There will be simply not be enough renewable energy available to produce all the clean hydrogen that Europe will need in the coming years, a senior European Commission official told the Eurelectric Power Summit on Thursday.
“The goal is green hydrogen, but we have to accept that there has to be some blue hydrogen along the way,” said Joaquim Nunes de Almeida, director for mobility and energy-intensive industries at DG GROW, the equivalent of the EC’s economics ministry. “There's simply no renewable capacity at this stage to go for a 100% green hydrogen, it's as simple as that.”
Green hydrogen is produced from renewable energy (via electrolysers that split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen), while blue H2 is derived from natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that cannot capture all of the CO2 emitted in methane reforming processes.
Nunes’ viewpoint was challenged by SolarPower Europe CEO Walburga Hemetsberger, a fellow panelist at the Hydrogen: the matchmaker of the energy system? session. She stated that Europe’s H2 demand could be entirely met by renewable hydrogen if that demand was limited to only those sectors that absolutely need the clean gas — such as hard-to-abate industries, shipping and aviation.
“If we concentrate on the demand that is necessary, I think we can get there with renewable hydrogen,” she said.
Hemetsberger also referred to a recent forecast by analyst Bloomberg NEF that the price of green hydrogen would fall below the price of grey in some locations by 2030.
Alfred Hoffman, managing director of Vattenfall’s wind power unit, pointed to the need to ween Europe off carbon-emitting fuels: “[Hydrogen] has to be fossil-free, for sure — there’s no alternative, that’s the whole purpose of it.”
But he did concede: “There might be a chance for a role for blue hydrogen, at least during a transition period, even though my personal view is that, to the extent carbon storage is available, it should rather be used for capturing and storing residual CO2 emissions [from] somewhere else in the energy industry.”
Two panelists called for blue hydrogen to be allowed to compete with green H2, arguing that even if production of blue H2 resulted in stranded assets when more green hydrogen becomes available, it should be left to the market to decide if it wants to take on that risk.
“I think in order for us to achieve our ambitions, we will need to be pragmatic and open to all technological opportunities,” said David Bryson, chief operating officer and chief sustainability officer at Uniper, the natural gas-focused utility that was spun off from E.ON in 2016. “Our focus should lie on CO2 reduction when it comes to production — let the market determine the rest.”
He later added: “I believe that we should use as much green hydrogen as we can, as soon as we can — that's clear because it's the better outcome from a climate perspective. But I think we should be colour agnostic. Blue hydrogen will be better than grey [produced from unabated fossil gas or coal] for a period. Yes, we have an issue around stranded assets and people that invest need to understand that and manage that, but that's their choice in a market.”
Michael Liebreich, the independent analyst and founder of Bloomberg NEF, agreed.
“What I would urge is that we move away from the colour coding of hydrogen and we talk about whether it's good hydrogen or not-good hydrogen. What does good hydrogen look like? It is hydrogen where there are no fugitive methane emissions [ie, a powerful greenhouse gas] — which of course when it comes from the fossil fuel sector the worry is that you've got loss of methane before it's turned into hydrogen,” he said.
“And the other thing would be capture of 100% — or as near as possible to 100% — of the CO2. I think if it can fulfil those two conditions, then I don't see why we should be discriminating against blue hydrogen.”
He added: “Alfred raises an important point though — if that then fills up the CCS, the carbon capture capacity, which we will need for things like cement and other parts of the economy that are more difficult to decarbonise process emissions, what I would suggest is what we really need is a liquid market in that CCS capacity.
“So we need... the best mechanism known to the economy for allocating that sort of constrained resource, [which] is pricing. So if the cement industry needs it more than the hydrogen industry, then it should pay for that. And if the hydrogen industry needs it more, then I don't see any reason why it should be discriminated against.”