When the Dutch government last week announced plans to construct the world’s first national hydrogen network, H2 proponents might have been excited at the thought that the strategy could quickly be replicated in other countries.

But the reality is that the set-up in the Netherlands is “probably unique” , according to Gasunie, the transmission system operator for the country’s high-pressure natural-gas network, which has been tasked with building and operating the new H2 system.

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To start with, about 85% of the new hydrogen network will consist of repurposed natural-gas pipelines — which would be 65-94% cheaper than building new H2 pipes, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s recent Global Hydrogen Trade report (part 2). And this conversion is only possible because “we have developed in the last decades a very robust and modern transport network”, a Gasunie spokesman tells Recharge.

Secondly, the existing Gasunie gas network — a “highway” connecting the country's main industrial areas — has seven parallel gas pipelines running from the north to the south of the country.

“As natural gas consumption decreases and hydrogen demand increases, we can repurpose these pipelines one by one from gas to hydrogen,” said the spokesman. “So over time, more and more companies will — in line with their own climate policies — make the transition from gas to hydrogen as they continue to innovate and invest in renewal of their installations.

“[This] situation in the Netherlands is probably unique in that we have the most advanced and sophisticated network in the world, given our history with the abundance of natural gas in Groningen and the many small gas fields both onshore and offshore in such a small country.”

As gas pipelines can only be repurposed for hydrogen* when they are no longer being used to carry methane, the Netherlands’ multiple parallel pipelines allow for a very gradual move to H2. For instance, with seven pipelines, converting one to H2 would only reduce the fossil gas supply by 14%. By contrast, converting a single pipeline to transport pure hydrogen would obviously reduce the gas supply by 100% — something that would be far harder to manage.

It also helps that Gasunie does not operate local grids or supply gas directly to private consumers, making its gradual move into H2 much simpler.

Several other European countries, such as Germany, Italy, and Poland, have some parallel gas pipelines — but not as many running side by side. So Italy has three parallel pipes in parts of its northeast and southwest, Germany has three in its south, while Poland has four in its centre.

Converting these one by one to hydrogen in the same way, would mean a sudden reduction in gas supply of 25% or 33% — a tougher prospect than in the Netherlands — and these parallel pipes make up a much smaller part of those countries’ networks.

Converting gas pipes to hydrogen

The new Dutch hydrogen network “will focus on connecting the large industrial clusters with the Dutch ports, where hydrogen from offshore wind turbines will arrive”, as well as storage locations, the Gasunie spokesman explains, and possibly later link to H2 networks in Belgium and Germany.

The Netherlands has several offshore wind-powered green hydrogen projects in development, including the Shell-led 10GW NortH2, and the 200MW Holland Hydrogen 1 — which Shell took a final investment decision on yesterday — while BP, RWE, Vattenfall, Orsted and TotalEnergies are all hoping to produce green hydrogen from the 1.5GW Hollandse Kust West zone if their bids win at the national tender in the autumn.

The Gasunie spokesman tells Recharge that converting the company's “mostly steel” gas pipes to run on hydrogen — a far smaller molecule more liable to leak — will require new valve stations, but no new compressors “in the first period of operation.. as the required pressure in the network will be delivered at the entry points”.

He points out that “we have done several tests that show that existing pipelines are fit for use as hydrogen pipelines”.

“In fact, in the south of the country, we already have a functioning hydrogen pipeline that was previously used for natural gas transport. The pipeline is functioning as planned and no issues have arisen.

“Before any pipeline is repurposed it will undergo thorough inspections. If we find any small issues, the pipeline will be replaced.”

* Blending up to 20% hydrogen with natural gas is possible in pipelines, but it is very difficult and energy-intensive to separate these gases later on, and such technology has not yet been proven commercially or at scale.