Energy grid operators rule out ‘all electric’ scenario for Europe

Hydrogen pipes ready for installation. [Toomko / Shutterstock]

Europe’s energy system cannot rely solely on renewable electricity and will need back-up from other energy carriers such as hydrogen, according to officials involved in mapping Europe’s future grid infrastructure.

Achieving Europe’s climate goals “is only possible in a well-integrated energy system,” according to Alan Croes, an official in charge of scenario building at ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity.

“It’s not going to be all-electric,” Croes told a EURACTIV online event held earlier this month.

Instead, what is needed is “a one energy system view” that links different sectors and “harnesses the synergy between electricity, gas, hydrogen,” as well as major energy-consuming sectors such as transport and industry, he said.

According to EU statistics, electricity currently represents less than 25% of Europe’s total energy consumption, with only a third coming from renewables.

Still, renewable and low-carbon electricity is expected to grow over the years and become dominant by 2050, meeting 53% of the bloc’s energy needs by then, according to the European Commission’s long-term energy scenarios, which underpin the bloc’s climate goals.

This means other energy carriers will need to play a central part, with hydrogen in particular expected to take a leading role in decarbonising sectors that cannot easily be electrified, like long-distance transport and heavy industry.

“An all-electric scenario is not an option” to achieve the EU’s climate goals, said Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister who is now a Member of the European Parliament for the centre-right EPP group.

Hydrogen can fill that gap and become “one of the major energy carriers of the 21st century,” particularly in sectors such as steel, chemical, heavy-duty transport, and shipping where “electrification would not be economically or even technically viable,” Buzek said.

This is broadly in line with a proposed reform of EU gas market rules, tabled by the European Commission in December, which seeks to bolster hydrogen as part of Europe’s drive to decarbonise transport and industry.

EU's green hydrogen plans hailed as 'true game-changer' by industry

The European Commission boosted regulatory support for green hydrogen in its proposed overhaul of climate legislation published last week, with the renewable hydrogen coalition calling it “a true game changer” for the nascent EU industry.

Ten-year network development plan

To plan for future hydrogen infrastructure needs, ENTSO-E has started developing common grid development scenarios with ENTSOG, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas. Their joint Ten Year Network Development Plan (TYNDP) for 2022, unveiled in October, modelled hydrogen and electrolysis at a pan-European scale for the first time.

“More than 180” hydrogen projects have already been collected and incorporated into the plan, said Piotr Kus, General Director of ENTSOG, which supported the EURACTIV event.

“Hydrogen will be a game-changer for both gas and ­electricity systems as it will support decarbonisation efforts, interlink the two systems while further unlocking the potentials of renewable electricity sources,” ENTSO-E and ENTSOG said in a foreword to their joint TYNDP.

The European Commission, which regulates the EU’s single market of 447 million inhabitants, is on the same page on this point.

Creating a “cross-border hydrogen infrastructure and a competitive hydrogen market” is one of the European Commission’s key objectives when regulating the gas sector, said Catharina Sikow-Magny, a senior EU official who is director of the Commission’s energy department in charge of energy system integration.

The Commission’s December proposal to reform the EU gas market seeks “to integrate more renewable and low-carbon gases into the existing gas grid by removing among others tariffs for cross-border interconnections,” she explained.

Another objective is to provide “more integrated network planning between electricity gas and hydrogen networks” and enhance cooperation between the two sectors to “bring about the future hydrogen network”.

“Do we need a dedicated hydrogen network? My answer is yes,” Sikow-Magny said. “Otherwise, hydrogen will stay local” and would likely end up being blended with natural gas in the existing gas pipeline network, which is not the European Commission’s objective, she said.

EU paves way for renewable and low-carbon gases to replace fossil fuel

The European Commission on Wednesday (15 December) unveiled a package of gas legislation that aims to steer Europe away from fossil gas towards more sustainable energy sources, like renewable and low-carbon hydrogen.

Environmentalists caution against overbuilding

Environmentalists, for their part, caution against overbuilding hydrogen infrastructure and pointed to European Commission studies showing that fossil gas consumption will need to be reduced by over 30% by 2030 and around 96% by 2050 to meet the EU’s climate goals.

That means “almost eliminating” all fossil gas consumption by mid-century, said Raphael Hanoteaux from the climate think tank E3G. “What it means is that a lot of the current assets that are existing right now will have to be downsized, phased out or decommissioned,” he said.

For that reason, Hanoteaux insists on making sure that hydrogen infrastructure is built only in areas where it adds the most value in terms of decarbonisation.

“Of course, there are some sectors where hydrogen is the only option, such as the heavy industry, for example,” he said. But there are some sectors like household heating “where hydrogen will not be competitive” because the volumes will be too limited to become affordable, he added. “So it should not be available everywhere.”

“The truth is that we haven’t answered yet whether we need a pan-European hydrogen infrastructure at all or not,” he stressed.

Despite broad agreement on the need for joint network planning, ENTSOG and ENTSO-E also beg to differ on the relative merits of gas and electricity in Europe’s future energy system.

“The primary energy source in the future will be electrons from solar and wind generation,” Croes said, adding: “direct electrification in our view should be prioritised as the most energy-efficient solution” to decarbonise energy.

Kus, for his part, emphasised the role of existing gas infrastructure for hydrogen transport as “one of the most economical and efficient solutions for the development of an EU-wide hydrogen network”.

“In addition to its affordability, repurposing provides the quickest solution for infrastructure development and therefore the best chance of timely achieving European targets and supporting the market growth which is one of the key policy targets of current EU regulations,” Kus said.

> Watch the full EURACTIV event below: 

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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