EU countries clash over scale of future hydrogen imports

EU states on a collision course over the role of hydrogen imports revealed by states declaring their positions during the Energy Council on 11 June. [Photo: EU]

The EU has historically been a major energy importer, with a majority of its oil and gas coming from Russia or the Middle East. Now, as Europe decarbonises its industry, some countries fear it could increasingly become dependent on imported hydrogen.

Energy ministers from the 27 EU member states exchanged views on the bloc’s proposed hydrogen strategy and pathways towards net-zero during a meeting of the Energy Council on Friday (11 June). 

The meeting in Luxembourg saw EU states report on their national hydrogen strategies and clarify their positions ahead of upcoming decisions on the EU’s legal framework for hydrogen, due to be tabled later this year.

At Friday’s meeting, the ministers of Estonia, France, Hungary and Poland all spoke out clearly against hydrogen imports, saying the priority should be to produce hydrogen in Europe. 

“Our strategy should be linked to innovation and deployment of industrial capacity in Europe, not based on imports from third countries,” said Barbara Pompili, the French minister for the ecological transition.

“We should be rather cautious about extending cooperation outside the EU or the EEA. I think it is crucial that we develop a strong European industry around hydrogen,” said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, Poland’s deputy state secretary at the ministry of climate and environment. 

“Entering new geopolitical or technological dependencies should be avoided,” added Attila Steiner, Hungary’s minister of state for EU affairs, a sentiment echoed by Estonian Economy Minister Taavi Aas.

The anti-import countries are backed by Europe’s solar and wind industry, which are hoping to boost the continent’s domestic capacity for hydrogen production from renewable energy sources. 

“Since we are currently importing oil, gas and coal as raw materials, why does this pattern need to continue with hydrogen? Well, it doesn’t,” says Luc Grare, from French hydrogen producer Lhyfe, who leads one of the industry roundtables at the EU’s Clean Hydrogen Alliance.

Europe cannot simply rely on third countries for its green hydrogen

One thing COVID-19 has made clear is that Europe needs to be more self-sufficient. However, policymakers are looking to Africa and even further abroad for their renewable hydrogen, despite the potential pitfalls of such a plan, writes Luc Grare.

The pro-importers

Last year, the European Commission put forward a hydrogen strategy, saying the EU should ramp up its electrolyser capacity to aim for 100% green hydrogen production from renewable energy. 

It also underlined the need to scale up international trade in hydrogen, citing the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours as potential exporters of clean hydrogen to Europe. Countries such as Ukraine, Morocco and Algeria are seen as potential producers of clean hydrogen in the future due to their extensive solar or wind resources.

While France spoke out against hydrogen imports, Germany leads the bloc of countries seeking to import hydrogen from outside Europe. On Sunday (13 June), Berlin signed a declaration of intent for a hydrogen alliance with Australia. 

“We need [import] partnerships to supply the EU,” Germany’s Andreas Feicht, state secretary at the federal economy and energy ministry, told the Energy Council meeting. 

The Germany-Australia agreement spells out co-funding for research, and lays the foundation for Australian hydrogen exports to Germany, following a preliminary deal announced in September 2020.

“There is simply not enough space in Germany for renewables to produce the amount of green hydrogen” that is needed to decarbonise the country’s economy, said Dr Hinrich Thölken, deputy director-general for energy and climate policy at the German Federal Foreign Office. “So we will have to import large quantities and are currently looking for partners across the globe,” he told a webinar last year, organised by the Australian ambassador to Germany.

Hydrogen trade hopes boosted by Australia-Germany deal

A bilateral agreement aimed at increasing German imports of hydrogen produced from solar power plants in Australia could set a milestone in efforts to establish a global hydrogen market.

The group of EU states seeking to increase hydrogen imports also tends to harbour some of the continent’s busiest ports. 

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Germany have all signalled their intention to champion the import of green hydrogen from countries with capacity to produce it in large quantities. 

“We can ship the sunshine,” said Tinne van der Straeten, Belgium’s minister of energy.

In January, the Port of Antwerp located in Belgium’s Flanders region announced the formation of a consortium aiming to establish a full renewable hydrogen import value chain in Belgium by the end of the decade.

Belgian port lays out plans for 'massive' imports of green hydrogen

The Port of Antwerp has partnered with energy utility Engie and five other entities in a consortium aiming to establish a full renewable hydrogen import value chain in Belgium by the end of the decade.

The pro-import camp is also backed by heavy industry. The steel industry in particular is hungry for hydrogen, and proclaims its ability to cut 26 tonnes of CO2 emissions for every tonne of hydrogen used.

It is unlikely that either side will win the argument though, as the EU usually aims for compromise. But the pro-import side can certainly count on Europe’s attachment to free and open markets among its strengths.

In November 2020, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson announced the European Commission’s intention to install the euro as the reference currency for trading hydrogen. 

“What we are proposing is a global rules-based market for hydrogen and, at the heart of that market, harmonised safety and environmental standards,” Simson said.

EU Commission backs global hydrogen market with euro as its key currency

Europe wants to install the euro as the reference currency for trading hydrogen, but a global market with harmonised standards needs to be put in place first in order to meet demand, the EU’s energy commissioner said on Thursday (26 November).

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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