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Francesco Starace: Enel’s plans for hydrogen and the energy transition

Starace: the great potential of the electrolyzers industry for hydrogen production

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Electrolyzers are used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis powered by renewable energy. In the future, the electrolyzers industry may be as successful as solar panels are in the energy world today. This is what Enel’s CEO and General Manager Francesco Starace had to say in an interview during “The strategy on hydrogen and the energy transition”, an event held on March 30 by Italy’s leading financial newspaper, “Il Sole 24 Ore”.

This industry was born in Europe: “To this day, electrolyzers are luxury and niche products, used for very specific applications where the cost of hydrogen production is not considered a determining factor”. According to the CEO, Europe still has a huge potential in this area: “Solar panels started out this way, through niche applications on satellites orbiting the Earth. Nobody could have thought that photovoltaic technology would spread globally in the energy industry”.

Thus, Francesco Starace believes the conditions are right for significant development: “It won’t take long to understand this: usually these trends make themselves clear in the first five years. If we see significant evolutions in terms of costs, we’ll be able to get hydrogen off the ground”. Indeed, the current challenge is making hydrogen convenient also from an economic point of view: “What we are trying to do, together with other European companies, is to accelerate the industrialization and innovation of this sector, in order to see if we can break the sound barrier of costs. If we succeed, we will be able to produce hydrogen without CO2 emissions and immediately replace all the hydrogen currently used (which is produced from fossil fuels – ed.) with green hydrogen, avoiding 830 million tons of carbon emissions a year”.

“Producing green hydrogen will cost less than capturing CO2. It is better to use this green gas where it is produced”

Francesco Starace, Enel CEO

As regards feasibility, according to Francesco Starace hydrogen must be used close to its place of production, as its transportation is difficult: “Initially, hydrogen will be used for the chemical industry, the production of fertilizers, and the decarbonization of the steel and cement industries: hydrogen could be used in the most intelligent way in these sectors”. However, it is “a very small molecule capable of entering and crossing the crystalline structure of metals”, so its transportation requires “a great compression, and this is very expensive. This is the reason why hydrogen is produced where it is used”.

Furthermore, Enel’s CEO stressed that the production of green hydrogen entails remarkable energy consumption: one kilogram of hydrogen produced by electrolysis consumes 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity – if stored in a battery, that would be enough to drive an electric car for 250 kilometers. Francesco Starace also pointed out that green hydrogen is an electrical vector, not a source of energy: as such, its production and compression not only require great energy consumption but are also dangerous and expensive procedures. Hydrogen transportation systems that are entirely made with piping are indeed very expensive and dangerous: “producing and using it” is therefore better than “transporting it”.

Similarly, “adding hydrogen molecules to create hydrogen-enriched gas” is useless: “It is a way to transport hydrogen molecules that are subsequently burned with gas, and does not solve the problem of decarbonization”. “A very complex technology” is therefore needed to produce blue hydrogen with carbon capture and storage: in his interview, Enel’s CEO described the required plants – which “are somewhat reminiscent of the nineteenth century” – as “very complex to be designed, built and managed”. In addition, it is necessary to identify “stable geological environments to store CO2, hoping that it does not escape somewhere else”.

According to Francesco Starace, however, it is possible “this hydrogen technology might prove reasonable from an economic point of view”: in any case, we will also have to see “how much of Europe will agree to storing CO2 close to the population”. In any case, Enel’s CEO pointed out he thinks “the costs of electrolyzers will fall sooner than the costs of CO2 storage”.

 

Enel editorial staff

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