Renewable or ‘low-carbon’? EU countries face off over hydrogen

The German Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Hubertus Heil, looks at a panel of fuel cells during their visit to the hydrogen power plant of APEX Energy company, in Laage, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany, 14 August 2020. [EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA]

EU member states are fighting over which type of hydrogen to support, with two opposing camps facing off: those backing green hydrogen produced exclusively from renewable electricity, and those in favour of a broader “low-carbon” definition, which also includes nuclear power and decarbonised gases.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states are meeting on Friday (27 November) to discuss plans for the creation of a hydrogen market in Europe.

The European Commission sees hydrogen as “a vital missing piece of the puzzle” to achieve deeper decarbonisation in industries like steelmaking and chemicals, which cannot be electrified entirely.

In July, it presented a hydrogen strategy, putting the emphasis on “renewable hydrogen” produced from wind and solar energy, and aiming to ramp up Europe’s electrolyser capacity to produce up to 10 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030.

However, getting there will take time, the Commission admitted, saying low-carbon hydrogen derived from fossil gas – with carbon sequestration and storage – will also be supported in the meantime in order to scale up production in the short term.

EU Commission charts path towards 100% renewable hydrogen

The European Commission unveiled plans on Wednesday (8 July) to promote hydrogen based entirely on renewable electricity like wind and solar, but said low-carbon hydrogen derived from fossil fuels will also be supported in order to scale up production in the short term.

EU ambassadors will discuss those plans on Friday, with a view to drawing up “conclusions” for the December meeting of the Energy Council, which brings together the EU’s 27 ministers.

“What we are proposing is a global rules-based market for hydrogen and, at the heart of that market, harmonised safety and environmental standards,” said Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner, who spoke at the European Hydrogen Forum on Thursday (26 November).

But the latest draft text, obtained by EURACTIV, “significantly weakens the priority given to renewable hydrogen,” according to critics who denounced pressure from a group of countries pushing in favour of nuclear and natural gas.

The pro-nuclear and gas group includes Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. In the opposite camp are Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain, which support hydrogen produced exclusively from renewables.

The revised text was submitted by the German EU presidency following “comments from member states wishing to offer new subsidies to the gas industry and to the nuclear industry,” according to an EU source who prepared a briefing ahead of Friday’s meeting.

“Throughout the text, the words ‘safe and sustainable hydrogen’ are added but this expression is not defined and opens the door to subsidies to nuclear-based and gas-based hydrogen rather than focusing exclusively on renewables,” said the EU source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Last week, the European Commission already appeared to cede ground by stating publicly for the first time that “low-carbon” hydrogen would also include nuclear power – a clarification which appeared necessary because the Commission’s initial strategy did not mention nuclear at all.

“Only renewable hydrogen should be promoted at European level,” said Claude Turmes, the energy minister of Luxembourg. “It is unacceptable to open the door to massive subsidies for technologies that will only perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power,” he told EURACTIV.

Hydrogen produced from nuclear will be considered 'low-carbon', EU official says

The European Commission will consider hydrogen produced from nuclear power as “low-carbon”, said a senior EU official who spoke in the European Parliament on Monday (16 November).

The Netherlands, for its part, has made clear early on that it would back so-called grey hydrogen produced from natural gas as a stepping stone towards the creation of an integrated hydrogen market.

Around 70 million tonnes of hydrogen are currently being used globally, mostly for oil refining and chemical production, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“What they call grey hydrogen, which is already being used in industry – that is an obvious starting point because it’s already happening,” said Noé van Hulst, the Dutch hydrogen envoy who spoke at a EURACTIV event last year.

And to deal with emissions, “you just need to start greening grey hydrogen” by using carbon capture and storage (CCS) to bury the emissions underground, van Hulst said, referring to so-called “blue” hydrogen.

Dutch urge swift EU hydrogen push to cut industry, transport emissions

The European Commission should create an EU-wide market for hydrogen “as soon as possible” rather than wait for renewable energy-based varieties to be commercially available, a top Dutch ministerial envoy has said.

But critics say CCS is still unproven on a commercial scale and has a carbon footprint which can vary considerably depending on the technology.

“A capture performance of at least 90% should be the minimal requirement for CCS technologies,” the EU source said, pointing out that today’s dominant technology, called steam methane reforming, allows a capture rate of 60-70%.

Moreover, coupling CCS with fossil gas does not solve the issue of upstream emissions, the source added, pointing to methane leakage at the extraction phase.

And when it comes to nuclear, opinion in Europe is notoriously divided, with countries like Austria and Germany fiercely opposed and others like France, Finland and Eastern EU states backing the technology.

Lisa Fischer, a senior advisor at climate think tank E3G, said the EU needed “a sense of direction” with it hydrogen strategy, and a clear focus on renewables.

“On balance, any plans on hydrogen need to do the following: Ensure phasing in hydrogen is coupled to a reduction in fossil gas use, secure progress despite the complexity of the hydrogen transition by giving a central role to independent science and advise, and ensuring that hydrogen efforts do not displace readily available solutions such as on energy efficiency and electrification.

“These conclusions take tentative steps on some of those elements, but are far from scoring full points against any,” she told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

> Read the draft Council conclusions below or download here:

Council-conclusions-H2-20-Nov

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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