The dream of a carbon-free fuel is driving an investment boom in hydrogen and ammonia projects. Japan, for example, has pledged to reduce its emissions in line with the Paris Agreement by 2050, and plans to generate 10% of its energy needs using hydrogen and ammonia by then. Japan is attracted to the possibility of using these fuels for electricity generation. Japan is an island nation with limited land for solar and wind farms. It also has deep waters, making it difficult to import electricity via cables. Meanwhile, the 2011 earthquake that caused a nuclear plant meltdown in Japan forced a turn away from nuclear energy. According to the World Bank, Japan is the fifth-largest emitter greenhouse gases. It currently relies on oil and gas to power its economy.
On Jan. 7, JERA, Japan’s largest power company and producer of more than 10% (pdf, p. 16) of the country’s emissions, announced that it would spend nearly $600 million to develop ammonia technologies, with 70% of the money coming from the government’s climate innovation fund. Hydrogen is a gas that emits water vapor and warm oxygen when it’s burned. The made from hydrogen ,, but it is also denser, easier to transport, and emits no carbon during combustion. It does emit nitrous oxide (more familiarly encountered as laughing gas) a greenhouse gas 298 times more powerful than CO2, though these emissions can be captured before they’re released into the air. But ammonia’s green sheen might not translate into a better way for Japan to produce electricity.
Is Japan spending big on greenwashing?
Two demonstration projects, which will scoop up $392 million of the funding from JERA and the Japanese government, plan to convert existing coal-fired power plants to using a combination of ammonia and coal, aiming for a 50% split between the two fuels by 2029.
In a post on LinkedIn, Paul Martin, a co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, which aims to inform public investments, called the ammonia-coal projects “wasteful greenwashing” that will squander the energy that goes into producing ammonia. Martin has been sounding the alarm about the hype around hydrogen as a fuel as more industries buy into the idea of a hydrogen economy that will make carbon emissions vanish for industries as wide-ranging as steel, aviation, and two-wheeled vehicles.
” While ammonia can be used as a fuel, its use in stationary applications such as power plants is not recommended. It could be used as a cofeed for inefficient coal plants. That’s just crazy.”
According to Recharge, a trade publication for the renewable energy industry, it takes 14. 38 megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy to produce one metric ton of green ammonia. That ton of green ammonia is produced at 5. 16 MWh of electricity for consumption–a third of what it took to make it. The amount of electricity you can get from a coal-fired power plant is only 0.3 MWh. 96 MWh, “making it an incredibly inefficient method to produce electricity,” writes Recharge.
JERA declined comment on Recharge’s calculations. However, Atsuo Sawaki, a spokesperson for JERA said that, “The thermal power generation plants that JERA aims to introduce ammonia are highly efficient, and JERA believes that the power generation efficiency will not be lowered by ammonia co-firing.”
Sawaki adds that the project is not greenwashing because JERA intends to use blue ammonia in the coal plants.
What is blue ammonia fuel?
At present, producing ammonia, which is mostly used for fertilizer, is an energy-intensive process that contributes heavily to global emissions. This is “grey,” ammonia, which is made from hydrogen produced using fossil fuels. That is why scientists and engineers are first looking at ammonia’s potential as a carrier for other zero-emissions fuels, such as hydrogen, or for specific uses such as shipping–rather than using it as a fuel at the kind of scale that power plants would require.
For one plant where it’s already carried out a demo, JERA is expecting to have to source about 40,000 metric tons of ammonia in the next four years. The Japan Times estimated that if all of the country’s power plants were to shift to ammonia for 20% of their needs, Japan would require 20 million tons of ammonia–about 20 times what the country uses now. Japan presently imports about 20% of its ammonia, currently made from fossil fuels, from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is also looking at sourcing blue ammonia from Saudi Arabia for power generation.
Blue ammonia is made with the same process as grey ammonia, with hydrogen made fr