By Dr. Lorraine Sobers
News Americas, PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Weds. Nov. 29, 2023: There are two types of people: those who accept and adopt new technology before it becomes mainstream and those who wait for the hype to die down. The energy sector has its fair share of hype and buzzwords. New technology, born out of years of quiet research and development, can suddenly burst onto the scene at press conferences and market predictions. Venture capitalist, investors, and overnight experts hop on to the hype train seeking that first mover advantage.
Hydrogen fuel is now the current shiny object that is captivating the attention across the Caribbean region. Hydrogen and its promise to transform transportation and energy is being held up as the replacement for fossil fuels. Recently, the Biden Administration announced that it will invest USD 7 billion for “America’s first clean hydrogen hubs, driving clean manufacturing and delivering new economic opportunities nationwide”
Hydrogen could mean big money for Guyana. Deloitte has estimated that demand for global hydrogen will grow six-fold by 2050 making the market for green hydrogen to be worth USD 1.4 trillion supporting 2 million jobs annually worldwide.
At this stage, it is fair to ask, should hydrogen fuel form part of Guyana’s low carbon development strategy? As always, a needle point balance of knowledge and proactivity is needed to avoid buying into empty hype. Whether Guyana undertakes hydrogen production depends on priority for gas usage, alignment with the policy for low carbon development, market conditions and of course profitability. Before I delve into the business end of the hydrogen industry, allow me to first address the foundational elements needed for Guyana’s best interests in hydrogen and in the oil and gas space – safe operations, public awareness and local content.
The idea of using hydrogen as fuel is not new. Green hydrogen, that is hydrogen produced using renewable energy, can be used to generate energy without carbon emissions. Hydrogen generated from natural gas paired with CO2 sequestration is known as blue hydrogen. It is possible that Guyana’s offshore gas brought to shore can be put to this use and remain carbon neutral. Cleaner burning natural gas is already a key part of Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy—hydrogen could open up yet another avenue for sustainable use of gas.
Although existing technology for hydrogen fuel needs some modifications to be adapted for large scale present-day application, it promises to replace bunker fuel and natural gas in several applications. Safety concerns about storing and using large volumes of hydrogen come from a knowledge of chemistry and history. Hydrogen is flammable, burning with a near invisible flame, and is much lighter than air. In practice this means that a leak of hydrogen will quickly dissipate but special flame detectors will be needed to detect a hydrogen flame. Hydrogen is non-toxic, unlike most fuels commonly used, but it has a lower ignition energy, that is, it ignites more easily, than gasoline or natural gas.
In the case of the latter, we must pause to recall the Hindenburg disaster. The Hindenburg was a German, hydrogen-fueled blimp which caught fire and failed catastrophically early in its life. The precise cause of the tragedy is unknown. What we know for sure is that the inferno claimed 37 human lives. Public trust in blimps never truly recovered.
It is not uncommon for unfamiliar technologies to be treated with public hesitation and anxiety. Additionally, the excitement of new technological opportunities and the noise of different voices advancing their agendas can cloud decision making. Fear of change and new technology can slow progress, but public awareness and consultations can be used to ensure that all valid concerns are heard and addressed.
Industry regulations and standards are not generally intended to obstruct newcomers, but rather to prevent repeats of past calamities. The first step in adopting new technology is a mindset of operating with regard to health, safety and the environment (HSE). In the early days of many industry repercussions are poorly understood. These misunderstandings often lead to costly negative outcomes. So costly are these outcomes that even the most oblivious and profit motivated actors stop and take stock.
The instructions on how to avoid tragedies, wastage and pollution are called ‘best practices’. When the State enforces best practices, they become regulations for industrial applications. Guyana will need to assess, adapt and adopt the best practices of the industry with mechanisms for enforcement to ensure safe operations. Despite Guyana’s nascent arrival in the oil and gas industry, the maturity of that global industry has paved the way for lower HSE risk than there was 50, 70 or 100 years ago. Guyana is well positioned to capitalize on regulations, best practices and policies established in other jurisdictions. In this sense Guyana has the last mover advantage. It will be some time before anyone can boast a similar level of expertise with hydrogen.
This leads to a critical element of adopting new technology: public awareness. Public perception can make or break the plans for implementing new technology. Bad press, misinformation, protest, sabotage and violence leading to the withdrawal of investors represents the worse-case scenario. No one will be well served by such an outcome. Early involvement, education and collaboration with the public is needed at the outset. It is not enough to have a low carbon output, fiscal and legal frameworks in place, funding and feasibility studies.
With the rapid expansion through foreign direct investment, the Guyanese population must get accustomed to regular participation in stakeholder meetings and responding to calls for comments on plans and strategies. It is not far-fetched to inculcate this form of progressive, not obstructionist, civic mindedness at the primary and secondary school level. Significant spending and effort must be channeled to all forms of media to reach citizens throughout the physical and socio-economic landscape.
Going a step further than public awareness is equipping the labor force with the education and training in the operation and maintenance of heavy industry. The intricacies of hydrogen production, storage, and transportation have grabbed current global attention. If Guyana gets their youth well educated in STEM, their position as the last mover strengthens even further. I have advocated for such education in previous articles, but it is worth reiterating that Guyanas’s youth need a strong foundation in Mathematics and English to access the opportunities afforded through new and existing technologies.
Many of the same best practices apply to hydrogen and the oil and gas business already booming in Guyana: developing a robust safety culture, public awareness, and technical capacity building in Guyana. In my next article I will discuss adoption of hydrogen fuel technology in the context of 1) priority for gas usage, 2) alignment with the policy for low carbon development, 3)market conditions and of course, 4) profitability for Guyana.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Lorraine Sobers is a Fulbright Scholar currently lecturing at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. Dr Sobers has a BS in Chemical Engineering and postgraduate degrees, MS and Ph.D., in Petroleum Engineering from Texas Tech and Imperial College, London respectively. She has 20 years’ experience in the energy sector specializing in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Dr Sobers is a Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium.