Known as the ‘’fuel of the future’’, hydrogen is considered crucial to achieving one of the European Union’s biggest ambitions: achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. New investments are made in hydrogen projects weekly – each seemingly larger than the last – and numerous EU member countries have already made hydrogen a pivotal element in their future economies. The urgent need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the continuing energy crisis caused by the Russo-Ukrainian war have both caused a recent increased demand for the element.
The essence of hydrogen
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is part of vital molecules such as water and hydrocarbons. To be used, it must be extracted.
It is worth mentioning that it is an energy carrier and not an energy source, because it has to be produced and stored. What makes it exceptional is that it does not emit any CO2 emissions and does not contribute to air pollution. Furthermore, it has the potential to decarbonize sectors related to heavy industry and transport, which are not suitable for electrification, and it has the ability to store energy generated from renewables.
Hydrogen derived in different ways is scientifically distinguished by “colour”. It is important to note the difference between these “colours” because each derivation technique causes a unique environmental impact. One of the main “colours” is “grey” hydrogen, which refers to hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. “Blue” hydrogen is also processed from fossil fuels, but its CO2 emissions are captured and stored underground with the help of Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) technology. The optimal type is “green” hydrogen, wherein the energy used is generated by renewable sources and then used for the electrolysis from which hydrogen is produced. Unfortunately, the majority of the hydrogen produced today is “grey”, but the European Commission has set the ambitious goal to produce 10 million tonnes of “green” hydrogen within the EU and import the same amount by 2030.
How is hydrogen incorporated in the European Union?
The European Commission has set hydrogen at the core of the European Green Deal and its goals, mentioned in the previous paragraph, support this. It all started in July 2020, when the EU hydrogen strategy was adopted. It presents a plan on how to create a European hydrogen ecosystem and defines key actions, from building the demanded infrastructure to promoting research. In total there are 20 action points, for each of which progress is already registered. Furthermore, the strategy plan called for 40 gigawatts of electrolytic capacity to be built across and around the EU by 2030. Altogether, the costs were estimated to be up to 470 billion euro for renewable hydrogen to be scaled up (European Commission, 2020).
After the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the EU REPowerEU plan called for urgent action towards ending the dependance of the EU on Russian fossil fuels without abandoning the climate targets of the EU. The important role of hydrogen was emphasised in the plan, which declared that the EU would support the deployment of hydrogen infrastructure. This infrastructure is necessary for producing, importing and transporting the pivotal element (European Commission, 2022).
Of course, the fulfilment of all actions necessitates a kick-off in investment. For this purpose, the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance comes into play, which presents a cooperation between public authorities, industry and civil society with the aim to “develop an investment agenda and a pipeline of concrete projects” (European Commission, 2020). Nevertheless, national and cross-border projects worth 13 billion euro were introduced, including the Hy2Use and Hy2Tech initiatives. These initiatives were launched in 2022 and will deliver 10.6 billion euro in total to support hydrogen-related projects. Additionally, on 14th of September, 2022, Ursula von der Leyen announced the intention of establishing a ‘’European Hydrogen Bank’’, which aims to spend 3 billion euro to help create the future hydrogen market (Hernandez, 2022).
Obstacles to be overcomed
As attractive and promising as hydrogen may sound, the stakes to its derivation and use are high. Below are some drawbacks that should be considered and accounted for when architecting a sustainably powered future.
According to the Bellona Foundation, the production of hydrogen requires a lot of energy, around 1.6 times its output. For the European Commission's goals to be reached, the amount of electricity needed sums up to 500 TWh, which is equal to the total electricity consumption of France for a year. The current EU wind and solar generation is equivalent to 537 TWh and hydrogen production could take up an exorbitant proportion of this amount.
This challenge should be solved by additionality, the concept of deploying additional renewables to meet the increased demand for hydrogen. Otherwise, it is estimated that 57% of the renewable energy capacity set out by the REPowerEU could go for the derivation of hydrogen, which threatens the possibility of 69% of EU households to power themselves through renewable energy. This could lead to even more CO2
emissions and further dependency on fossil fuels (Bellona Europa, 2022)
As stated previously, the European Union intends to import 10 million tonnes of “green” hydrogen by 2030. One of the reasons for this decision is that a lot of land is needed for solar panels and wind generators. In this aspect Europe is disadvantaged, because of its densely populated countries.
In order to have “green” hydrogen imported to the continent, politicians should keep in mind that a well-regulated market is a must in the trading of hydrogen across borders. International cooperation is required to establish certification schemes and monitoring systems, which will track the production of hydrogen and ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are not just displaced across other continents. Here, additionality is also decisive as the local populations should not be disadvantaged by the local production of hydrogen, which will then be exported abroad, and make sure that countries do not use all their renewables and shift all domestic energy needs to fossil fuels (Görlach & Jakob, 2022).
Recently, a worrying piece of scientific evidence came into the world that hydrogen leakage could be a threat for the achievement of the carbon neutrality goal. Studies reported that leaks lead to reduction of the concentration of molecules, which destroy greenhouse gases already emitted in the atmosphere. This will continue to contribute to global warming. According to Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a researcher at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, much more data and devices for measurement of the leakage is needed. Furthermore, regulations that enforce the measurement of the leakage will be crucial (Mcfarlane & Bousso, 2022).
The Global Hydrogen Review 2022, published by IEA (International Energy Agency), stresses out the need for delivering the necessary infrastructure for transporting hydrogen. Governments and the private sector need to collaborate and find a way to repurpose existing natural gas infrastructure, specifically liquified natural gas terminals. The lack of practical experience, the technical obstacles and the uncertain costs pose a potential field of research (International Energy Agency, 2022).
Furthermore, there is an insufficiency of hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS), required for powering fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Across Europe there are currently only 175 refuelling stations, with most of them situated in Germany, although last year MEPs agreed on building HRS every 100 km along the EU’s main roads. It is important to provide this kind of infrastructure as it will boost the demand for FCEVs even further (Pitchers, 2023).
In short, hydrogen and its use in the clean energy movement is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could help the EU achieve carbon neutrality and aid in the advancement of worldwide climate change goals. However, it could also contribute to the creation of even more CO2 emissions. The manner in which EU politicians, governments and the private sector tackle the current challenges and consider scientific evidence will decide hydrogen’s utility in the coming age.
● Bellona Europa. (2022, Dec. 15). Hydrogen’s place in an energy-efficient EU. Bellona.org. https://bellona.org/publication/hydrogens-place-in-an-energy-efficient-eu
● Bellona Europa. (2022, May 18). REPowerEU: when hydrogen hype clouds climate ambitions [Press release]. https://bellona.org/news/climate-change/2022-05-press-release-repowereu-when-hydrogen-hype-clouds-climate-ambitions
● European Commission. (2022, May 18). REPowerEU Plan. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM%3A2022%3A230%3AFIN&qid=1653033742483
● European Commission. (2020, July 8). A hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52020DC0301
● Görlach, B. & Jakob, M. (2022, Nov. 4). Europe should shape the green hydrogen market now. Euractiv. https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/opinion/europe-should-shape-the-green-hydrogen-market-now/
● Hernandez, A. (2022, Oct. 19). Go big or go green? The EU’s massively expanding hydrogen bet. Politico.
● International Energy Agency. (2022). Global Hydrogen Review 2022. https://www.iea.org/reports/global-hydrogen-review-2022
● Mcfarlane, S. & Bousso, R. (2022, Dec. 22). Has green hydrogen sprung a leak? Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/has-green-hydrogen-sprung-leak-2022-12-22/
● Pitchers, C. (2023, Jan. 5). Brussels wants hydrogen to help fuel the future, but can it be done in time to meet climate goals? Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2023/01/05/brussels-wants-hydrogen-to-help-fuel-the-future-but-can-it-be-done-in-time-to-meet-climate
● Yale Climate Connections Team. (2022, Feb.15). The difference between gray, blue, and green hydrogen. Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2022/02/the-difference-between-gray-blue-and-green-hydrogen/