce.

Amit Bhandari

Senior fellow, energy and investment, Gateway House, Mumbai

“Two important resources are required to become a large global player: water and cheap power,” the chairman of Celeris Technologies, Venkat Sumantran, told CNBC. “India has a large coastline with access to seawater and ample sunlight.”

Several states in India get good sunlight most of the year and this allows solar panel farms to be optimally deployed, said Sumantran, whose Chennai-based consultancy firm provides new energy alternatives to fossil fuels in the auto sector.

But becoming a global player also depends on how cheaply photovoltaic cells — which convert sunlight into energy — are produced. “There are many signs that policies to allow this to happen are being implemented,” he added.

Indian companies investing in hydrogen

In recent months, several Indian companies have announced green hydrogen plans:

  • In January, India’s largest company by market capitalization Reliance Industries announced it would commit $75 billion to green energy, including an undisclosed amount toward green hydrogen projects.
  • In early April, Hyderabad-based Greenko group and Belgium-based John Cockerill to build a two-gigawatt hydrogen electrolyzer gigafactory in India, the largest outside of China.
  • In March, state-owned Indian Oil Corporation, which accounts for nearly half the market share of India’s petroleum products, teamed up with two private companies to launch a joint venture to develop green hydrogen. There are also plans to manufacture and sell electrolyzers, used in the production of green hydrogen.
  • In November 2021, the world’s largest solar power developer Adani Group announced it would invest $70 billion by 2030 into renewable energy infrastructure, including in green hydrogen.

Reliance Industries and Adani Group have both pledged to make the world’s cheapest green hydrogen at $1 per kilogram, or about a quarter of a gallon — that’s down from the current cost of $5-$6. When contacted by CNBC, neither company provided details on how they were going to bring down the costs so drastically.

Green hydrogen fuels India’s geostrategic ambitions too.

Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani predicted that green energy has the potential to be a gamechanger.

“When wood was replaced with coal, Europe overtook India and China to emerge the world leader. With the emergence of oil, the US and West Asia outgrew others,” he said at a conference on renewables in February in Pune, a western Indian city .

“When India becomes not only self-sufficient in green and clean energy, but also a large exporter, it will help India emerge as a global power,” he said at that time.

Acknowledging there has been a lot of hype around green hydrogen, Bhandari from Gateway House said it was not necessarily a bad thing.

“A key thing is that hype can create its own reality. If there is the right amount of capital, human intelligence is thrown at a problem. And technology evolves. Costs start to fall and that creates demand,” he said.

“Momentum is on the side of innovation and costs are declining. Also, there is already demand for green hydrogen, which can be absorbed right away in the petroleum refining, fertilizer and steel industries,” he added.

Pilot projects needed

Green hydrogen will become commercially viable only when it becomes cheaper, Bhandari noted.

“You cannot start with a 500 megawatt plant,” he said, adding that even a company like Reliance, which has had long experience handling hydrogen gas at its oil refineries, would not invest in a huge plant without pilot projects. “We are several years away from large-scale capacity,” he said.

Tapping India’s 7,500 kilometer long coastline is also complicated, Bhandari said.

“There are other claims on the coastline. It is not uninhabited. There are several large cities and ports. And, it must be weighed against the need to protect mangroves and other fragile ecosystems too,” he said.

Still, he conceded that if successful, the green hydrogen push would make India less vulnerable to price shocks in natural gas and oil.

“Right now, India is vulnerable to all manner of external and geopolitical shocks. With green hydrogen, that vulnerability will reduce,” he said.

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