Power to X

Yesterday, I attended a mini conference on power to X and the potential to generate green synthetic fuels in Greenland.

Power to X became a big thing in Denmark a few years ago and the government is keen to promote it. Danish company Topsoe are currently building a green fuel facility in Herning and they have a nice explainer on their website of the concept.

In Greenland the fuels could be anything from hydrogen to methanol (though I learnt methanol is least likely as it requires a CO2 source that Greenland doesn’t have, ammonia seems the most plausible initially).

It was an interesting meeting, lots of different companies, institutions and the Greenlandic MP Aaja Chemnitz as well as academics were in the room. The emphasis was very much on the social and economic aspects of power to X, but as the title implied: Greenland has the potential to be the “world’s largest energy island.” From a local point of view, Greenland has very high per capita emissions and is heavily dependent on energy imports for transport, though a majority of electricity, at least in the south west, is already hydropower.

Many other smaller and more remote communities however are dependent on diesel generators for heating and power as well as for shipping, fishing and flying between communities.* Transitioning away from these fuels will be challenging but the potential for much larger developments is clear.

Head of development at NunaGreen (the recently rebranded and reoriented NunaOil), Rasmus Wendt, emphasised just how cheap and in theory at least, abundant, Greenland hydropower is. Probably some of the cheapest electricity in the world is generated by Greenlandic dams already operating or planned. And indeed the potential is massive. As the ice sheet melts, enormous amounts of water are produced more or less endlessly in Greenland. It will take at least a thousand years to melt the whole ice sheet, even under a high emissions scenario. We’re not going to run out of water soon.

Figure 2 from Aschwanden et al., 2019.
Observed 2008 state and simulations of the Greenland Ice Sheet at year 3000.
(A) Observed 2008 ice extent (53). (B to D) Likelihood (percentiles) of ice cover as percentage of the ensemble simulations with nonzero ice thickness. Likelihoods less than the 16th percentile are masked. (E) Multiyear composite of observed surface speeds (61). (F to H) Surface speeds from the control simulation. Basin names shown in (A) in clockwise order are southwest (SW), central-west (CW), northwest (NW), north (NO), northeast (NE), and southeast (SE). RCP 2.6 (B and F), RCP 4.5 (C and G), and RCP 8.5 (D and H). Topography in meters above sea level (m a.s.l.) [(A) to (H)].

Wind energy too is extremely underdeveloped but potentially huge in Greenland. The problem is of course, all that potential energy is a long way from the end users as this screenshot from the global wind atlas, shared by energy scenario planner Brian Vad Mathiessen shows well.

Screenshot from the global wind atlas showing wind energy potential in Greenland and the north Atlantic margin of Europe

By sheer coincidence, this morning I stumbled over this article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on mastodon about the large green hydrogen facility currently under construction by Shell in Rotterdam.

It’s a really interesting read – (if you don’t speak Dutch try DeepL translation) and I was struck by many of the same issues being raised there as in the Greenland meeting: lack of trained staff, uncertain commercial environment, cost and competitiveness with other energy sources. Unlike in Greenland, energy in the Netherlands for producing synthetic fuels is scarce, but the market for using the energy is huge and nearby, and given the EU’s ambitions to produce and, crucially, import large amounts of hydrogen fuel by 2030, it seems like many of the important stars are aligning. Importing ammonia to Rotterdam for cracking back into hydrogen seems like it could actually be a viable future for Greenlandic generated fuels in Greenland he medium to long term.

We at DMI are shortly starting a project within the National Centre for Climate Research framework looking at exactly the potential to generate renewable energy from a climate and weather angle. But what I took away from yesterday’s meeting is that while the physical potential in Greenland really is HUGE, the regulatory environment – and probably the local population – is supportive, the economic certainty is not quite there yet.

It felt a bit like being in a bunch of young seabirds clustered on the edge of the cliff, none quite daring to take the flight, in spite of the undoubted rewards. And indeed, this seems the situation in the Netherlands too. I was especially struck by this quote in the NRC piece:

“Another problem is that many parties are just waiting for each other to take the first step so that they themselves dare to go. Producers, for instance, invest only sparingly because they are not sure whether there will soon be customers, and customers in turn hesitate because they are not sure whether the producers will deliver. The classic chicken-and-egg story.”
(Translated with DeepL)

Chris Hensen, NRC, 17thnMay 2023 “De Europese waterstofambities zijn groot, maar bedrijven zijn nog altijd afwachtend”

Perhaps the diving in of Shell, a company that can afford to risk investing a billion Euros in a new facility in Rotterdam, is what the development of Power to X needs?

BP, Air liquide and Uniper already have plans to build follow on plants in Rotterdam. Once one of the birds have taken flight, others will surely follow.

Thanks to Aalborg University,and especially my Danish Arctic Research Forum colleague Carina Ren for an interesting and inspiring meeting.

*(As an aside, I was reflecting while on fieldwork just how difficult removing fossil fuels from scientific work in Greenland will be. We rely on petrol generators to power equipment and oil stoves to warm tents. What if we could develop an easy to operate “tabletop” (or even just room sized) electrolysis system to generate clean fuels from e.g. wind energy, that we could burn instead of paraffin and/petrol? I’d invest in that and it would be a quick win for Greenland science.)

Inside of the tent during fieldwork, note the primus stove, running on petrol, for melting ice for water and food and the paraffin powered oven to keep the inside warm and dry while camping.

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