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).
“Electrolysis can be powered by renewable electricity, which would then be classified as renewable hydrogen,” said Paula Abreu Marques, head of unit for renewables and CCS policy at the European Commission’s energy directorate.
“If you have electrolysers connected to nuclear power stations, this would be classified as low carbon hydrogen,” Marques told lawmakers in the European Parliament’s committee on environment, public health and food safety.
The European Commission’s clarification appeared necessary. Nuclear power is indeed not mentioned in the EU’s hydrogen strategy, which the EU executive presented in July this year.
Using nuclear power for hydrogen production is known as “purple hydrogen” and offers the benefit of low-carbon emissions compared to the sort produced from natural gas – or grey hydrogen – which is currently the most widely available.
When the Commission unveiled its hydrogen strategy earlier this year, it introduced the concept of “clean hydrogen” in reference to manufacturing processes using renewable electricity, which is the EU’s clear priority.
“Low-carbon hydrogen”, it added, “encompasses fossil-based hydrogen with carbon capture” and “electricity-based hydrogen” with low-carbon life cycles.
It did not, however, mention nuclear power among those low-carbon electricity sources.
Hydrogen is seen as a way to decarbonise heavy industries like chemicals and steelmaking, or long-haul transport, like aviation and shipping. However, the processes to produce it are highly energy intensive and inefficient.
Currently, around 95% of hydrogen is produced using natural gas. 10kg of CO2 are emitted to produce 1kg of hydrogen according to French utility EDF, and plans to use carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions are still in development.
In its new €7bn national hydrogen strategy, France has said it will use “low-carbon” sources, allowing nuclear to be used as a source of power for electrolysis. Germany, however, has said it will produce “green” hydrogen obtained from renewables such as offshore wind.
“I’m surprised that hydrogen from nuclear energy is not mentioned [in the strategy],” said French MEP Joëlle Mélin, a lawmaker from the far-right Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament. “Renewables won’t be enough. I think that we need to go further in defining clean hydrogen,” she told fellow MEPs in the environment committee.
Research into nuclear power for hydrogen production has gained momentum recently. In January, French energy utility EDF said it was looking at plans for producing hydrogen from UK nuclear power plants, with a consortium led by the group saying this would meet a significant proportion of the country’s projected energy needs.
EDF is also running a subsidiary, called Hynamics, using nuclear power from its 58 units, combined with some renewables, to produce hydrogen. Hynamics has identified 40 projects across the UK and Europe for this.
In the United States, the government set up the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative as far back as 2003, detailing how nuclear plants could become hybrid energy systems by adding hydrogen as a second revenue stream.
In the same vein, the European Commission wants hydrogen to be complimentary to a renewables-based energy system with renewable electricity at its core, Marques said.
By 2050, the Commission estimates renewable hydrogen could meet 24% of the world’s energy needs. The Commission aims to support the installation of at least 6GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers to produce up to one million tonnes and wants that to rise to 40GW by 2030 and be deployed on a large scale by 2050.
Hydrogen shouldn’t reverse emission reductions
How clean hydrogen is depends on the energy source used to produce it. During the debate in the Parliament’s environment committee, Green MEPs clearly backed renewable hydrogen over the natural gas sort which is currently the most widely used.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot with our own strategy and we cannot let it become a greenwashing exercise that will lock us into a further dependence on fossil fuels,” said Pär Holmgren, a Swedish MEP from the Green Party.
Hildegard Bentele, a German Christian Democrat lawmaker who is the Parliament’s rapporteur on the EU’s hydrogen strategy, backed hydrogen, saying it offers the promise of a more a sustainable energy system.
“We have to use the possibilities of hydrogen as soon as possible in order to facilitate us on this path towards climate neutrality,” she said, warning however that it will take time to ramp up production and put in place financing mechanisms to speed up the process.
Tiemo Wölken, a German MEP for the socialists and democrats (S&D), added that he was sceptical of carbon capture and storage processes and said that if nuclear energy or coal were used to produce hydrogen, it would not be a good alternative to current energy usage.
On the other side of the debate, Alexandr Vondra, a Czech conservative MEP (ECR), supported ramping up hydrogen production immediately using natural gas.
“Using hydrogen made from natural gas may have important benefits. It may be produced locally, thus avoiding the environmental and financial cost of transporting. It may help with the just transition as you may employ the same people who work for fossil fuel companies,” Vondra said.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)