The future of hydrogen energy – how does Europe fit into the mix?

The future of hydrogen energy – how does Europe fit into the mix?

Hydrogen is gaining momentum in the global energy transition, but experts agree there is still work to do before technology and legislation line up to provide the necessary support to a global green shift – in Europe and beyond.

As a dedicated advocate of hydrogen energy, Nicolas Brahy is understandably optimistic on the future role of hydrogen, not only in Europe, but globally. That said, he is more pragmatic than purist in his predictions: “We are witnessing the fast-growing acknowledgement that if you want to decarbonize, using hydrogen in combination with electrification is an unavoidable conclusion,” says Brahy, co-founder of FiveT Hydrogen Fund, an investment platform dedicated to delivering clean hydrogen infrastructure projects at scale, and former managing director of Hydrogen Europe.*

Nicolas Brahy
Nicolas Brahy

But while the cost of hydrogen is dropping fast, Brahy points out that finding hydrogen solutions that are cheaper than fossil alternatives or other, more mature green solutions still remains a challenge. In addition, he acknowledges that hydrogen technology is still in the starting gate in the field of renewables. “Where we can hope to gain first ground is primarily the end-use sector. Fossil and partly clean options will decrease in importance if policy makers and industrials go seriously in for zero-emission solutions.” This realization, he adds, has led European policy makers to consensus on producing large quantities of hydrogen.

Which way to grow?

Brahy reports that the EU’s strategy is to have six gigawatts of hydrogen-producing electrolyzers operating in Europe within the next few years, with announcements of large production capacities pending on several fronts. “Hydrogen is in heavy use in the production of ammonia for fertilizers and for refining oil. Replacing hydrogen produced with fossil fuels with a cleaner product requires production on a large scale. In these fields, new policy could be in place within two years. For more complex applications like transport, we will require not only hydrogen production, but vehicles and infrastructure,” he says.

“Either the products are not there yet, or regulations have not caught up. For instance, we already have CO2 regulations that call for trucks to operate on hydrogen in the coming years, but we lack the trucks themselves. Rolling out the technology at scale has not yet been achieved,” Brahy maintains.

“In the end, hydrogen can and will be used in many applications, but there is still some uncertainty about the order in which hydrogen will penetrate the various areas. This will largely be dependent on policies and the strategy of industrial companies to comply with legislation. The legislative discussions starting now at the EU level concerning the so-called ‘Fit for 55’ legislation package, the minimum 55 percent emission reduction target which the EU has set for 2030, should tell us more in the coming months.”

Building the best path

Grzegorz Pawelec, senior researcher and Brahy’s former colleague in Hydrogen Europe, an industry and national association covering the entire hydrogen value chain, points out that hydrogen technology should be easier to advance when moving from grey to green, not least because acceptance is generally higher for producing hydrogen from renewable rather than fossil-based energy sources. That said, he agrees with Brahy that legislative support is needed to provide the necessary momentum for this move: “We need very cheap hydrogen to reach the break-even point, and this requires subsidies if renewable production is going to reach the required scale.”

Grzegorz Pawelec
Grzegorz Pawelec

Pawelec adds that for hydrogen-powered mobility to be cost competitive, both public and private endorsement are needed. Referring to the concept of modular, renewable hydrogen production for long-haul transport currently being championed by Nikola Motors in the US, he maintains that for the concept to work in Europe, both good products and supportive policies will be required. “Then comes a solid operational model, where they integrate appropriate infrastructure and trucks in an EU perspective,” he says

“Remember that Europe presents different challenges than the US. Not least, the US has a single jurisdiction, but also lots of space. In the EU, space constrictions simply make it harder to find locations for local hydrogen production.”

Different drivers

The main drivers to reduce emissions are still CO2 standards or requirements, Pawelec says. “At the same time, CO2 standards for trucks have become stricter than many expected. This has led others to follow Nikola in the move to hydrogen, like Daimler, Hyundai and Volvo. Probably others will join as well.”

Several areas in Europe have begun to offer hydrogen filling stations, so hydrogen availability is there for passenger cars, but a critical mass of vehicles is lacking, Pawelec reports. “We have in any case not fully mastered the calendar of introduction. Some car manufacturers were ready, but not all, and no urgent demand for hydrogen-powered cars has emerged.”

Heavy-duty strategies carry weight

Regarding other heavy transport modes, Pawelec notes that while some regional trains are still running on diesel, most trains in Europe are electrified. “This means that they are already clean, but the source of their electricity may not be.”

He observes that several European transportation companies in Germany and Austria are already running regional passenger trains on hydrogen. Hydrogen trains are either in operation or in the planning stages the UK, France and Spain as well, he reports.

“Trains operate on fixed routes, meaning they require a low number of fueling stations, and their high consumption levels provide the necessary economy of scale,” Pawelec says. ”The same applies for ferries and busses. The fuel’s low energy density means that it requires more space. But on fixed routes, on-board hydrogen storage will not require as much space.”

Seeing both sides

“We can look at hydrogen in two ways,” Pawelec offers. “As the fuel itself, or as an ingredient in other fuels like methanol and ammonia. We consider all these options as part of a unified ecosystem. We are interested in all fuels made with hydrogen, or those that have an element of hydrogen.”

Pawelec is positive toward ammonia, stating that while some marine applications would favor pure hydrogen, ammonia is also a good option that makes sense from the cost–density perspective. “Density is good and cost is low for ammonia, synthetic gas, and methanol solutions, but methanol is not really cheap. Nor can stakeholders claim CO2 reductions twice, both in production and use, so the argument for methanol is weakened somewhat when compared to other fuels.”

Biofuels are a pure competitor to hydrogen, and regulations could also encourage the move to biofuels, he notes. “They are easier to manufacture and they can be blended with conventional fuel. Just change your supplier, and the rest of the infrastructure can go unchanged. But for longer haul transport, hydrogen can still provide greater overall efficiency, either as pure hydrogen or in a hybrid solution.”

Finding the right mix for shipping

Brahy points out that for short and medium distance fixed line routes, hydrogen logistics are already feasible, though deploying a universal hydrogen infrastructure for marine applications still presents certain challenges. “We believe it will be difficult to deploy a uniform global infrastructure for shipping due to the combined challenges presented by regional legislative and geographical particularities.“

He agrees with many in the maritime sphere that diverse energy solutions will be required to meet future shipping needs. “Transport of hydrogen is possible but expensive so far. If the cost could be shared, this could be a good argument for growth. Remember that once hydrogen reaches the ports, it can be used to supply other end users as well.”

Plenty for all

“Hydrogen will not immediately fill a large space in all the sectors where it eventually can or must be used,” Brahy says. “It will probably grow into a few of the most suited applications, and then continue to expand.” Nor is it easy to identify which of these applications will come first, he observes, as that sequence will be determined by upcoming regulations and industrial strategies.

Rather than cost, lack of hydrogen availability is the biggest concern at present, Brahy concludes. “However, looking at the EU strategy for hydrogen, this can be fixed. We will need a lot more hydrogen to achieve goals on the mainland and for maritime transport, but there will be enough hydrogen for all feasible applications in the near future.”

*At the time of this interview, Nicolas Brahy was managing director of Hydrogen Europe.

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