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From electricity to X – for the climate

In 25 years, Sweden will be climate neutral. To achieve this, the electrification of large parts of industry and the transport sector will be essential. Various technologies used to convert electricity to heating, fuel or chemicals, for example, are collectively referred to as Power-to-X (P2X).  
– “This is a highly topical area,” says Johan Sandstedt, Head of RISE’s Industrial Transition focus area. 

In recent years, electrification has become key in the work towards achieving Sweden’s climate goals, with the country set to become completely climate neutral by 2045. And it is even more crucial for industry and parts of the transport sector. Currently, these sectors account for just over 60 percent of Sweden’s total climate emissions. However, remaining competitive while also reducing emissions constitutes a delicate balancing act, with great hope now being placed internationally in technologies collectively referred to as Power-to-X (P2X). 

What is P2X? The term covers technologies and processes through which electricity is converted into something else. 

– “It involves converting electricity to other forms of energy, which at present have a fossil fuel origin, such as hydrogen, fuel or chemicals,” explains Erik Furusjö, Head of RISE’s Biorefinery and Renewable Fuels focus area. “By replacing processes in which fossil fuels are used today, emissions can be greatly reduced, provided that the electricity is renewable.” 

The road to the green transition

The fact that P2X has become the way forward for the transition to climate neutrality is due to several factors. Our electricity production is becoming increasingly green and electricity prices are also likely to decrease in future, as the technology for converting electricity becomes cheaper and more efficient.  

– “This has been interesting and relevant over the last five to ten years, particularly at a European level,” says Furusjö. “But the interest has now completely exploded, including here in Sweden.”  

Hydrogen has a very broad range of application areas

Hydrogen has great potential

One of the greatest climate and environmental gains can be found in the process for producing green hydrogen from water and electricity through electrolysis. At the initiative and under the direction of Fossil-free Sweden, a hydrogen strategy has been developed between RISE and the industry. The strategy includes proposals as to how government, authorities and industry can collaborate to exploit the potential of hydrogen. The use of hydrogen is widespread in the process industry, where it is mainly produced from fossil fuels. 

– “Hydrogen has a very broad range of application areas within different sectors,” says Sandstedt. Today, it is predominantly used as fuel and as an input raw material within the chemical and refining industries.”  

Hydrogen will also play a central role in the ongoing transition work within the iron and steel industries. The most well-known examples are the investments now being made into fossil fuel-free steel production in northern Sweden by LKAB, SSAB and Hybrit, in which hydrogen is replacing coal in production.  

– “In this case, the blast furnace process is replaced by a process based on direct reduction using green hydrogen,” explains Sandstedt.  

Enables electricity storage

Another factor in favour of hydrogen is that it is a so-called energy carrier. This means that renewable electricity can be converted to hydrogen in the event of large electricity surpluses and can be converted back to electricity again when demand subsequently increases. In other words, hydrogen can help overcome one of the greatest challenges faced by energy companies when it comes to the transition of the electricity system: electricity storage. But it also creates a unique opportunity to interconnect different renewable energy systems. 

– “Many energy companies therefore consider hydrogen to be a crucial energy carrier for a climate-neutral society,” says Sandstedt. “And, for many of them, hydrogen is now one of their prioritised business and innovation areas.”

Renewable fuels and chemicals

Even with the extensive battery electrification of the transport sector, liquid fuels will be needed, especially in aviation and the marine sector. These can be produced from electricity and carbon dioxide using P2X technology and are often referred to as electrofuels.

– “In many countries with less sustainable biomass resources than Sweden, electrofuels are seen as an important large-scale solution for transforming the transport sector,” says Furusjö. “For example, the European Commission’s proposal on new requirements for the aviation sector, called ReFuelEU Aviation, includes requirements for successively incorporating electro-fuels in large volumes.”

The chemical industry also aims to use electricity and carbon dioxide as raw materials. A recent example is Perstorp, which seeks to produce chemicals using this method by producing methanol from electricity, which then becomes an input raw material in their processes.

Unlike other European countries, we are not currently a gas country

Growing demand for electricity

Of course, there is no shortage of challenges. The biggest is that the overall demand for electricity will grow substantially. 

– “We will need exponentially more renewable energy, and this in turn will require a massive expansion of the electricity grid in order to supply more energy and increase output,” says Sandstedt.  

Power shortages are already occurring, particularly in large cities and in southern Sweden. This results in very different conditions for industries with high demand for electricity and for which geographical location affects the transition to becoming climate neutral.  

– “Some experience challenges in obtaining the necessary power for transition. Power shortages in southern Sweden already cause problems during certain parts of the year, but other industries in northern and central Sweden do not experience this issue,” says Sandstedt.  

Supports the UN sustainability goals

7. Affordable and clean energy
9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
13. Climate action

Infrastructure an important puzzle piece

Another important piece of the transition puzzle is to create infrastructure for hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen is mostly produced at the place of use, and road transport is both expensive and creates emissions.  

– “Unlike other European countries, we are not currently a gas country. If we are to succeed and make this more profitable, we need to develop infrastructure for hydrogen. 

Sandstedt believes that such a development must take place in stages, starting from local and regional clusters of large industries and ending up in different parts of the country that can gradually be linked together: 

– “It must be developed gradually, and there is a lot to suggest that we need to build according to cross-sectoral clusters where green hydrogen can be produced and used on a large scale and at competitive prices.”  

The work is extremely broad and takes place on both a large and a small scale

Collaboration across sectoral boundaries

RISE works in several P2X initiatives. These include collaborating with other parties to develop the next generation of fuel cells that can be used to convert hydrogen to electricity and fuel. RISE is also working with electrolysers to produce hydrogen, developing new standards for green hydrogen, and exploring how fossil fuel industrial processes can be integrated and replaced with hydrogen in a cost-effective manner. RISE works with several different sectors and, according to Sandstedt, it is exactly this collaboration across sectoral boundaries that is needed within the P2X area: 

– “Energy companies are working with the industry and transport sector in ways we have not seen before. The work is very broad and takes place on both a large and a small scale.”

Published: 2020-12-11
Erik Furusjö

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Erik Furusjö

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Johan Sandstedt

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