Greece Takes Hydrogen Leap

Local hydrogen-producing plant puts country on energy research map and may end dependence on Mideast oil

By Sophia Spirou, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

IN A BID to challenge the Middle East's control over the world's energy supply, the US and UK have boosted support for hydrogen as the fuel of the future. In Greece, the first unit to produce hydrogen from renewable energy is set to start its engines in 2006.

Undertaken by semi-private institute Centre for Renewable Energy Sources (CRES), the Lavrio hydrogen-producing plant is estimated at costing about 300,000 euros. The plant will be one of the two the largest in Europe (the other being in the Canaries in Spain), producing hydrogen from wind power.

Produced by water and solar energy, and boasting inexhaustible reserves, environment-friendly hydrogen seems to be the obvious way of the future. Yet it has a stale whiff in scientists' labs, where "everyone has seen hydrogen coming for the past 20 years", says Dr Panagiotis Chaviaropoulos, research and development manager of CRES.

Local experts talk hydrogen

The technology needed to transform hydrogen into energy is the fuel cell, a sort of battery charged with hydrogen. "The fuel cell is to hydrogen what the internal combustion engine is to petrol," says Dr Elli Varkaraki, hydrogen expert at CRES.

CRES agreed in January 2002, to build a hydrogen-producing plant in Lavrio, southeastern Attica. "Hydrogen is only found in traces in its pure form on earth," explains Varkaraki, "so we use chemical reactions to extract it from water, natural gas or biomass, to name but a few of its sources."

The Lavrio site is host to a park of five wind turbines. Wind-generated electricity will run through water to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, a technology known for some 200 years. But hydrogen's strategic advantage compared to other forms of fuel is that it's easy to produce and inexhaustible.

"The universe will run out of water before it runs out of other hydrogen sources," says Varkaraki. To small countries like Greece that depend on foreign oil by 90 percent, hydrogen gives a chance to gain some independence.

In a hydrogen world...

In a hydrogen world, factories and cars puff out water clouds instead of deadly fumes. "Hydrogen produced in Lavrio will be 100 percent noxious-free," Dr Chaviaropoulos explains. Its only byproduct is water vapour - the most innocuous substance.

The potential uses of hydrogen in everyday life are vast. "We are at the dawn of an energy transformation as significant as when we moved from coal to oil and oil to gas," says Dr Chaviaropoulos. "Hydrogen will be used to run anything from an aeroplane to a cellular phone." Anything that runs on electricity can run on hydrogen too.

The key technology that makes moving from hydrogen to electricity possible is the fuel cell. Put simply, the fuel cell is a renewable battery fed hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, re-emitting water into the atmosphere.

"Hydrogen produced in Lavrio would, if distributed, be sufficient to meet the needs of 15 households," Chaviaropoulos says. However, the small-scale production will be put to research use.

Hype or hope?

Chaviaropoulos warns, however, that "hydrogen will not save us from climate change". Despite its many qualities, hydrogen will not be introduced in time to arrest global warming. The reason? Full-scale energy production is still too expensive.

At present, the largest buyer of hydrogen is the aerospace industry. Hydrogen provides all the electricity on board on space-shuttles.

The car industry is also pouring large amounts of money into hydrogen research, but it could find itself deeper than it expected. Reducing costs of hydrogen and fuel cell production are central to the car business. With a unit production cost of $1 million, hydrogen cars are a car-show attraction more than anything else.

Independent Austrian think-tank International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis sees the beginning of the hydrogen era at around 2050. By that time, cheap oil and coal will have almost run out, but natural gas, they say, and not hydrogen will become the main world fuel.

As natural gas and hydrogen gas can be mixed to obtain a better fuel, the share of hydrogen will keep increasing in the energy mix. By the end of this century, and depending on technological and political factors, cheap hydrogen produced from biomass, solar and other renewables will become the world's hard energy currency.

Greece still in the oil era

The planned hydrogen unit in Lavrio is a leap for the country, securing a place for Greece on the energy research map. But managing to unlock itself from the fossil fuel regime will be a totally different story.

Numbers speak louder than words when it comes to oil. The share of oil in the economy is massive, accounting for 65 percent of all energy use. Demand for oil has been rising, driven mainly by transport.

"Motor fuel is the largest single force behind an increasing oil demand in Greece," energy analyst Nikos Kommitopoulos of Hellenic Petroleum, the biggest oil retailer, told the Athens News.

"Although industry is switching to natural gas, the increase in car use more than compensates for the loss in demand for oil," he says.

Greek investor confidence in oil is anything but dwindling. With Hellenic Petroleum's completed $100 million Thessaloniki-Skopje oil pipeline, and the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline, Greece is turning into a strategic energy hub between Central Asia, the Balkans and Western Europe. For every euro invested in the Lavrio hydrogen unit, about 450 euros have been invested year in year out in oil in Greece over the last decade.

The chances for hydrogen, however, look good, given EU funding. Between 1999 and 2001, 20 million euros were poured into hydrogen storage and handling research, and another 30 million euros into fuel cell technology.