Norwegian scientist: ‘No way’ of reaching climate neutrality without hydrogen

The Sleipner offshore natural gas field in Norway was the world's first commercial CO2 storage project. [Equinor / Øyvind Gravås and Bo B. Randulff]

Europe has to get serious about the hydrogen economy if it really wants to reach net-zero emissions as quickly as possible, says Nils Anders Røkke. This is why decarbonised natural gas, using carbon capture and storage (CCS), will be crucial to ramp up hydrogen production in the short term, he argues.

Nils Anders Røkke is a Norwegian scientist and business leader. He is the executive vice president for sustainability at SINTEF, the largest Norwegian research institute. Since May 2017, he has been the chairman of The European Energy Research Alliance, the research and innovation pillar of the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plan.

Røkke spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Huge amounts of hydrogen are needed to decarbonise Europe’s energy system
  • But Green Hydrogen production will at first be limited because renewable electricity needs to go into the power grid as a priority
  • This means other ways of producing hydrogen, using natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS), will be crucial
  • Existing natural gas networks can be repurposed to carry 100% hydrogen but incentives are needed to support the conversion, especially at distribution level
  • Converting all natural gas to hydrogen would remove about 800 million tonnes of CO2 per year in Europe or about 19% of the continent’s current emissions

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Can Europe leapfrog to Green Hydrogen straight away, skipping the Grey and Blue Hydrogen phase? 

Leapfrogging would mean having enough renewable energy resources to produce Green Hydrogen.

But I don’t think that will come soon enough because only about 30% of the electricity in Europe currently comes from renewables. So you would first need to decarbonise the whole electricity sector to provide clean power for electrolysers to generate Green Hydrogen.

Green Hydrogen production will gradually increase over time, and run in parallel to other sources of hydrogen. But the volumes it can produce will at first be limited because renewable electricity needs to be used in priority for feeding into the power grid. It makes more sense to send that electricity directly into the grid rather than convert it into hydrogen because of the conversion losses. So the first priority is to use that green electricity.

Then there is the problem of storing the excess electricity obtained from renewable sources. And that can be done with hydrogen. But that won’t be enough to provide the huge amounts of hydrogen that are needed to decarbonise Europe’s energy system.

So I think we need to go through the phase of sourcing hydrogen from natural gas, using carbon capture and storage (CCS). But having storage space available for the CO2 is a prerequisite in order to do this.

That’s called Blue Hydrogen, using CCS technology to bury the emissions underground…

Yes. If you look at total hydrogen production today, only 5% comes from electrolysis. The rest is from coal, oil and gas, which emit greenhouse gases.

And that cannot continue. So we need to increase the amount of Green Hydrogen produced from electrolysis and at the same time, produce the volumes needed to develop the hydrogen economy with Blue Hydrogen from natural gas.

And the way to get the volumes up is to make massive use of CCS, correct?

Yes, in order to get higher volumes without increasing emissions, you need to store the CO2. And the end product is really hydrogen.

Natural gas, as we know it today, is widespread in Europe. But it does require cleaning before it can be used – you need to take out sulphur and other impurities. And taking out the CO2 is just another step in the process. Except the end product isn’t natural gas anymore, it’s hydrogen.

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The EU is aiming to become climate neutral by 2050. And that means no more natural gas, which is a fossil fuel. So where does hydrogen fit in a zero-emission context?

It’s going to be crucial. There is no way you can make this transformation to 2050 without developing the hydrogen economy, in Europe and on a global scale. And I think this is often largely overlooked.

Not all countries have access to cheap electricity or have own production resources for renewables. So I think hydrogen will be also very important for energy importing countries.

What incentives could be put in place to kick-start the hydrogen economy?

Infrastructure is obviously essential – ensuring we have access to the hydrogen. Small-scale hydrogen production – around 10 MW – is probably best served by electrolysis, because you can use power coming from the distribution grid.

But for large-scale production, you need incentives to build a hydrogen infrastructure. And there is the possibility of re-using the natural gas infrastructure for that. This can be done in a gradual way, injecting hydrogen into the natural gas grid, eventually going to 100%.

But going to 100% will require refurbishing the infrastructure because hydrogen is very fugitive and can alter the material integrity of the pipelines if not selected carefully. So infrastructure development and support, for example through the EU’s innovation fund, would be a good start.

The costs of that refurbishment must be huge. Taking the pipelines out of the ground, replacing their inside coating and putting them back into the ground must cost a fortune.

Yes, but you don’t need to refurbish everything, some pipelines can be used as they are. The distribution network is the most problematic, they can sometimes be very old and need to be refurbished anyway. In Northern England, some of the gas distribution network dates from Victorian times and needed to be refurbished to be made hydrogen-compliant and up to today’s safety standards

Just think of the infrastructure we built for fossil fuels: it’s probably the most extensive infrastructure Man has ever made. Surely, there will be a cost of establishing a sustainable gas infrastructure. But this is a must in order to get to zero carbon emissions.

Has a proper assessment been made of the costs of converting all gas infrastructure to hydrogen?

Not for Europe as such. For the Northern England project, there is a cost estimate.

What other incentives could Europe put in place for the hydrogen economy?

Europe could put more efforts on sustainability in public procurement, making it mandatory to include zero-emission solutions in procurement bids. That would help for instance in public procurement for buildings, which could include hydrogen infrastructure for heating.

And the same could be done for ferries, buses, and all kinds of heavy-duty transportation.

Of course, I’m not saying procurement should focus on hydrogen – it should be a zero-emission mandate open to all technologies. But that would ensure a level playing for hydrogen in comparison to other technologies such as electric buses, for instance.

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For buses, trucks and ferries, electrification is becoming cheaper and cheaper. Can hydrogen compete?

The answer very much depends on what kind of infrastructure you already have in place. In countries like the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, the electricity infrastructure is not that strong. And a lot of the heating depends on the natural gas distribution grid.

In those countries, the priority is to better insulate your house. But in places which are served by the natural gas network, hydrogen could be cheaper than switching to an electric heat pump.

Don’t get me wrong, we need all the solutions – renewables, heat pumps, batteries, etc. We will even need carbon negative solutions at some point. But I’m confident that we have to get serious about the hydrogen economy if we really want to reach net-zero emissions.

Norway is a pioneer in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Using CCS, how much Blue Hydrogen could Norway supply to Europe CO2-free?

We are exporting today about 110 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to Europe, or 1,400 TWh. That could be converted to 850-950 TWh of hydrogen. So that would be quite a contribution to getting to zero-emissions in Europe.  And we could store the CO2 here.

How does 1,400 TWh of natural gas become 850-950 TWh of hydrogen?

Because you have losses in the conversion process.

Is there enough storage space available in Norway to put all the related CO2 emissions underground?

Yes. We have enough CO2 storage space available in the Norwegian continental shelf to cover for decades of production. So that’s not an issue, really.

The issue is more about developing a hydrogen market, which is why infrastructure is going to be so important. That’s also why we need to have a proper hydrogen strategy in Europe.

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What is the minimum CO2 price that’s needed to incentivise hydrogen?

Well, that’s a very sensitive question. Nowadays, the carbon price in Europe is getting closer to 30 euros per tonne. As soon as we get to the 40-50 euro price band, a lot of things will happen on CCS and hydrogen.

Which means not much will happen if the carbon price remains under 40 euros a tonne?

Preparatory work, I think, will happen at that kind of price.

But it won’t be commercial. It will have to rely on public funding, I suppose.

It would be early-stage funding. All technologies need that.

But you have to remember, if we had to decarbonise all the natural gas in Europe and convert it to hydrogen, that would remove about 800 million tonnes of CO2 per year or about 19% of current GHG emissions in Europe. And that’s quite substantial.

And you believe this is doable?

I think this is something we should work towards.

But speed is of the essence here. When you see the IPCC projections to 2050, a very steep reduction in emissions is necessary to keep global warming below 1.5C. Can we afford to wait for the carbon price to hit 40-50 euros before seeing hydrogen production pick up?

That’s why we need to speed up the development of infrastructure for hydrogen production, transport and use. And then boost this with Blue hydrogen coming from natural gas and CCS.

Green Hydrogen will follow, and at some point prevail in my view. And in parallel, natural gas hydrogen with CCS will drop. When that will happen, I don’t know exactly – it will be sometime when we arrive at a fully electrified power system. But zero-emission electrons will not do the full job of decarbonising – you will need zero-emission molecules like hydrogen as well in the transition.

When do you think it should happen?

We’re probably talking about the 2040s-2050s. If you look at the carbon footprint of Blue Hydrogen and compare it with Green Hydrogen using power from the grid, it’s clear that natural gas with CCS is more environmentally-friendly. And that’s because renewables only represent about 30% of Europe’s electricity at the moment – the rest is still dominated by polluting energy.

That’s why I don’t like the distinction between Blue and Green Hydrogen – in reality, we need both and hydrogen does not carry any colour. In fact, we should talk about clean hydrogen, a term the European Commission is adopting in its strategic plan for the next framework programme for research, Horizon Europe.

Germany eager to become global leader in developing hydrogen technologies

Germany intends to invest €100 million annually into the research of hydrogen technologies. This could be the business of the future, as well as the country’s next top export. However, the future of green gas is still extremely shaky. EURACTIV Germany reports.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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