‘Low hanging fruit’: Eastern EU states eye existing gas network for hydrogen

Michal Kurtyka at COP24 summit in Poland in December 2018 [WALDEMAR DESKA / EPA-EFE]

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

Existing gas networks should be repurposed to transport hydrogen and help boost demand, said Michał Kurtyka, Polish Minister of Climate and Environment at an online event about hydrogen in Central and Eastern Europe on Friday (12 February).

“We need to adapt the networks. We need to make sure that the already existing gas infrastructure will be adapted to also transport decarbonised gases, including hydrogen,” he said.

Hydrogen provides a way for coal-reliant Central and Eastern European countries to shift their industry away from fossil fuel. Analysis from the European Commission shows that every €1 billion of investment into renewable hydrogen leads to around 10,000 jobs along the supply chain, said Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner who spoke at the conference.

Poland is already the third largest producer of hydrogen in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. It has just adopted its energy plan for 2040 and wants one third of its electricity capacity to be green by 2030.

Poland has also launched a hydrogen strategy while Bulgaria has announced it will develop a national roadmap for hydrogen. Slovakia has established a centre for hydrogen technologies and Croatia is preparing a national programme for hydrogen market development.

“Already, we are seeing hydrogen buses in Riga, and there are promising projects on the horizon for hydrogen applications in the maritime sector and even in aviation. So it’s clear the opportunities are there for Central and Eastern Europe,” Simson said.

But the Commission needs to do their homework on regulatory aspects, said Milan Sedláček, head of EU affairs and strategy at Eustream, the gas transmission system operator in Slovakia.

“Please do not be too rigid from the very beginning. These blending and low carbon gases are a low hanging fruit and it has to be for the benefit of everybody,” he added.

Although it is important to develop production for decarbonised hydrogen, the most important thing is to increase the volume and drive down costs, said Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, Poland’s Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Climate and Environment.

Speakers at the online event called on policymakers in Europe to set aside the debate about the sources of hydrogen production – whether from natural gas or renewable electricity – and focus instead on scaling up production. That means moving away from referring to hydrogen by its colour – grey, blue or green depending on its source – and focusing more on CO2 emissions.

“We shouldn’t be looking at this colours definition, but we should be looking at the CO2 content, which is necessary for the production return,” said Kurtyka, adding that the EU should adopt a technology neutral approach which also embraces low-carbon hydrogen produced from nuclear electricity.

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

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.

Future of hydrogen in Central and Eastern Europe

According to Sedláček, there is no doubt about the role that hydrogen will play in decarbonising the EU and the existing gas infrastructure will play an important part in this. However, he warned there is little money available for repurposing the grid.

Gas pipelines already exist across the EU, including Soviet-era networks in many Central and Eastern European countries. In Slovakia, there is currently a project looking at whether these could be repurposed to carry hydrogen.

But Sedláček highlighted issues with public acceptance of hydrogen, saying poverty, pricing and politics may prevent its uptake, particularly where dirtier energy is cheaper.

“It demonstrates the problems with access to energy in post-communist countries and low income households especially. Those low income households, of course, have a tendency to switch to cheap and dirty energy carriers, which immediately run the countries, together with coal usage, into problems with air pollution,” Sedláček said.

In Hungary, hydrogen’s role is seen as two-fold – as storage and as a fuel mixed with natural gas. Projects there include research and development and transport and, crucially, blended hydrogen.

In Poland, the equivalent of €250-300 million has been made available for zero emission transport, with the country aiming to have 500 hydrogen buses on the road by 2025. This would help cut down air pollution in one of Europe’s most polluted countries.

Poland also aims to open its first 50 MW cogeneration plant by 2030. This is a combination of natural gas and hydrogen, which lowers the amount of carbon emissions and is seen as a step away from coal and towards greener energy.

The Commission is hoping to boost hydrogen production in Europe, with the hydrogen strategy introduced in July last year and proposed revisions to transnational networks put forward in December, including on hydrogen pipelines and electrolysers.

Gas grid operators unveil plan for European hydrogen infrastructure 'backbone'

A group of eleven European gas infrastructure companies from nine EU member states presented on Friday (17 July) a plan to create a dedicated hydrogen pipeline network of almost 23,000 km by 2040, to be used in parallel to the natural gas grid.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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