Hydrogen will be ‘pivotal element’ in future economy, says EU climate chief

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans at a meeting with the European Parliament's environment committee [Ola Fras / European Union 2022 - EP]

Hydrogen will be essential for Europe’s future economy, particularly to store and transport green energy, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament on Thursday (28 April).

“I strongly believe in green hydrogen as the driving force of our energy system of the future,” said Timmermans in a meeting with the environment committee of the European Parliament on Thursday (28 April).

“Hydrogen is going to be a pivotal element in our economy of the future,” he added in a discussion that covered the impact of the war in Ukraine, the state of play with Europe’s new climate legislation and food security.

Strategic alliances

The meeting came in the wake of Russia cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and as the EU tries to break away from using Russian fossil fuels.

In the interim, this means Europe will need more liquified natural gas (LNG) and pipeline gas from other partners, said Timmermans. This should come from as many different supplier countries as possible so the EU does not become overly dependent on one, he added.

One problem with this, however, is that many suppliers are looking for long term contracts for fossil gas, but see that Europe’s demand will likely decrease as it decarbonises and looks to renewables.

So the European Commission is offering long term partnerships that would start with a supply of LNG and “end up in the hydrogen economy”, according to Timmermans.

“Is this a lock-in into LNG? Not if we offer long term cooperation projects moving towards hydrogen,” he explained.

Timmermans envisions a hydrogen economy around the Mediterranean, where every country is dependent on the others and each has “a stake in this production, distribution, utilisation of green hydrogen”.

“This is the future,” said Timmermans. “This is how you also create more stability in the geopolitical system. This is how you offer an enormous opportunity for the development of Africa.”

EU aims to make Africa a world champion in hydrogen exports

Europe wants to get out of fossil fuels and build a hydrogen economy. Without enough internal supplies, it is looking to import large quantities of hydrogen from countries in the Global South. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Already the EU is looking beyond its borders when it comes to future supplies of renewable hydrogen. Germany in particular is trying to build up partnerships with countries like Australia and those situated in North Africa.

According to Timmermans, while Europe has “complicated relations” with countries like Egypt and Turkey, these countries are going to be producing renewable energy “in quantities way beyond their own needs”.

The ideal, he said, would be to transport renewable electricity via a cable from Europe’s partners into the EU, but where this is not possible, the energy could be stored in hydrogen or ammonia and transported to Europe.

This would also provide more green hydrogen to the EU to help decarbonise hard to electrify sectors, including aviation and heavy industry.

Europe is “never going to be capable to produce its own hydrogen in sufficient quantities,” said Timmermans.

He added that green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy, is the European Commission’s preferred option, but blue hydrogen, produced from fossil gas with carbon capture and storage to tackle the emissions, would also be a temporary option.

EU countries clash over scale of future hydrogen imports

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.

Innovation

Timmermans also warned lawmakers that Europe’s energy system will have to adapt to allow the influx of renewables and balance out their intermittency. This includes smart grids, which enable a two-way flow of electricity and reduce peak demand, and increased storage, like batteries, hydrogen and ammonia.

The process of producing hydrogen from water and electricity – electrolysation – also needs to become more efficient, said Timmermans.

“The point that the hydrogen economy will not function if you don’t solve the issue of grids and storage is clear because you will generate a lot of electricity in places where you don’t need the electricity, so you need to get the energy where you need it and some will be in pure electricity, but some will go through electrolysing into hydrogen or ammonia or a blend,” he explained.

But others are less convinced by a hydrogen future. At the meeting, centrist MEP Niels Torvalds warned against a “hydrogen hype” in Europe, pointing to reports about hydrogen leakage and its impact as a greenhouse gas.

A study by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy warned that hydrogen is estimated at best six times worse for the climate than CO2 over a period of 100 years.

“I think we have to re-evaluate what we can do in hydrogen parts of the energy because now I have a feeling that we are fleeing into a daydream of what hydrogen can do for us,” Torvalds told Timmermans.

EU unveils €300 million plan to fund hydrogen research

The EU’s Clean Hydrogen Partnership, a public-private undertaking, has launched its first call for proposals on 41 research topics related to hydrogen. Much of the funding will go towards hydrogen production and storage.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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