German utility E.ON has formed a partnership with Belgian start-up Tree Energy Solutions (TES) to “investigate potential joint engagements” on the latter’s plans to import large amounts of solar-powered green hydrogen from the Middle East to Germany in the form of liquefied e-methane.

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The plan revolves around the construction of a new “green gas” terminal at the German North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven, which will initially accept shipments of mainly liquefied natural gas (LNG) to help reduce Germany’s reliance on Russian gas.

Later on, as the company's green H2 projects are ramped up, more and more e-methane — produced by combining captured CO2 with renewable hydrogen using the Sabatier methanisation process — would be imported.

This green methane (CH4) would then be stripped of its H2 via autothermal reforming, with 99% of the CO2 recaptured and shipped back to the Middle East — using the same LNG vessel the e-methane arrived on — for re-use in the next batch of renewable gas. In the short to medium term, the same process would be used to capture CO2 from LNG, to produce blue hydrogen.

“The ramp-up of a functioning hydrogen economy must have top priority in Germany and Europe,” said E.ON chief operating officer Patrick Lammers. “The partnership with TES is an important step on the way to a sustainable energy landscape while ensuring security of supply.”

The partnership announcement comes a day after E.ON signed a memorandum of understanding with Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Future Industries to import to Europe up to five million tonnes of green hydrogen from Australia or other locations by 2030.

Several questions remain over TES’s plan to import e-methane, not least over the cost of its production, which would involve six energy-intensive processes: water electrolysis, methanisation, liquefaction, regasification, autothermal reforming, and carbon capture and storage.

Then there’s questions over the cost of transportation. A recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency concluded that the cheapest method to import hydrogen to Europe from the Middle East would be via pipeline, but that study did not consider the possibility of e-methane. And TES’s plan involves use of an LNG-powered ship with onboard carbon capture, a technology that is still being developed.

Another as-yet commercially untested part of the plan is to pair solar PV with molten-salt storage in order to produce 24-hour renewable electricity that would power electrolysers around the clock. The more hours per day an electrolyser is in utilisation, the lower the levelised cost of hydrogen.

TES chief commercial officer Otto Waterlander recently told Recharge that e-methane was the most economic and efficient option for importing green hydrogen, partly because it contains more hydrogen by volume than other options such as ammonia, methanol or compressed or liquefied H2.

He said the company — whose parent is Brussels-based energy-focused investor AtlasInvest — has plans to initially build solar parks with about 2GW of electrolyser capacity, before scaling them up.

The plan to reach five million tonnes of green hydrogen would not be achieved until 2045 at the earliest, Waterlander admitted.

“This is an exciting long-term partnership that will allow us to combine relevant experience to accelerate the decarbonisation of the energy chain,” said Paul van Poecke, managing director at TES.

“Our ambition is to build the Wilhelmshaven location into a hub for international hydrogen trading and upgrade the infrastructure accordingly. Through this hub TES will supply a mix of green and clean energy to economically lead Europe to reach it net-zero ambitions.”