Polish climate minister: ‘It is critical that EU legislation on hydrogen is colour-blind’

Michal Kurtyka during a press conference summing up the COP24 Climate Summit in Katowice, 16 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/ANDRZEJ GRYGIEL]

This article is part of our special report Hydrogen outlook in Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland has welcomed the inclusion of hydrogen infrastructure in the European Commission’s recast regulation for cross-border energy networks. “It is critical for our region that this legislation is colour-blind and does not discriminate between different ‘types’ of hydrogen,” says Michał Kurtyka.

Michał Kurtyka is Minister of Climate and Environment of Poland, which currently holds the  Presidency of the Visegrad 4 group of countries comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. He answered EURACTIV’s questions in writing ahead of a virtual conference on the outlook for hydrogen in Central and Eastern Europe taking place on Friday (12 February).

The Polish government adopted its 2040 energy policy on 2 February. What is the place of hydrogen in the country’s energy policy? Does Poland have objectives in terms of scaling up production capacity and infrastructure deployment? And what are the related cost projections for this? 

The recent adoption of the Polish 2040 energy policy is a milestone towards future climate neutrality. It sets a clear vision of our strategy for a low- and zero-emission energy transition, which ensures energy security and creates the basis for meeting economic needs resulting from the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The new energy policy recognises the importance of innovation and paves the way for the application of hydrogen as an alternative fuel, energy carrier and energy storage device. The role of hydrogen will increase together with the implementation of offshore wind and nuclear energy into the Polish power system.

The adoption of our energy policy gives a strong impetus for other energy and climate-related strategies. A draft Polish 2030 hydrogen strategy is currently under public consultation. Our proposal covers all aspects of the hydrogen value chain, including production, transmission, storage and use. It presents hydrogen coexisting with other energy carriers to cover growing power demand and respond to the need of a secured and balanced energy system.

The expansion of the hydrogen economy will support the increase in the share of renewable energy sources, give a new role to the gas sector in terms of storage, transmission and distribution of mixtures of natural gas and hydrogen and will be a way for climate neutrality of transport and industry.

The ambition of the Government of Poland is to develop strong national and local competences in the production of key components of the hydrogen technology value chain. In the short term, we aim at supporting research and development followed by the first applications of innovative production installations.

Our ambition is to have 2GW of electrolyser capacity installed by 2030, which will require investments of over €2 billion.

What are the main challenges and opportunities related to the development of hydrogen in central and east European countries? How do those differ from the rest of the EU?  

CEE countries have made a big effort to overcome the historical dependencies, but our energy mix still relies on coal. We plan to diversify our energy mix through nuclear plant and offshore wind farms. It will give us energy security.

Phasing out coal is a very costly process which has to be done with a due account of what our public and our energy system can sustain. Not every EU country has an excess of renewable electricity in the system. Thus, the key issue in hydrogen production should be the level of CO2 emissions, not the specific technology. In order to achieve emission reductions in a cost effective manner and to prevent creating permanent disproportions between the regions and member states at the beginning hydrogen should be produced from all possible low-emission sources.

The CEE region needs in terms of gas infrastructure are significantly different from those of member states from North Western Europe. In the case of Poland, we have identified gaps in gas transmission and distribution infrastructure which need to be filled in order to enable further transition towards low-carbon energy system. The EU policy needs to take into account these regional specificities when designing the support instruments for energy transition.

Moreover, in the mid- and long-term perspective, a stable increase in share of the green gases (such as hydrogen and biomethane) in  gas networks, is expected. In this regard, retrofitting of existing infrastructure to enable blending of renewable and decarbonised gases, such as hydrogen, in the natural gas network should be considered as the most reliable option for greening the gas networks and economies.

Putting differences aside, we have something in common across the EU. Poland has a sizeable hydrogen production – we are the 3rd producer in the EU – but just like everywhere else it is largely based on fossil fuels. We share the challenge of making hydrogen more sustainable.

The development of a European-wide hydrogen market will rely first on market integration at a regional level. What can be the contribution of central and eastern European countries to this effort? 

CEE countries can actively promote new opportunities for cooperation on low-carbon hydrogen with neighbouring countries and regions. Such cooperation can contribute to their energy transition, sustainable growth and development.

By 2030 the EU will aim at building an open and competitive EU hydrogen market, with unhindered cross-border trade and efficient allocation of hydrogen supply among sectors.

Currently there is limited infrastructure in place dedicated to transport and trade of hydrogen across borders. Development of infrastructure is an important element of the CEE cooperation.

We welcomed the inclusion of hydrogen infrastructure in the Commission’s proposal on the TEN-E regulation recast. It is critical for our region that this legislation is colour-blind and does not discriminate between different “types” of hydrogen. While physical properties of hydrogen are irrespective of its production mode, the infrastructure must be in place to support the development of the market.

What are the industrial sectors that are expected to be the main users of hydrogen in Poland and CEE countries? Is it industry, heating, or transport? By contrast, are there any sectors that Poland believes should not be prioritised? 

Currently we are working in the Ministry of Climate and Environment on the Polish Hydrogen Strategy which is going to define our goals and measures necessary to introduce the hydrogen economy.

We want hydrogen to support energy transition in three priority areas: energy and heating, transport and industry. We are also addressing hydrogen production and distribution, and the need to create a stable regulatory framework for the future market.

The priority areas refer to the concept of sector coupling, which will help securing the future renewables-based system. While we identified transport as a “quick win” sector and are already introducing legislation and support schemes, we are not excluding any other sectors at this stage.

We need more time to assess the economic and environmental aspects of hydrogen deployment across sectors. The market uptake will be a good indicator of what should be prioritised.

Today, most hydrogen production is fossil-based and the quantities available are small. How does Poland intend to bridge the gap between fossil, low-carbon and renewable hydrogen? Will supply come mainly from locally-sourced hydrogen or from imports? 

If hydrogen is to be an alternative for crude oil and coal, at the beginning it should be produced from all possible sources, the overall CO2 emission of which is significantly lower than that of oil’s and coal’s.

When we reach the point where low-carbon hydrogen meets a much larger demand, more and more low-carbon hydrogen from renewable sources can be included. Our ambition is to develop strong national and local competences in the production of key components of hydrogen technology value chain.

The use of hydrogen will help us achieving not only climate neutrality but also maintaining the competitiveness of Polish economy. Developing local competencies will prepare us to become technologically self-sufficient when there is enough renewable power to scale-up electrolysis.

The hydrogen market will be subject to development, supported by successive regulatory work and adjustment of support schemes for investment, research and development activities. It is necessary to seize the opportunities for the R&D&I in hydrogen created by the EU Green Deal and policies that follow.

The European Commission’s hydrogen strategy, published in July last year, aims for 100% renewable hydrogen production from electrolysis. What will be Poland’s contribution to this objective? 

There is an important scientific and research potential in the field of hydrogen technologies in Poland. We have significant achievements in designing functional materials for the production of fuel cells and hydrogen storage. We also have specialists in all aspects related to the construction of fuel cells. We intend to use these talents to take the lead in this relatively new market which is being created in Europe.

We are also planning to create a comprehensive research program, the ultimate goal of which will be the development of the technology and construction of electrolysers and fuel cells. This will allow a direct economic effect.

Above all, however, the key to success in developing the hydrogen economy is working together as governments, industries and partnerships to improve the technology, push the costs down and create a policy and regulatory environment that will encourage innovation and attract investments.

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