By Claire Daly on Jul 1, 2021
From the outside it is hard to see what is so special about the building near Cologne in western Germany. Inside there are five grey boxes, each about the size of a garden shed. But something remarkable is happening on this site on the banks of the river Rhine.
Together these five boxes form an electrolyser that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The electrolyser is powered by renewable electricity, producing green hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions — the largest of its kind in Europe.
The project is part of a plan by Shell to turn five refineries into energy and chemicals parks, which will increasingly focus on chemicals, and lower-carbon energy products such as biofuels and hydrogen.
“The energy transition is not something coming in five or ten year's time — it is here today,” says Jörg Dehmel, Chief Technical Officer Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rheinland, who oversaw the project from drawing board to reality in three years.
Dehmel joined politicians and industry figures from across Europe to watch the start-up of the 10-megawatt (MW) electrolyser, part of the Refhyne project.
Renewed interest in hydrogen is fuelling demand for electrolysers that can operate in industry. Refineries typically use hydrogen produced from natural gas (known as grey hydrogen) to remove sulphur from conventional fuels. In Rheinland some of that grey hydrogen will now be replaced by green hydrogen.
“Large-scale projects such as this drive the cost of hydrogen down, which then opens up the possibility for other uses, such as transport,” says Daryl Wilson, Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council, a CEO-led global initiative to promote hydrogen.
Shell is part of the European consortium behind Refhyne, which receives European Commission (EC) funding. Plans have been submitted to increase the capacity of the electrolyser from 10 MW to 100 MW, producing around 10 times the current 1,300 tonnes of green hydrogen a year.
The EC is investing billions of dollars in green hydrogen by 2030 as part of its Green Deal, which aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Hydrogen is expected to play an important role in decarbonising parts of industry, like refining, as well as transport, especially heavy-duty and long-distance trucks, buses, ships and planes.
Wilson estimates that the global hydrogen industry today is valued at more than around $150 billion, and he expects a tripling of the industry in the next decade.
Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, the UK firm that made the electrolyser, says: “In an industry where there are many announcements and promises, we have delivered something real and tangible.” ITM Power is beginning work on the next phase of the project, Refhyne II, which could be up and running in three years.
Many studies into the future of the world’s energy system point to hydrogen as playing a significant role. Although green hydrogen is currently produced in small volumes, Wilson sees strong growth ahead: “The [Refhyne II] 100 MW electrolyser will be five times bigger than anybody's ever done before,” he said, likening the hydrogen industry to other developments in renewable power generation. “Fifteen years ago, nobody would ever imagine that wind and solar would get to 1 gigawatt — but it happened.”
In the Netherlands, Shell is aiming to build the largest European green hydrogen project by 2040 — NortH2 could produce more than 800,000 tonnes of green hydrogen by electricity generated from a wind farm in the North Sea. And Shell is working with partners to create a green hydrogen hub in the Port of Rotterdam, with plans for hydrogen refuelling stations for fuel cell cars and trucks.
“When you get on a bus or see a truck powered by hydrogen, that’s when it all becomes more visible and real to people,” says Daryl Wilson. “Forget the gigawatt talk — seeing it used in everyday situations shows just how important hydrogen is going to be in the future.”