Gas should be used as a bridging solution to produce hydrogen before green varieties made from renewable electricity become commercially available, according to a motion adopted in the European Parliament’s environment committee.
“Hydrogen may be produced through a variety of processes,” says the motion on the European Commission’s hydrogen strategy, passed by lawmakers on Wednesday (27 January).
In the motion, MEPs express their “clear commitment to the transition to renewable and ultra-low-carbon hydrogen production,” saying this will be crucial to decarbonise heavy industry and achieve the Union’s 2050 climate neutrality target.
But at the same time, they also acknowledge that “during a transitional period, incentives will be required to scale-up renewable and ultra-low-carbon hydrogen in industry and the transport sector”.
Hildegard Bentele, a German Christian Democrat lawmaker who drafted the motion, said the EU should not create hurdles for the hydrogen industry by focusing solely on production from renewables.
“We need a rapid transition to renewable hydrogen, but we also need a bridging role for low-carbon hydrogen” produced from natural gas with carbon capture technology to mitigate emissions, said Bentele, who is form the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
Green MEPs voted against the motion
Lawmakers have recommended three criteria for the production of low-carbon hydrogen: the process must provide a bridging role, significantly reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emission and avoid future lock-in effects, Bentele said.
They also called on the European Commission to “harmonise regulations on hydrogen blending” in order to gradually “replace gas with hydrogen in the medium term, wherever possible”. Up to 20% hydrogen can be safely blended into existing gas networks without the need to retrofit pipelines.
While this compromise gained majority backing from the big political parties in the Parliament’s environment committee, Green MEPs were reluctant to see gas take such a prominent position and voted against the motion.
“Unfortunately, a dirty majority formed that focused more on the future of the gas industry than on environmental issues,” said Jutta Paulus, a Green MEP.
“It is a lost opportunity to emphasise the necessity of putting clear environmental standards to hydrogen production, be it in the EU or from imports, and to its use,” she added.
Using fossil fuels to produce renewable hydrogen is nonsense, according to Barbara Mariani, senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, a green pressure group.
“EU lawmakers should focus on adopting a more strategic approach which prioritises the use of truly renewable hydrogen for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as transport, instead of trying to keep the gas industry alive,” Mariani said.
“It’s hard to avoid lock-in effects when billions of euros are invested in long-lasting and expensive technology needed to produce, transport and deploy climate-wrecking forms of hydrogen,” she added.
Hydrogen is considered crucial for hard to decarbonise sectors like aviation and heavy industries like chemicals, which cannot fully convert to electricity or need high-temperature heat for their industrial processes.
The question now is how to grow a competitive hydrogen market while also cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.
At the moment, over 90% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. In Europe, the industry is responsible for emitting around 70-100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
But critics say “low carbon hydrogen” is a vague concept. Last year, the Commission confirmed that it would include hydrogen produced from nuclear power in this definition, but the environment committee motion did not mention this to avoid splitting MEPs, Bentele said.
To address this, the motion calls on the Commission to “introduce a comprehensive terminology and criteria for the certification of renewable and low-carbon hydrogen,” saying this will constitute the basis for any future investments in the area.
Lawmakers also highlight the role of carbon capture and storage in producing low-carbon hydrogen from natural gas – known as “blue hydrogen”. In the long run, the EU aims to be solely reliant on renewable hydrogen, but the Commission has admitted it will support blue hydrogen in a transition phase in order to break “the chicken and egg problem”.
“We need to speed up demand and supply of hydrogen and we can only do that at the speed required when we give a role to blue hydrogen,” said Diederik Samsom, the chief of staff of European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans.
The EU is currently a global leader on hydrogen, but faces competition from the US and China. In the US, President Joe Biden announced he will push advanced research projects focused on climate technologies, one of which will aim to produce renewable hydrogen at the same cost as from shale gas.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]