Heralded as the missing puzzle piece within a fully decarbonized economy, the European Commission has determined clean hydrogen is the 21st Century solution to arresting climate change. Published in July, their new Hydrogen Strategy is also a jobs plan and pathway towards unifying the EU around a holistic energy and economic policy. But despite being framed as a green energy program, there’s a growing realization that the transition will be dirtier than expected. For the short term at least, the plan rests heavily on using fossil gas as “a bridge fuel” once again. L. Michael Buchsbaum reports in the first of a series on the evolving hydrogen revolution.
The Next Silver Bullet?
Since the beginning of the transition away from fossil fuels, there have been many promised “silver bullet” technological solutions. At the beginning of the millennium, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) was supposed to bring us clean coal. But 20 years and billions spent, CCS technologies are far from proven, nowhere near at scale, and largely dysfunctional.
More recently, fracked “natural” or fossil gas was being framed as less climate impacting than coal while serving as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future. Now an increasing body of evidence shows that fugitive methane escaping along fossil gas’ production and delivery chain has negated any promised CO2 savings and, due to methane’s greater heat-trapping potential, may have actually increased the rate of climate change.
Nonetheless the European Commission has partnered closely with fossil energy producers to chart us upon a new hydrogen-based pathway towards net-zero carbon across all sectors by 2050. According to the press releases, future green hydrogen will be created using “excess” renewable energy to power electrolyzers, sending current through water to split apart its hydrogen atoms from its oxygen ones (H2O). This renewable H2 will then be captured, stored and shipped clean to end-users downstream. But the vision of renewable H2 is dependent upon the goal of renewable energy itself becoming ubiquitous.
Many energy experts worldwide agree that hydrogen (H2) could be a game changer for the transition to low- and carbon-neutral energy. Hydrogen produces zero emissions when combusted and, theoretically, could be relied upon as an electricity-feedstock to fully displace fossil fuels and decarbonize steelmaking and other heavy industry sectors. Even better, within the overwhelmingly fossil-energy dependent transport sector, hydrogen or hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels and fuel cells could power busses, long-haul trucks, as well as much of the existing European rail and maritime transport networks. Longer term, hydrogen could even decarbonize aviation.
Central to the European Green Deal, itself one of the most ambitious initiatives to ever come out of Brussels, the hydrogen plan calls for the mobilization of at least €1 trillion in public-private investments over the next decade to exponentially expand renewables, H2 production and uptake, and thus ensure the decarbonization of industry.
To get there, the overall hydrogen strategy is broken into three phases of gradual multi-sector development. The main Phase I objective, which stretches through 2024, is to decarbonize existing hydrogen production within the chemical sector, while promoting hydrogen for use in new applications. During this time, producers will install at least 6 Gigawatts of renewables-powered electrolyzers to generate up to one million tons of green hydrogen. During Phase II through 2030, hydrogen will become an intrinsic part of an integrated European energy system, ramping up to at least 40 Gigawatts of installed electrolyzer capacity producing up to ten million tons of renewable hydrogen. Phase III through 2050 sees H2 fully displacing fossil energy across all sectors.
Germany has also developed its own hydrogen strategy, calling for a €7 billion investment in various green hydrogen technologies, as well as a further €2 billion to build up partnerships with other countries (we will detail Germany’s strategy in a future blog).
Trojan horses come in grey or blue too
But tomorrow’s green H2 will be competing directly with today’s “grey” hydrogen. Using fossil gas or coal as a feedstock, grey hydrogen is developed through a steam methane reformation process. With just under 80 million tons being produced annually for existing customers within the chemical, fertilizer and refining industries, grey is the only proven way to produce hydrogen at scale. However the process is both extremely energy intensive and highly polluting. In their “Future of Hydrogen” study, the International Energy Agency estimates that some 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal output is being diverted for grey hydrogen feedstock annually. As a result, producers emitted around 830 million tons of CO2 last year, equivalent to the combined emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.
Nevertheless, encouraged by the Commission, global oil and gas producers like Shell, Chevron, RWE and BP are rushing to ramp up grey hydrogen production as the overall strategy leans heavily, at least initially, upon it to help bridge the gap to green once more.
To accelerate this transition, the European Commission has established the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance under their New Industrial Strategy. Comprised of a who’s who of the fossil gas industry, one of the immediate and questionable tasks of this rogues’ gallery is to midwife the vital “blue” hydrogen sector whereby “grey” H2 has its CO2 stripped out, and then captured and sequestered (CCS). Borrowing a chapter from nuclear energy’s playbook, many companies, including the Norwegian-government owned Equinor, are partnering to develop a massive pipeline network to bury carbon pollution deep underground, forever—supported with troves of taxpayer money.
“Today, 70% of hydrogen production comes from natural gas. If we decarbonize it with CCS, we can create hydrogen value chains and a market that will reduce costs and help integrate hydrogen from renewable electricity,” said François-Régis Mouton, Europe director at the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP).
However, it’s worth pointing out that despite decades of “promising study” and billions of dollars in subsidies, less than 20 CCS operations have actually come to fruition and only a fraction of overall global hydrogen production is attached to any CCS facilities. Moreover these mostly pilot projects are not only themselves incredibly energy intensive but economically uncompetitive. In fact, as of this writing, several flagship CCS operations have been mothballed after suffering chronic mechanical problems and routinely missing their carbon targets.
Recognizing the long-term lifeline the transition offers, the oil and gas industry has become one of green hydrogen’s biggest cheerleaders. They are banking on hydrogen’s green potential to grant them immediate entree into new markets dependent upon existing gas production, transport and storage facilities.
“The gas lobby has massive influence on the EU hydrogen strategy,” said German Greens MEP Michael Bloss to EURACTIV. “While the Commission makes it clear that clean hydrogen must come from renewable energies, it still wants to invest in fossil hydrogen. This means that money is being sunk into a fossil billion-euro grave,” Bloss warned.
Case in point, RWE, already Europe’s worst polluter, is leveraging the hydrogen push to steer government subsidies towards construction of its controversial Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Brunsbüttel, Germany. Initially envisioned as the nation’s primary entry point for fracked US fossil gas, the company’s commitment to support clean hydrogen, claims Rolf Brouwer, Managing Director of German LNG Terminal GmbH, “proves the strategic importance of the site and project.”
Though promising, without transparency and citizen oversight, a corporate directed European green hydrogen plan could quickly devolve into a conversation between two wolves and a sheep about what’s for dinner: planet Earth.