The development of a green hydrogen economy is seen as an important task in the course of the energy transition in Germany. Besides the task of industry, science and politics to build up a hydrogen value chain and to create a better understanding of the "hydrogen readiness" of the individual industries, the issue of water resources is also of great importance.
In this context, the Round Table "Water Consumption in Electrolysis - Technical Approaches for Resource-Saving H2 Production" organized by the Association for the Promotion of Scientific-Technical Cooperation in the Raw Materials Sector assessed the technical and policy challenges in the issue of water usage for green hydrogen production as a critical element in the German hydrogen strategy.
Germany has set up to achieve highly ambitious goals for the production and usage of green hydrogen over the next decade, with goals that are set to be accomplished already by 2030. Germany’s National Hydrogen Strategy (NHS) published in 2020 established the goal of reaching 5 GW of domestic electrolyzer capacity by 2030 and 10 GW by 2030, which translates to 14 to 28 TWh of hydrogen respectively. At the same time, the German Government expects the domestic clean hydrogen demand to reach 90 to 110 TWh by 2030 (BMWK, 2020).
The latter entails that there will need to be a significant production of green hydrogen inside the country and that another significant amount will need to be imported from abroad. Green hydrogen is produced via electrolysis where water (H2O) is split into hydrogen (H2) and Oxygen (O) using an electrolyzer that is powered by renewable energy sources (RES) (wind, solar, hydro, etc.). While the renewable sources potential is a crucial element to produce green hydrogen, the water element is often overlooked. Water is a sine qua non element in the electrolysis process. Thus, important amounts of this resource must be available to produce green hydrogen; it is estimated that for the production of 1 kg of hydrogen around 8.94 kg of water are needed (Fraunhofer IFF, 2023).
If Germany is set to reach the levels of domestic production established in the strategy the availability of water resources will be crucial. However, research shows that Germany is already under water stress and that the water needed to accomplish the hydrogen production goals places the latter in question as there are many processes in the industry that already require high quantities of water (Fraunhofer IFF, 2023).
A potential way to access more water resources is to harness sea water. This resource can also be utilized in the electrolysis process, but the water needs to be desalinized beforehand. Several research and development (R&D) projects are focused on this issue in Germany and across the globe. This option also presents the great opportunity to produce green hydrogen directly in the oceans (sea water) while also harnessing wind-offshore technologies. Nonetheless, this process also poses challenges of its own, in this context, the project H2 Mare explores the challenges and opportunities of producing green hydrogen offshore. The project sees great potential in this given that i) wind can be better utilized as a renewable resource, ii) the transport of energy is impractical in some places as opposed to the usage of the off-shore wind for electrolysis, and iii) the potential of the area is fully realized. Nonetheless, given the high quantities needed, Germany will still need to import green hydrogen from countries in the European region and abroad. In this context, Germany is pursuing a strongly outward oriented hydrogen strategy, targeting potential partner countries across all continents in more than 40 countries outside of the EU. But is water scarcity better in potential export countries?
In an effort to address this question the roundtable looked into both technical as well as policy challenges in two potential partner countries, Kazakhstan and Namibia.
Green hydrogen potential and water management in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, a country in Central Asia, is emerging as a potential trading partner for hydrogen due to its large solar and wind potential. While currently Kazakhstan generates more than 70% of its electricity from coal, the country aims at incrementing this share to generate 15% of its electricity with RES by 2030 (IEA, 2022) and 80% by 2060. Kazakhstan’s wind potential is estimated at 920 billion kWh/year and about half of the country has wind speeds of 4 to 5 meters per second at a height of 30 m. While not as high as wind promises, Kazakhstan’s solar potential is estimated at 2.5 billion kWh/year (IEA, 2022). With these RES Kazakhstan could strive for green hydrogen production for both domestic use and exports. The latter has been identified by the Government and thus hydrogen has been established as a relevant element in Kazakhstan’s general energy policy and for its use in the industry. In this vein, relevant industries for the use of hydrogen in the country are metallurgy, food production and petrochemistry. Further, Kazakhstan’s interest in green hydrogen production and export have already materialized, on October 27th of last year President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's office announced that a $50 billion deal had been signed with Svevind, a major European renewable energy group. The “Hyrasia One” project (subsidiary of Svevind) will use electricity from solar panels and wind turbines and aims at starting production in 2030 to generate 2 million tons of green hydrogen per year by 2032 (Lillis, 2022).
Nonetheless, as mentioned earlier, RES are not the only important component in the production of green hydrogen, but it is water that is a critical element to this process. Water availability in Kazakhstan is already scarce due to a combination of natural conditions (90 percent of river runoff occurs during spring), the fact that about half of runoff originates from neighboring countries, and the excessive use of irrigation water, which leads to water losses (UNDP, 2021). Regarding the latter, it must be highlighted that 75% of the available water resources are used for irrigation. The water stress in the country is so severe that only 40% of the population has access to drink water (dena, 2023). Going forward, forecasts indicate the country will face serious shortfalls by 2040, amounting to more than half of its requirements (UNDP, 2021). By 2050 decreasing rainfall and extreme temperature patterns in the north and west of the country will lead to decreasing drought resilience and desertification will increase to a considerable extent in the coming decades.
The Republic of Kazakhstan counts with a water code, a legislation from the beginning of the 2000’s whose main objective is to conserve and enhance the living conditions of the population and the environment (ECOLEX, 2003). The code has been amended over 60 times and the Government is still working on the publication of a new water code to address further the current needs and achieve a more efficient water management in the country. Nonetheless, both the code that still rules to the day and the new one that is being developed, do not include detailed regulations for hydrogen or renewable energies. The latter is of high relevance given the already water scarce conditions and the ambitions to develop a green hydrogen economy in the country for both domestic use and export.
Germany is aware of the ambitions and potential for green hydrogen in Kazakhstan and has therefore included the country in its H2 Diplo (Global Hydrogen Diplomacy) program, an initiative led by the German Foreign Office (AA for its abbreviation in German) to support countries in the transformation of their energy and fuel economies in the long term by using green hydrogen and its derived products (AA, 2023). As part of this program, the AA has already opened a hydrogen office in Kazakhstan to support the politics and policy dialogue as well as the technical exchange with partner ministries and relevant stakeholders in Kazakhstan. Further, the German Energy Dialogue supports Kazakhstan towards a sustainable water management with technology transfer, and diversification, as well as decarbonization measures (dena, 2023). The combination of these two initiatives could yield high value not only for the bilateral relation but for a more sustainable development of the green hydrogen economy in Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, this combination of measures needs to happen systematically and implemented in coordination to actually have an effect in the usage of water in the development of the green hydrogen sector. If initiatives like these are continuously implemented as isolated elements, the water scarcity issues in Kazakhstan and hundreds of other regions in the world, will grow in parallel to the development of the green hydrogen economy or even more so, prevent it from becoming a reality.
Green hydrogen potential and water management in Namibia
The latter is no different for the country that is considered the champion for green hydrogen export to Germany, Namibia. Located in the southwest region of the African continent, with a vast access to coastlines, Namibia is a focal point in the German international hydrogen strategy. With its high renewable energy potentials, it is estimated that green hydrogen could be produced in Namibia as low as €1.50 to €2 euros per kilogram of hydrogen. The latter is backed by high solar potentials with estimations of 2200 to 2400 kWh per square meter. While the wind potentials are not as prominent as the solar ones, in the south coast region around the area of Lüderitz more than 2000 MWh per MW of installed wind power could be reached yearly (GIZ, 2022).
While the access to potable water in Namibia is high, ranging from 87 to 99% of the population, the fast expansion of water use in Namibia is putting pressure on the country’s general water resources; with an expected increase of demand from 334 million cubic meters per year by 2025 and the aridity of Namibia’s climate, the country’s water stress levels are on the rise. Further, it must be highlighted that all rivers in the interior of Namibia are ephemeral (Republic of Namibia, 2022), meaning that not only the availability of potable water but also the development of a green hydrogen economy in the country depend highly on the desalination of sea water available in the country’s coastline (Dechema, 2023).
However, desalination and projects along Namibian coastline in general pose big challenges of their own. Firstly, the high hydrogen sulfide (H2S) contents in Namibian sea water prevents a good performance of desalination plants, and secondly the fishing industry, which is the third largest economic sector in the country, could potentially be damaged by desalination processes (Dechema, 2023). Moreover, research on electrolysis technologies for the direct splitting of salt water into hydrogen and oxygen also show that the presence of microplastics in the sea can bring difficulties in the desalination process and such issues are hard to address as the conditions of water are highly dependent on local conditions (TU Berlin, 2023).
Furthermore, the current policies guiding the water management in Namibia are outdated with one of the latest polices on the matter being “The Water Act” from 2013, while the old “Water Act” from 1956 is still in use (Republic of Namibia, 2022). These documents do not address the matter of water use for green hydrogen production, especially for the high quantities expected in the country. It is important to note that the first build up stage of the widely known “Hyphen” project is expected to be producing hydrogen by 2026 and by the end of the decade the entire plant is set to be completed with an expected production of 300 thousand tons of green hydrogen and/or ammonia (GIZ, 2022). The fact that such a project is expected to deliver results in as little as three years from now, indicates an urgency to advance policies that address current and future issues with regards to water management and sustainability.
Collaboration and knowledge transfer in this matter would be highly valuable for Namibia. In this regard, the German-Namibian Hydrogen Partnership could bring great results. As part of the German Federal Ministry of Education and research (BMBF for its abbreviation in German) funded project, the hydrogen partnership between Germany and Namibia was set in August 2021, counting with up to 40 million euros with the objectives of exploring the potential of the green hydrogen industry in Namibia with an especial emphasis on innovative seawater desalination technologies. Moreover, the partnership also aims at training skilled professionals in Namibia and exchange expert knowledge by way of promoting exchange programmes for students and experts as well as providing scholarships for Namibian students (BMBF, 2021).
Such partnerships have the potential to advance a high skill hydrogen industry in Namibia while also exchange knowledge on innovative technologies for more efficient and sustainable water management and seawater desalination. However, international partnerships for the development of the green hydrogen economy need to place more emphasis on water management, especially in regions where water stress is already an issue. Thus, water management could be a great opportunity area for the German-Namibian hydrogen partnership as well as in the projects and discussions ahead.
Green hydrogen exports and water usage: way forward
As discussed in the sections above, water stress is a pressing issue in the global energy transition. This becomes more prominent when looking into the future of the green hydrogen economy where water is a sine qua non element for its achievement. While water stress varies across regions in the world and depends highly on geographical conditions, it is also very dependent on policy and governance. As seen in the case of Kazakhstan and Namibia these are two examples of countries that have high potentials for becoming green hydrogen exporters. Yet these countries are lacking policy and regulatory frameworks for addressing water usage in the production of green hydrogen. Moreover, both regions are already facing water constraints even before the green hydrogen scale up has taken off but have already big hydrogen production and export projects to Europe and Germany.
The latter signals an urgency to advance policies that address water management issues in the hydrogen production swiftly and systematically to ensure not only the operation of the projects that are already in construction, but to safeguard the populations of the countries at stake and guarantee a more sustainable energy transition. Such policies do not have to be about “reinventing the wheel” but about creating more consciousness of the resources in our planet and the issues we are already facing. These issues need to be addressed in such a way that societies can benefit from the development of the new technologies (like green hydrogen and the whole umbrella of technologies that accompany it) and even the smallest communities can be better off.
In this vein, it is highly relevant that water usage is addressed in the dialogue between Germany and potential hydrogen trade partners like Kazakhstan and Namibia. As discovered throughout the findings of this roundtable, the usage of water is still an overlooked matter in the hydrogen dialogues between Germany and potential partner countries but also around the world, both at the national as well as at the international level.
Moreover, water scarcity is not only an issue to consider in the production of green hydrogen but in the energy transition as a whole. Water scarcity alone can be a decisive element in the energy transition as it can limit conventional energy systems as the affectations of climate change become more prominent and higher quantities of electricity (RUB, 2023) and goods must be produced. In this vein, even the competition between water and energy is a local and a global challenge (RUB, 2023), which needs to be addressed as soon as possible to enable the energy transition around the globe.
Undoubtedly the challenges we are facing to achieve a more sustainable energy transition are becoming more pressing every day. While the technological developments are bringing a wide variety of solutions that we can harness and that can provide more resilience, there is still a prominent lack of policy and regulatory measures for water management. Water is a critical resource, the precondition of life itself, and the element without which the energy transition can simply not become a reality.
Almudena Nunez is a Research Associate at the Research Institute for Sustainability (RIFS Potsdam) at the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam in the research group "Geopolitics of Transitions in Energy and Industry" where her research focuses on the policy and regulatory aspects of the global potentials for the production and export of green hydrogen as part of the Global Hydrogen Potential Atlas project (HyPat). She holds a bachelor’s degree on International Relations with a specialization on Business and International Finances from Anahuac University in Mexico, her home country, and a Master’s degree in Public Policy with specialization on International Political Economy and European Public Policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Germany.
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