7 July 2020
By Adam Vaughan
Hydrogen is back. On 8 July, the European Commission will announce a new strategy to turn the universe’s most abundant element into a way “for the EU to achieve a higher climate ambition”.
Past grand visions of a “hydrogen economy” have failed to be realised, so the European Union is now taking a more targeted approach, pitching hydrogen as a crucial way to clean up industries that are hard to decarbonise, such as steel-making. Hydrogen trucks, trains and even ships could drive demand too, according to a recent draft of the commission’s hydrogen strategy seen by New Scientist.
There is just one big problem. While the plan notes that using hydrogen doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, it also acknowledges that most of its production today is filthy. Globally, around 96 per cent of hydrogen is made from fossil fuels via a process known as steam methane reforming. Even much of the the remaining 4 per cent produced using water and electrolysers is powered by coal and gas power stations. The figures are similar in Europe, which makes about 10 million tonnes of hydrogen a year.
That is why the strategy demands targets on what it calls “renewable hydrogen”, produced using electrolysers powered by renewable sources of electricity. It wants 4 gigawatts of electrolyser capacity by 2024, rising to 40 gigawatts by 2030, up from less than 1 gigawatt today.
Most think that is a lot, though opinions differ. “Is it ambitious? Yes,” says Matthias Deutsch at think tank Agora Energiewende in Germany. The 2024 target would be an “ambitious endeavour” while the 2030 one would be “monumental”, says Kobad Bhavnagri at research organisation BloombergNEF. The later goal is also precisely what many hydrogen lobbyists have called for.
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However, Mike Parr at energy consultancy PWR, who is setting up a lobbying group for renewable hydrogen, calls the targets “pathetic”. He argues there is plenty of unused energy supply for much more, especially given the drop in electricity demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The strategy, like Germany’s own hydrogen plan that was agreed last month, prioritises renewable hydrogen, often called green hydrogen. To the dismay of environmentalists, it also includes backing for blue hydrogen, made using fossil fuels, but with technology to capture and store the carbon. The step “risks handing a new lifeline to the failing fossil fuel industry”, according to Tara Connolly at Friends of the Earth Europe.
But some energy experts think it is right to include blue hydrogen because of the sheer amount of low-carbon hydrogen needed and the relatively high cost of electrolysers today. “If we want to reach scale, probably it will be inevitable. Otherwise it will be very costly,” says Evangelos Gazis at Aurora Energy Research in the UK.
Even if Europe can build the electrolysers – most major European countries do have a big domestic electrolyser manufacturer, such as ITM Power in the UK – there is the question of whether there will be enough wind farms and solar panels to power them. “You always have to deliver the renewables if you really want a lot of green hydrogen,” says Deutsch.
The EU is also launching the Clean Hydrogen Alliance to unite countries, regions, industry and other organisations in making the strategy a reality. However, Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment is concerned that while there are fossil fuel firms such as Shell on the governing board, there are currently no non-profit organisations.
Will the plan deliver on the hydrogen hype this time round? Deutsch says the strategy is heading in the right direction and could succeed, given that the focus on cleaning up industry is new this time and unlikely to go away because of climate change. Whether it will work depends on policy and how it is implemented, though, he cautions. Done right, it could even “make the EU the world leader in hydrogen”, says Bhavnagri.
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