Europe needs a massive increase in renewable electricity to meet its 2030 decarbonisation targets, including a ramp up of clean hydrogen production from electrolysers, a senior EU official has said.
To ensure Europe’s scarce renewable electricity resources are used where they’re needed most, the EU’s climate targets must be supported by the energy efficiency first principle, said Paula Pinho from the European Commission’s energy directorate.
“We believe that, first and foremost, we need to continue to apply the energy efficiency first principle, ensuring that really we make the most out of our limited resources,” Pinho said at a EURACTIV debate on Europe’s energy transition.
The European Union aims to at least halve its emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. To achieve that, Europe will need to roughly double the share of electricity in energy consumption. By mid-century, 53% of Europe’s energy needs will be met by electricity generated from renewables and nuclear, according to the European Commission’s long-term scenarios.
This means almost half of Europe’s remaining energy consumption – composed of liquid fuels and gases – will also need to be decarbonised, which is why the EU is now looking to hydrogen as a solution.
Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel which emits no CO2 when used in industrial processes. It is seen as a potential silver bullet to decarbonise hard-to-abate industrial sectors like steel and chemicals, which currently rely on fossil fuels and cannot easily switch to electricity.
But hydrogen is only as clean as the energy source it is produced from. This is why the European Commission has put in place a strategy to generate at least 40 gigawatts of electrolysers with the aim of producing up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU by 2030.
“The electricity needs will increase significantly and therefore this would need to also be matched with a much, much higher penetration of renewable energy sources into the grid,” said Pinho.
The Commission is now looking to increase its 2030 renewable energy target from 32% to 38-40%, Pinho said. This represents a massive increase from the 20% renewables that are currently consumed in Europe.
But she added that setting targets for renewable energy and hydrogen will not be enough.
“We do need a more comprehensive approach, a holistic approach, and we need to look at the range of policy options to help the upscaling of renewable and low-carbon energy, including on infrastructure, on markets, on digitalisation and research and innovation,” Pinho said.
Despite the push to slash emissions, there are still barriers to increasing levels of renewables in the EU’s energy mix.
The massive upscaling of renewables needed in the next decade raises questions about issues like permitting for new wind farms, which can take between six to eight years, said Kristian Ruby from Eurelectric, a trade association.
“If we wait six years for the permits, we’re nowhere by 2030, so we need politicians to make that consequential change to the permitting regimes otherwise there’s an immediate risk for those political ambitions,” he warned.
Getting bigger quantities of clean hydrogen from renewables will also be a challenge. At the moment, over 90% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuel. Ultimately, the Commission wants to reach 100% renewable hydrogen, but Pinho admitted that other low-carbon hydrogen sources will be required as a stepping stone.
“Our main objective is really to develop renewable hydrogen, but we do acknowledge that in order to speed up the decarbonisation of existing hydrogen production and to allow for rapid upscaling, we will also need low-carbon hydrogen in the transition,” Pinho explained.
Low-carbon hydrogen is either produced from nuclear power – purple hydrogen – or from fossil gas, using carbon capture and storage technology – so-called blue hydrogen.
Many, including lawmakers in the European Parliament, have advocated for low-carbon hydrogen to be used in the short term to grow the market.
“We need to support also demand for hydrogen,” said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, Polish undersecretary of state for climate and environment. “That will also be critical in bringing down the costs of this technology. To that extent, it is highly important that we do not differentiate the different types of hydrogen,” he told participants at the EURACTIV event.
Poland currently relies on coal for nearly 80% of its electricity. It recently adopted an energy transition plan for 2040, which includes plans to ramp up renewables and build the country’s first nuclear power plant as back up for intermittent wind and solar.
Warsaw also has a draft hydrogen strategy which aims for installing 2GW of electrolysers by 2030. Hydrogen can work in parallel with wind and solar, and help balance these variable energies by storing power, said Guibourgé-Czetwertyński.
Environmental NGOs are sceptical of hydrogen, though. They argue that Europe should focus on renewable hydrogen – not low-carbon – because the climate emergency requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.
Barbara Mariani, from the European Environmental Bureau, said green hydrogen is the only sort which is in line with the 1.5°C global warming target in the Paris Agreement on climate change.
> Watch the full EURACTIV event below.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]