Hydrogen on the rise
Challenges and opportunities
By Virginia Remondino
Hydrogen has recently been regarded as a “silver bullet” for reaching Europe climate neutrality by 2050, along with promoting a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The gas derived from the molecule, when produced from renewable power (green hydrogen), is in fact expected to be utilized as a clean energy carrier and storage, as well as to unlock eco-friendly alternatives for fuels. In the run to cut GHG emissions by at least 55% by 2030, Brussels’ willingness to confer growing significance to the resource thus comes as no surprise. In July 2020, in the aftermath of the publication of the German and Dutch domestic Hydrogen Strategies, the EU Hydrogen Strategy was adopted and intended as a key component of the European Green Deal. Parallelly, the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance and the Hydrogen Energy Network have been launched. Whilst chiefly focusing on the uplifting of green H2 generation alternatives, the novel EU Strategy remarkably leaves the door open to the temporary deployment of fossil-based hydrogen with carbon capture and storage (blue hydrogen). This regulatory choice attempts to swiftly reduce emissions from the present utilisation of fossil-fuel-based H2 (grey hydrogen), while promoting the uptake of the renewable component. With an eye to the future, decreasing production costs, clear policy visions and ad hoc H2 generation projects will foster the momentum for the green resource.
UPRISING HYDROGEN DEMAND
According to official projections formulated by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global demand for hydrogen is expected to significantly grow in the next fifty years (going from 71 Mt/y in 2019 to 519,1 Mt/y in 2070, in a sustainable development scenario). The latter figure would strengthen the European Commission’s forecasts, presuming the resource to represent 13-14% of the Union’s energy mix by 2050 (in 2019 the share accounted to 2%). Likewise, the molecule is projected to provide up to 24% of the total EU energy demand (or up to 2,250 TWh of energy) by 2050. Consumption will be particularly relevant in hard-to-abate industry sectors (steel, refining and chemical manufacturing) which requires intense heat in the course of production while not being easily electrifiable and are currently responsible for a significant share of all direct GHG emissions. Alongside, by converting hydrogen to hydrogen-based fuel and feedstock, the resource can be utilized in the transport sector, as well as in the chemical industry.
SCALING UP PRODUCTION
The EU Hydrogen Strategy adopts a three-phase roadmap for scaling up the clean component’s production, which shall be “deployed at large scale to reach all hard-to-decarbonise sectors” by 2050. To meet this ambitious goal, the Commission plans to reach 40 GW of electrolysers (the manufacturing technique utilizing electric current to generate a non-spontaneous chemical reaction) by 2030 in the Union’s territory. Whilst members of the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance have been recently invited to propose ad hoc projects for renewable and low-carbon H2 solutions, the race to hydrogen-related ventures has already produced tangible results, with private stakeholders (stemming from the automotive industry to oil companies) paying a peculiar attention to the clean component. In December 2020, Power to Green H2 Mallorca was launched in Spain. The plant is expected to produce more than 300 tons of clean hydrogen per year from photovoltaic energy. Mounting projects have significantly been paralleled with clear policy visions. Hydrogen production has in fact been placed at the centre of the EU Strategy for energy system integration, whereas six EU Member States have, at date, managed to implement domestic Hydrogen Strategies. In addition, decreasing production costs are to further boost the green molecule generation: the EU Hydrogen Strategy underlines that electrolyser costs were reduced by 60% in the last decade, being expected to halve in 2030 (in comparison to 2020). Alongside, as highlighted by IRENA, technological and manufacturing improvements will eventually back the Molecule widespread deployment, by leading to an intensification in generation with automated processes.
BOOSTING INVESTMENETS TO PROMOTE ECONOMIC RECOVERY
As Europe re-emerges from the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, extensive investments in the green resource are on the run: according to the EU Hydrogen Strategy, these are expected to be up to EUR 180-470 billion by 2050. Furthermore, as highlighted by the Report Hydrogen Roadmap Europe, the rising European hydrogen industry is estimated to employ approximately one million people by 2030. With the Union requiring Member States’ Recovery and Resilience Plans (RRPs) to include a minimum of 37% of expenditure devoted to the green transition, policymakers have thus turned their eyes to the versatile molecule. Likewise, the approved Italian RRP allocates EUR 3.19 billion to the promotion of hydrogen production, distribution and final deployment, chiefly centring around hard-to-abate sectors. Analogous assets are entailed in both the adopted French and German RRPs, in the footsteps of the respective 2020 Hydrogen Strategies. If the current times hence represent an unprecedent momentum for hydrogen, it will be up to the next decades to clarify how - and to what extent - the renewable component will be effectively deployed, both at EU and Member State level.