The European Commission, cheered on by fossil fuel companies, is promoting a plan to put exporting hydrogen to Europe at the centre of Ukraine’s post-war recovery. The plan reeks of greenwash and neo-colonialism and should be scrapped.

Hydrogen is extracted from fossil gas and is used in oil refining and industrial processes. It has a huge carbon footprint, as left-over carbon is released into the air.

Hydrogen: hype, hope and the hard truths around its role in the energy transition
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Hydrogen lobbyists say that in future the gas will be blue (with the left-over carbon captured and stored) or green (made by electrolysis – passing an electric current through water). But even green hydrogen, the only carbon-free kind, gulps down huge quantities of renewable electricity. Plans to export it from Ukraine – which will need that clean electricity itself for decades to come – are little more than cynical profiteering in wartime.

Hydrogen may be used in future in industrial sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as steelmaking, fertiliser production and long-distance transport. But the picture painted by lobbyists, of its widespread use for residential heating and urban transport, is dangerously counter-productive.

It undermines effective climate policies in the interests of fossil fuel companies – who see hydrogen as a survival strategy, because it can be made from gas, and uses similar infrastructure and technologies.

Where the plan came from

The European Commission’s Fit for 55 decarbonisation policy, published in 2021, featured a plan to generate green hydrogen from thousands of electrolytic cells in Ukraine and north Africa, and export it to European countries. This idea was lifted wholesale from a plan proposed by Hydrogen Europe, an industry lobbying group, the year before.

University of Durham honorary professor Simon Pirani Photo: Simon Pirani

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, far from offering pause for thought about plunging resources into a speculative technology, accelerated the hydrogen import plan.

In May, the European Commission published its RePowerEU energy policy proposals, which focused on reducing dependence on Russian energy imports. Its targets for expanding hydrogen use by 2030 had swelled nearly four times over – although there are far better ways to cut dependence on Russian imports.

In response, the European Hydrogen Backbone – a lobbying group supported by gas transport companies – offered a hydrogen transportation network, ready by 2040 and compatible with the RePowerEU plans, for €80-143bn ($81-145bn). The side benefit for the gas companies is obvious: repurposing their pipelines for a new fuel.

Brussels is now negotiating a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine on hydrogen and biomethane. And a linked study, supported by the German government, endorses Hydrogen Europe’s proposal for 8GW of wind and solar generation capacity in Ukraine – a little more than the current total – for hydrogen production, by 2030.

At the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano last month, the Ukrainian government presented a post-war reconstruction plan, in which hydrogen is the biggest item of energy investment. Out of a proposed $114bn for energy transition, hydrogen takes up $40bn for electricity generation and transport infrastructure, and $7bn for electrolytic cells that would send electric current through water to make hydrogen. Renewables for Ukraine’s own electricity needs are assigned $15bn, gas production $18bn and the nuclear industry $14bn.

Civil society reacted with alarm to these proposals. The Ukrainian government has “unjustified expectations” for hydrogen export, environmentalist campaign group Ecoaction said.

Instead of using renewable electricity for exporting hydrogen, it would be “much more expedient” to put it into the Ukrainian grid, to reduce coal, gas and nuclear generation capacity.

. Ukraine's Reconstruction Plan: energy transition by section. Photo: Simon Pirani, Open Democracy

Five reasons to stop

There are five reasons why the hydrogen export plan should be scrapped.

First, Ukraine should, as rapidly as possible, increase renewable electricity generation, as Ecoaction proposes.

The faster renewables come to dominate Ukraine’s energy supply, the more effective and socially just will be the necessary transition away from coal in the mining areas devastated by the Russian army; and the quicker Ukraine can stop importing gas. Since 2016, Ukraine has imported gas at its western border, instead of directly from Russia, but is still almost all Russian in origin. This gas comes via countries like Poland, Austria and Germany, but was produced in Russia.

The 8GW of renewable capacity that Hydrogen Europe wants to use for hydrogen export could, instead, supply heat pumps to warm millions of Ukrainian homes that now rely on boilers, or ageing district heating systems, which burn gas or coal. And Ukraine will need many times that amount of renewables in the coming decades to decarbonise its energy system fully.

Ukraine’s energy system: the priorities

In 2019, Ukraine’s primary energy supply (a measure of all energy inputs to the economy) was about one quarter coal, one quarter gas, 21% nuclear energy, 13% oil and oil products, 3.5% biofuels and less than 1% each for hydro and other renewables.

Electricity is generated mainly from nuclear, coal and gas. Coal and gas are also used for heat production in combined heat and power plants, and boilers, and industrial processes such as steelmaking.

Ukraine was heavily dependent on imports of Russian gas until 2016. Now it relies on imports at the western border, and its own gas output. Gas use is less than half of what it was 20 years ago, partly because economic troubles have hit industry, reducing demand; and partly because of some efficiency improvements.

In post-war recovery, energy researchers say the priorities are (i) efficiency and conservation, and (ii) ramping up renewable electricity generation. As in other countries, the transition away from fossil fuels will mean expanding the electricity network e.g. to support heat pumps.

Sources: Ukraine’s Energy Policy (OIES), Ukraine’s energy profile (IEA)

The other crucial priority for Ukrainian energy policy is conservation. Urban infrastructure dating from the 1960s and 1970s needs to be renewed or replaced. Homes that leak heat need to be insulated. District heating systems, and the combined heat and power plants that supply them, desperately need to be revamped with electric heat pumps, as a recent report from the Low Carbon Ukraine research group showed.

The government’s recovery plan includes an impressive $59bn for residential energy efficiency, $11bn for district heating and $18bn for heat pumps. This is good. But delivery is a mammoth challenge: past plans have failed due to lack of human resources and political will. Diverting those to the fanciful hydrogen export plan is less than war-torn Ukraine deserves.

Second, if Ukraine decides to use spare renewable energy to make green hydrogen, the possibility of using that instead of grey hydrogen – produced from gas, with a gigantic carbon footprint – for the country’s industrial sector should be examined. Most of this grey hydrogen is used to produce fertilisers in plants owned by Group DF, a holding company controlled by [Ukrainian] oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

Ukraine produces 1.1 million tonnes of grey hydrogen annually, according to research commissioned by the UN Economic Commission for Europe. This production probably accounts for about 4% of Ukraine’s carbon dioxide emissions.

How hydrogen is oversold

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but for commercial use on earth it is produced either (i) from fossil gas, usually by steam reformation, or (ii) by the electrolysis of water. More than 98% of hydrogen used commercially is grey – produced from gas. Left-over carbon is joined with oxygen and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Global hydrogen production’s carbon footprint is about four-fifths the size of the aviation sector’s.

Gas companies claim they can produce blue hydrogen, without most of these emissions, by capturing and storing the carbon. But carbon capture and storage technology, experimented with for about 40 years, has never worked at large scale.

Green hydrogen, produced by electrolysing water, is emissions-free but very energy-intensive. Wind and solar capacity one-and-a-half times the world’s current total would be needed to substitute the world economy’s grey hydrogen with green.

When reading about green hydrogen, beware of exaggerated numbers. The German Energy Agency claims that 8 GW of renewables capacity in Ukraine could produce 21 terawatt hours (TWh) per year of hydrogen; I estimate it would be about half of that. The RePower EU plan aims for the EU to produce or import 20 million tonnes of green hydrogen annually by 2030; a specialist researcher notes that this would mean installing 530 TWh/year of renewables capacity – as much as the current European total – exclusively for hydrogen output.

Source: The Hydrogen Hoax (the Ecologist); The Future of Hydrogen (IEA); Author’s research

Third, by grabbing renewably-produced electricity that Ukraine desperately needs itself, the EU would reinforce neo-colonial economic relations. The hydrogen imports proposal covers Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, as well as Ukraine, and would perpetuate a “neo-colonial energy model based on exploiting countries in the Global South”, the Corporate Europe Observatory has warned. The economic and energy needs of exporter countries would, in effect, be subordinated to an export business that serves the gas industry, and the richest European countries.

Energy researchers in Germany, the prime potential importer, have pointed to the country’s National Hydrogen Strategy, which states that trade in the gas should not “impede the supply of renewable energy, which is inadequate in many cases, in the developing countries”. If that principle were applied, the Ukrainian scheme would be paused tomorrow.

Fourth, fossil fuel companies conceived the European import plan to create a hydrogen market where it is not needed, primarily for residential heating. As Jan Rosenow, senior energy researcher at the Regulatory Assistance Project points out, gas industry representatives present hydrogen to politicians as a “low-cost, no-disruption option”, supported by “overblown” claims that clean alternatives are too expensive and disruptive.

Using renewables to power heat pumps is five times more efficient – and cheaper, a study for the UK’s Climate Change Committee found. Hydrogen makes sense only for winter back-up in hybrid systems. It is being pushed at the expense of rational climate policy.

Fifth, EU investment in hydrogen import would benefit neither Ukrainians nor the green transition, but would help fossil fuel companies, and perhaps nuclear ones. For the next 20 years, the German Energy Agency points out, dedicated transport infrastructure for hydrogen is unlikely to be available. Any hydrogen produced in Ukraine would probably be blended with gas.

European gas transport companies are working towards a gas-hydrogen mixture in which hydrogen is 10% of the volume. The opportunities for greenwashing this mixture would be sumptuous, while the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would be close to zero.

Another possibility that worries Ukrainian environmentalists is that electrolysis for green hydrogen would be powered by the country’s substantial nuclear power capacity, rather than wind or solar – another lifeline for an industry that needs to contract.

If the European Commission and the fossil fuel industry spend billions of euros on problematic hydrogen technology, that will inevitably be at the expense of energy conservation and renewables, the real decarbonisation priorities. They must not be allowed to use war-torn Ukraine as a testing-ground for a false solution. European and Ukrainian civil society can and must unite to stop them.

· Simon Pirani is an author, energy researcher and an honorary professor at Durham University. This article was originally published on Open Democracy