Could hydrogen reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas?

Germany wants to wean itself off Russian oil and gas

The war in Ukraine has upset Germany’s energy policy.

The nation currently buys around 25% of its oil and 40% of its gas from Russia, contributing billions of euros a year to Moscow’s finances.

Germany is moving “as quickly as possible” to end this relationship, but it will take time, the country the finance minister recently said.

Veronika Grimm is professor of economics at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and one of three German special advisers to the federal government, called Economic Sages.

“We need to diversify and decarbonize our energy sources faster than originally planned,” she says. To help achieve this goal, Ms Grimm wants the country to “step up” its use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen can store large amounts of energy, replace natural gas in industrial processes, and power fuel cells in trucks, trains, ships, or planes that emit only potable water vapor .

An employee takes a sample from the blast furnace at the ThyssenKrupp factory in Duisburg, western Germany

Hydrogen could be used in industrial processes like steelmaking

Mrs. Grimm’s enthusiasm is gaining ground, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an energy research group, dozens of countries have published national hydrogen strategies or are in the process of doing so.

Despite this renewed interest, it is not yet clear that the large-scale use of hydrogen can be made viable.

After all, there was similar excitement before: in the 1970s, after two oil crises, and in the 1990s, when climate concerns surfaced. But both fell apart. So is today’s hype any different?

The answer depends on who you ask. Environmental groups are cautious, pointing out that hydrogen cannot be harvested as a primary fuel. First of all, it must be carried out, mainly in two ways, each marked by a color code.

Green hydrogen is produced using electricity from renewable energy sources to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules using an electrolyser. But these machines and the electricity to run them are still expensive.

These costs mean that currently, this emission-free hydrogen represents only 0.03% of global hydrogen production, according to the IEA.

Large photovoltaic panels are carefully placed.  Dunhuang City, Gansu Province, China

Green hydrogen is made from solar or wind energy

So-called gray hydrogen is up to five times cheaper, it is derived from natural gas or, in some cases, oil or coal. But due to losses during production, around 50% more CO2 is emitted than if the natural gas were burned directly.

A related technique is known as hydrogen blue. This relies on the same process, but captures around 60-90% of the carbon emitted during production for reuse or storage. The downside of this method is that it roughly triples the cost. Thus, only 0.7% of the hydrogen produced in the world is blue.

Thus, despite its image and its potential to respect the environment, global hydrogen production today emits almost three times more CO2 than an entire country, France for example.

Much will then depend on how countries decide to produce hydrogen.

Some countries already have a clear priority – to power the electrolysers, most sunburnt nations are banking on solar power, while France is banking on nuclear power.

Meanwhile, China cherishes cheap gray hydrogen from coal and gas and invests in green alternatives.

Green hydrogen graph

Green hydrogen graph

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway are at the forefront of blue hydrogen, injecting captured carbon from oil and gas fields for long-term storage, or for what is called enhanced oil recovery that boosts extraction.

In Germany, however, the picture is less clear.

Volker Quaschning, professor of renewable energy systems at Berlin University of Applied Sciences, criticizes Germany’s hydrogen strategy: “The Merkel government used it as a red herring to hide its own failures in the transition energy”.

He argues that solar and wind power should have been developed faster to facilitate future production of green hydrogen.

The three parties in government, the three responsible ministries and the hydrogen council are all arguing internally whether to focus as exclusively as possible on green hydrogen, or accept the blue alternative, to temporarily bridge the gap. deviation from a limited offer.

Ms. Grimm represents the majority opinion on the Hydrogen Council in favor of a multicolored mixture.

“Accepting blue hydrogen will help create the supply we need for a fledgling industry,” she argues. “It will promote technological breakthroughs in Germany and encourage potential suppliers to invest in the production of green hydrogen.”

German Economics and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck speaks during a visit to Thyssenkrupp Steel

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced ambitious plans for hydrogen production

In January, Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced an ambitious push for renewable energy and a doubling of the two-year target for domestic green hydrogen production to increase by a factor of 150, from from 70 MW today to 10 GW by 2030.

This target represents a quarter of the EU-wide target of 40 GW and is higher than France’s target of 6.5 GW.

As this domestic production increases, Germany is looking to source hydrogen from abroad.

Andreas Kuhlmann, director of the German Energy Agency (a public company facilitating the energy transition and coordinating the Hydrogen Council), says Germany has significantly accelerated international negotiations to buy hydrogen.

This includes plans to extend pipelines to Spain and Portugal, where hydrogen can be made using solar energy.

Mr. Habeck visits energy exporters frantically. In one week in March, he traveled to Norway to agree on a feasibility study for the construction of a hydrogen pipeline, visited Qatar to finalize an energy partnership and visited the Emirates Arab States to sign five cooperation agreements.

The first deliveries from the United Arab Emirates are expected to arrive later this year.

Other countries on Mr Habeck’s hydrogen radar are Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Chile, Namibia and Australia.

Sand dunes and ocean Namibia

Germany discusses hydrogen production with several countries, including Namibia

While recognizing the need to import hydrogen, Mr. Quaschning dashed some of Mr. Habeck’s hopes. “Importing hydrogen from desert plants will be slow, inefficient and expensive,” he explains.

Each stage of the supply chain uses part of the original energy: desalination of sea water to obtain fresh water as a raw material, electrolysis, liquefaction for maritime transport, transport by tanker, transport local by pipeline in Germany and conversion of hydrogen into electricity.

“Together, these measures would consume at least 70% of the electricity originally generated in the desert,” says Quaschning.

“So even if a solar panel in the desert produces 80% more electricity than one in Germany, the losses along the way are so great that it would be twice as efficient to produce solar energy directly. in Germany.”

Due to its high cost, hydrogen is often referred to as the champagne of the energy transition. So who gets the first sips?

On this point, most observers agree. “It is crucial that we allocate hydrogen only to industries where direct electrification is not possible,” says Felix Matthes, energy expert at Öko-Institut, a think tank and member of the German board of hydrogen.

“So we should first use it in the production of steel, chemicals and glass,” he argues.

The following sectors could be maritime transport, long-distance road transport, as well as aircraft for medium or long distances. Other uses in cars or heating are inefficient, expensive and impractical distractions, he adds.

“Additionally, Mr. Habeck’s new push for renewable energy will create an increased need to balance our electricity supply, which hydrogen could do with electrolyzers producing hydrogen on sunny, windy days as storage. on a large scale for cloudy winter days,” Mr Matthes said.

The pressure is on Germany to stop spending so much on Russian energy, but it will be a delicate process.

Many hope that hydrogen will facilitate this transition by fulfilling its promise this time around.