• Ammonia made by fossil fuels accounts for approximately 5% of world's gas consumption.
  • Industry reliance on ammonia necessitates shift to 'green ammonia' – produced using renewable hydrogen.
  • Cross-sector alliances aim to make this 'green hydrogen' a viable alternative to reduce emissions and generate large-scale investment.

Ammonia may not be the antidote to fossil fuels, but it will make a huge contribution to reducing our dependence on them. This article aims to answer some important questions: what is green ammonia; what is the role of hydrogen; what does it mean for food production; and how can it turn shipping green.

With investments, public funding and frameworks, we can cut emissions from energy-intensive sectors, decarbonize food, enable the green hydrogen economy and create a multi-billion-dollar market for green energy.

The world is already completely dependent on ammonia. In fact, half of the world’s food production depends on it as it is a key component of mineral fertilizer. Today, ammonia accounts for about 5% of the world’s gas consumption. If we can make ammonia from renewable energy (green ammonia) profitable, we will help decarbonize food and take a big step towards a hydrogen economy.

But we won’t just decarbonize food with green fertilizer; we will also be able to decarbonize fuel for shipping.

What is green ammonia?

The equation for ammonia looks something like this:

Power (gas or other source) + water (electrolysis) = hydrogen + nitrogen = ammonia

If we swap the gas currently used as a power source to make hydrogen with renewable energy—hydro-electric, solar power or wind turbines—we have the equation for green ammonia.

green ammonia production uses

Fun fact: in Norway, hydro power was the primary source of energy used in ammonia production for decades, up until 1991. This all stopped when the low cost of gas outcompeted other sources of energy. So, we’re actually talking about going back to the future; or rather looking back before moving forward.

Projects powered by renewables

Several big ammonia producers have announced projects to make hydrogen from water using renewable energy. Yara, one of the world’s largest fertilizer and ammonia producers is one of them, with pilots in Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands. Yara also recently announced plans to electrify its ammonia plant in Norway, thereby potentially removing 800,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, provided the required public co-funding and regulatory framework are in place.

CF Industries in the US, Fertiberia and Iberdrola in Spain and the Asian Renewable Energy Hub and Fortescue Metals Group in Australia, amongst others, have started green ammonia pilot programs around the world.

Hydrogen viable at scale

The problem with green ammonia today, is that green energy sources are still far more expensive than gas, and a lot of electricity is needed to make ammonia.

So, the price of renewable energy must decrease. This is possible, if we look at how the existing ammonia market would be opened up to a whole new set of users and thus, buyers. Ammonia has nine times the energy density of Li-ion batteries, and three times that of compressed hydrogen, making it very attractive as a potential carbon-free energy carrier.

With pressure mounting on several industries to reduce emissions, it is not surprising that companies are racing to make green hydrogen (and thus green ammonia) more cost competitive.

The Green Hydrogen Catapult initiative was recently launched, with global companies across different sectors aiming to achieve a 50-fold increase in the production of green hydrogen by 2026. This could cut the current cost of green hydrogen in half, getting it below US$2 per kg, a potential tipping point where green hydrogen could become the energy source of choice.

If the target is reached, it could mean huge emission cuts from energy-intense industries like steel and fertilizer production, from power generation, and perhaps most promisingly, long-range shipping. The private sector is taking a leading role in overcoming the barriers of technology, safety, fuel supply and commercial viability to enable decarbonized shipping.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Decarbonizing food

Globally, the fertilizer industry is responsible for about 1.1% of annual carbon emissions, due to using fossil energy as feedstock (approximately 80% of production uses natural gas, while coal accounts for approximately 15%). Green ammonia is currently the fertilizer industry’s best bet at reducing emissions.

But as prices for green hydrogen and green ammonia continues to be much higher than conventional ammonia, one of two things must happen to produce green fertilizer: either there is a market for more expensive, decarbonized food, or the price of green hydrogen as feedstock in ammonia production comes down.

The future is green

Although the private sector is rushing to produce green hydrogen and green ammonia at scale (to drive down costs) BloombergNEF estimates that the industry will need US$150 billion in subsidies by 2030, and far more overall investment. However, if the hydrogen economy is fully developed, it could become a US$12 trillion market, according to some estimates.

Realizing this, countries and regions are taking the lead in supporting green hydrogen production. Germany has allocated the largest share of its clean energy stimulus funds to green hydrogen, Korea and Japan have both rolled out roadmaps to guide hydrogen-related investments and policy in coming years, and the Middle East (which has the world’s cheapest wind and solar power) is angling to be a major player in green hydrogen.

Green hydrogen and green ammonia are no longer fringe concepts. But it is still an infant industry and history has taught us that such industries need special care and attention, before growing and blooming.