They’re chasing a very particular vision of a low-carbon future — multibillion dollar developments that generate vast concentrations of renewable electricity and convert it into chemicals or clean fuels that can be shipped around the world to power trucks, ships or even airplanes.
"The oil majors have been building multibillion-dollar projects since forever," said Julien Rolland, head of power and renewables at commodities trader Trafigura Group Pte Ltd. "This green hydrogen, green ammonia stuff will be the new energy industry."
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The plan is well suited to the companies’ natural strengths in project management and their financial heft, but even with those advantages they’re still making a big bet on an unproven technology that could fall short of its potential.
“I don’t think any company out there has developed anything to these kinds of scales,” said Gero Farruggio, head of Australia and global renewables at consultant Rystad A/S.
This month has seen a flurry of big news about hydrogen.
BP Plc is taking the lead in the $36 billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub, a project that aims to install 26 gigawatts of solar and wind farms over a vast 6,500-square-kilometer (2,500 square-mile) stretch of Western Australia’s Pilbara region, and use the electricity generated to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Once fully developed, each year it would produce about 1.6 million tons of green hydrogen or 9 million tons of ammonia, which can be used to make fertilizer.
TotalEnergies SE has joined Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s conglomerate in a venture that has the ambition to invest as much as $50 billion over the next 10 years in green hydrogen. An initial investment of $5 billion will develop 4 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity, about half of which will feed electrolyzers producing hydrogen used to manufacture of ammonia. The venture could expand to 1 million tons of annual green hydrogen production by 2030, driven by 30 gigawatts of clean power.
It's only a matter of time before Shell Plc follows with a megaproject of its own, said Paul Bogers, vice president for hydrogen at the company. Shell is looking for a place where there are sufficient wind and solar resources for a large-scale project that would play to its strengths, he said in an interview on the sidelines of the Financial Times Hydrogen Summit in London.
"The size of these projects isn't something done by a small startup," Bogers said. "It requires deep pockets."
US giant Chevron Corp. is ready to spend billions on a mixture of green and blue hydrogen, which uses a chemical reaction to split natural gas and capture and store the carbon dioxide. Smaller players in the oil market are also getting involved, with Trafigura looking at a number of mid-size green hydrogen projects, such as a 440-megawatt development near Adelaide, Australia.
While the trading house doesn't have the balance sheet of an oil major, it's looking to develop large-scale projects of multiple-gigawatt capacity, including one n South America, and then bring on a larger partner to actually build it, Rolland said.
Lifeline to the Future
The global supermajors still spend the bulk of their money on oil and gas, but are devoting a growing proportion to low-carbon energy. That has included major investments in areas well outside their core business -- offshore wind farms, solar plants, battery technology and electric-car chargers.
“Electrons don't need the type of infrastructure” that the oil majors specialize in, said Meredith Annex, an analyst at BloombergNEF. But hydrogen is a molecule and "these are companies that understand molecules and infrastructure design around molecules.”
Until recently, the majors’ hydrogen plans have been modest. BP is developing an electrolyzer at its Lingen refinery in Germany and its Castellon plant in Spain, making green hydrogen for use in those facilities. Shell started up a 10 megawatt plant producing hydrogen for its Rheinland refinery in Germany last year and already has plans to expand its capacity.
The nature of hydrogen, with its complex processing plants, pressurized pipelines and storage facilities, and the specialized tankers required for distribution, makes it “a lifeline into the future” for Big Oil, said Annex.
There’s another natural synergy for companies that have a long history of seeking the largest concentrations of energy and the biggest markets in the world and finding low-cost ways to connect them.
For green hydrogen “one of the key attributes is having very competitive renewable energy resources,” said Tom Ellacott, a senior vice president at consultant Wood Mackenzie Ltd. BP has gone to Australia because “you've got a lot of sun,” while TotalEnergies is in India because “low-cost ammonia is potentially a very big market.”
While giant projects may be the future of green hydrogen, there's a long way to go before they're proved to be commercially viable, said Pierre-Etienne Franc, chief executive officer of Hy24, a joint venture between asset managers Ardian SAS and FiveT Hydrogen.
"You can't move from 10 megawatt size to gigawatt size just like that,” Franc said. First it will be necessary to build facilities at the scale of hundreds of megawatts -- 10 times the size of pilot projects currently operating in Europe. Those will enhance the operational knowledge and the electrolyzer manufacturing capacity necessary to scale up to the next level, he said.
Rystad estimates that the average size of a green hydrogen electrolyzer is 3 to 4 megawatts. That should increase by 20 times by 2025, leaving a lot of groundwork still to be done for gigawatt-scale developments.
“There’s a long way to go before one of these projects actually starts seeing significant capital investment,” said Farruggio. “It will possibly be a stretch to see this coming in prior to 2030."
That fits with the announced timetables for full expansion of the BP and TotalEnergies’ green hydrogen ventures, and is well within the 2050 deadline for the companies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Large-scale hydrogen, unproven though it may be, could represent the best chance for the current generation of oil majors to remain as key players in a mid-21st century, climate-compatible energy industry.
“At some point, oil and gas will have to start declining to get on that Paris-aligned trajectory,” said Ellacott. Green hydrogen is the best fit for a new low-carbon profit center because it’s “such a big long-term growth market, it's really in the majors' sweet spot in terms of synergies with their existing businesses.''