Whelp, that was fast. Just a couple of months ago the US Department of Energy launched a venture aimed at teasing farmers into the green ammonia market with an assist from distributed wind power and it all seemed rather pie-in-the-sky, but now here comes the global firm Yara with a green ammonia project in Norway that is similar, but different, and much, much, much bigger.
Wait, What Is Green Ammonia?
Green ammonia is part and parcel of the green hydrogen economy that many are talking about these days. Both ammonia and hydrogen are ubiquitous industrial chemicals as well as fuels. They are also climate-killers because they are mainly sourced from natural gas (and coal in some places, such as China).
Now there’s a strong focus on getting renewable hydrogen with electrolysis, which involves applying an electrical current to water, splitting off hydrogen gas. Electrolysis has been around forever, but its widespread use in hydrogen production is a new thing with the advent of low-cost renewable energy. Improvements that bring down the cost of electrolysis equipment are also helping to stimulate investment in the green hydrogen field.
Once you have green hydrogen in hand, it’s only one more baby step to get green ammonia, by capturing nitrogen from the air and combining it with hydrogen.
What’s The Distributed Wind Angle?
As amply demonstrated by the Texas power crisis, the centralized fossil-dependent grid of today is not up to meeting the challenges of climate impacts. Failure to invest in basic cold-weather hardening systems was a significant part of the problem in Texas. The broader issue is relying on large, centralized power plants.
The US Energy Department has been promoting the transition from a centralized model into the modern decentralized grid of the future with a focus on distributed energy resources, which means a heavy dose of renewable energy. Things have been going swimmingly except in the stubborn area of distributed wind energy.
DOE defines distributed wind as turbines of any size that are used for onsite power generation, or that contribute to a local distribution grid. That casts a wide net, though in practice that typically means single turbines or arrays of just a few turbines.
The problem is that site assessment, wind resource analysis, transportation, and other soft costs skew the economics of constructing single turbines and small arrays. The size of the turbine can also throw the bottom line out of whack. Those factors are not necessarily deal-breakers for industrial facilities, but the agricultural sector is more resistant.
Last year CleanTechnica caught wind of a green hydrogen strategy for conjoining distributed wind with rural economic development in the US, the idea being that farmers could store energy in the form of excess hydrogen produced at night. Sure enough, the University of Minnesota is tweaking green ammonia out of the distributed wind angle, with an assist from the Energy Department through its ARPA-E cleantech funding office.
Green Ammonia For Greener Shipping
On a much larger scale, some interesting activity is also taking place in Louisiana, where offshore wind development could dovetail with the state’s ammonia industry. That finally brings us to the new Yara project.
Yara is among the biggest ammonia producers in the world as well as the biggest ammonia shipper in the world, so its move into the green ammonia space will have a significant impact on the carbon footprint of the ammonia industry, with a ripple effect on agriculture and other sectors.
Back in 2017, Yara came up with the idea of a building a ship to run on ammonia fuel. At the time the assumption was that the ammonia would come from conventional sources, but now that the ship is ready to ply the waters, it looks like Yara had green ammonia up its sleeve all along.
Last week, Yara joined with the Norwegian utility Statkraft and the firm Aker Horizons for a plan to produce green ammonia at commercial scale, by deploying hydropower to electrify an existing Yara ammonia plant in Porsgrunn.
“Yara’s Porsgrunn plant is well set up for large-scale production and export, allowing Norway to quickly play a role in the hydrogen economy,” enthused Yara President and CEO Svein tore Holsether. “Constructing a new ammonia plant and associated infrastructure is typically a capital-intensive process, but by utilising Yara’s existing ammonia plant and associated infrastructure in Porsgrunn, valued at USD 450 million, the total capital requirement for the project is significantly reduced compared with alternative greenfield locations.”
The big question is why Yara would invest money in green hydrogen to produce green ammonia when fossil hydrogen is still competitive. Holsether has an answer for that, too.
“Large-scale production will reduce cost of the electrolysis route,” he explained, adding that hydrogen needs to be converted into ammonia anyways if it is to be shipped around the world.
“For hydrogen to be exported or used in long-haul shipping or fertilizer production, it needs to be converted to ammonia, and converting Yara’s existing ammonia plant is both faster and more cost-effective than building a new plant,” Holsether said.
So, What’s The Catch?
If this sounds too good to be true, well, maybe. Or maybe not. Yara is counting on an assist from Norway’s government to make the green ammonia magic happen. If the nation’s success in incentivizing electric vehicle sales is any indication, the chance of a helping hand are pretty good. Yara and its partners already seem to be anticipating a high level of support.
“Norway’s rich renewable energy resources are one of our most important competitive advantages. This project paves the way for new industrial development and can at the same time give Norway’s important maritime sector a new competitive advantage, namely access to an efficient and emission-free energy source on a large scale,” said Christian Rynning-Tønnesen, who is CEO of Statkraft.
Another high level player to watch in the green ammonia field is shipping giant Maersk. The company is banking on a growing supply of alternative fuels to power its carbon-neutral goal, and green ammonia is in the running.
No, Really, What’s The Catch?
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the concern is that juicing the hydrogen market will simply enable gas and coal stakeholders to sell more fossil hydrogen.
That may be so over the short term, but manufacturers and producers are already moving to clean up their global supply chains in response to both consumer demand and government policies in key markets. Fossil stakeholders are falling back on the so-named “blue hydrogen” greenwash, but the public relations ploy will fall apart as the cost of electrolysis systems and renewable energy both continue to drop.
One key angle to consider is global shipping. If you caught that thing about Yara aiming its Norway green ammonia project at the export market, that’s going to keep liquid natural gas stakeholders up at night.
Adding more fuel to the sustainability fire is Australia, where policymakers are also eyeballing green hydrogen and ammonia for export.
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Featured photo: Zero emission ship courtesy of Yara.