The National Green Hydrogen Mission adopted by the Indian government in January is a major policy initiative, and it is a sign of the poverty of Indian politics that it remains so election-obsessed that has not been subjected to the public debate it deserves.
The absence of any critical evaluation by India’s opposition parties of this initiative, which has major implications for India’s development path, is staggering.
The Indian government is poised to offer energy companies subsidies to set up hydrogen “hubs” – but how this fits with climate policy and social justice goals remains unexplained.
There will also be money for manufacturing electrolysers, needed to make “green” hydrogen, and subsidies for fertiliser and steel makers to buy it.
But the Hydrogen Mission has been surrounded by hype that raises unjustified expectations.
Prabhat Kumar, an external affairs ministry official, claimed recently that hydrogen could be “our main source of energy in future”. But that will never happen.
Even if the government meets its ambitious target of producing 10 million tonnes of “green” hydrogen each year, that would still only provide about one-fifteenth of the energy that India gets from coal.
The very idea that India will become a major exporter of hydrogen, which runs through all the government’s documents, is questionable.
India may need 6 million tonnes/year of “green” hydrogen to displace the “grey” hydrogen it uses now, for fertiliser manufacture and in oil refineries.
Given the climate emergency our planet earth is facing, with accelerating global heating and devastating biodiversity loss, any initiative by a government which proclaims its aim as “greening the economy” deserves critical examination for both its importance and limitations.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s announcement, on India’s 75th Independence Day, of the government’s plan to launch a National Hydrogen Mission is one such initiative by an emerging economic power in the global economy.
Its stated purpose was to make India a production and export hub for green hydrogen. This is also believed to be linked to India’s aim to reduce its reliance on oil from Russia and the Middle East which has come into the limelight during the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
That hydrogen is a problematic green energy resource as an alternative to fossil fuels is not generally recognised. This obfuscation characterises Indian government’s “green” hydrogen mission too.
Different types of hydrogen
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but for commercial use on earth it is produced either (i) from fossil gas, usually by steam reformation, or (ii) by the electrolysis of water. Electrolysis technology splits the hydrogen from oxygen in water.
More than 98% of hydrogen used commercially is “grey” – produced from gas. Left-over carbon is joined with oxygen and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Global hydrogen production’s carbon footprint is about four-fifths the size of the aviation sector’s.