Global potentials bundled in new atlas for the first time
Great hopes rest on synthetic fuels produced with green hydrogen. They are to replace fossil energies in industry, transport and other areas: Power-to-X is considered a key technology. But where could the CO2-neutral fuels be produced sustainably, at what cost and in what quantity - and what are the costs of exporting them? This is now presented in detail in the first global PtX atlas by the Fraunhofer Institute for Energy Economics and Energy System Technology (IEE).
Many regions of the world offer good conditions for the production of green hydrogen as well as regeneratively generated synthetic fuels. The Power-to-X Atlas shows in detail how large the respective potentials are. The evaluation of the technical and economic potential is based on extensive analyses of, for example, land availability and weather conditions. Factors such as local water availability, nature conservation, investment security or transport costs are also taken into account. The PtX Atlas is available online.
In their study, the experts focused on locations outside the European economic area. The PtX Atlas was created as part of the "DeVKopSys" project funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment. The aim of the project is to scientifically investigate development paths in the transport sector that are compatible with the climate policy goals of the German government in feedback with other sectors of the energy system.
"Our atlas shows that in many regions of the world, large quantities of PtX energy carriers can be produced regeneratively and exported in the long term - although there are definitely considerable differences from location to location," says Norman Gerhardt, Head of Energy Economics and Systems Analysis at Fraunhofer IEE, but he qualifies: "Despite the great potential, green hydrogen and green synthetic fuels can only ever be supplementary." Increasing energy efficiency and the direct use of renewable electricity must always be a priority, he says.
"With the atlas, interested parties can, among other things, call up the areas that could be considered for PtX, the full load hours and possible generation quantities that can be achieved there, the respective production costs for the different PtX energy carriers as well as the costs for their transport to Europe," explains Maximilian Pfennig from Fraunhofer IEE, who developed the PtX atlas.
Sufficient quantities for the remaining demand
In their study, the researchers come to the conclusion that in the long term, a total of about 109,000 terawatt hours of liquid green hydrogen and 87,000 terawatt hours of synthetic fuels (power to liquids, or PtL) could be produced outside Europe. However, this total potential could only be partially tapped - for example, because in some places there is insufficient investment security or because the necessary infrastructure is lacking.
Taking these factors into account, the realisable potential is still 69,100 terawatt hours of hydrogen or 57,000 terawatt hours of PtL, according to Fraunhofer IEE. According to forecasts, a total of at least 6,700 terawatt hours would be needed for global aviation by 2050, and 4,500 terawatt hours of PtL for global shipping.
If the available quantities are calculated down to Germany's current share of the world population, 770 terawatt hours of hydrogen or 640 terawatt hours of PtL are available. "That is enough to cover the remaining demand for fuel - provided that energy efficiency and direct electricity use have absolute priority at all times," says Gerhardt.
Transport costs an important factor
When calculating the economic potential of the individual locations, the researchers took into account not only the LCOE of the renewable energies and the efficiency of the PtX processes, but also, among other things, peripheral, storage and transport costs - with the result that locations with good conditions for wind energy and, if possible, also in combination with photovoltaics, have the lowest generation costs. At locations with fewer wind energy resources, on the other hand, the photovoltaic-based PtX generation costs are higher according to the study. For hydrogen in particular, however, depending on the location, the costs of transport to Germany are a decisive factor and partly overcompensate for the differences in location.
The atlas also shows that it is often more cost-effective to produce fuels such as PtL for the European market directly where the green hydrogen is also produced, instead of in Europe on the basis of imported hydrogen. These synthesis products are much cheaper to transport and CO2 can be extracted for further processing at these locations by means of air separation. This is because hydrogen has to be liquefied in order to be transported over long distances - an energy-intensive and thus cost-driving process. In addition, there are evaporation losses of the liquefied gases during transport.
Hydrogen from North African countries?
Which countries and regions are possible export partners for Europe must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Countries with high production potential and favourable socio-economic conditions such as the USA and Australia could supply large quantities of PtX energy carriers. However, if domestic demand is high, a reduced export potential can be assumed, according to the conclusions of the Fraunhofer analyses. Due to the long transport distances, it would also not make economic sense to export green hydrogen from these countries to Europe.
The situation is different for locations closer to home, for example in North Africa: From here, hydrogen could be brought to Europe relatively cheaply by pipeline. In the politically quite stable countries of Morocco and Tunisia, however, only 814 terawatt hours of hydrogen can be produced. With 8,638 terawatt hours, the potential in Egypt, Libya and Algeria is far greater. However, the socio-economic conditions are significantly worse here.
This means that the investment risks are higher, which also increases the financing costs. This reduces the probability that PtX projects will be realised on a large scale there, according to the researchers' assumption.
Beyond developing import options, Europe should also build up its own hydrogen production, the Fraunhofer IEE recommends. The study sees offshore potentials that can be explicitly developed for H2 production at an early stage due to the partial lack of grid connection options. These could efficiently provide the gaseous hydrogen for industrial consumers (e.g. steel industry) or in the energy industry for new gas turbines. The experts also see a higher competitiveness here compared to PtX import prices and recommend prioritising gaseous hydrogen production for reasons of efficiency (transport of hydrogen within Europe via pipeline possible) as well as sourcing PtL rather outside Europe. In the long term, the use of gaseous hydrogen in applications that cannot be electrified offers efficiency advantages over the production of PtG and PtL (steel and fertiliser production, gas-fired power plants and CHP as well as heating plants in industry and district heating).