Germany is in talks about the import of “CO2-neutral” hydrogen from Russia, energy minister Peter Altmaier said during a virtual conference on bilateral relations.

The minister was, however, unclear whether discussions concerned imports of green hydrogen produced via electrolysis from renewable electricity, or blue hydrogen from natural gas linked to carbon capture and storage (CCS) from a nation that is already Germany's biggest gas supplier.

While green hydrogen is CO2-free, blue H2 still emits some, as only 95-99% of the climate-destroying gas can be captured in the CCS process (see panel below).

"Germany is striving for massive imports of CO2-neutral hydrogen," Altmaier said in a video message at the conference organised by the German-Russian chamber of commerce.

"Russia has the best conditions for the production and transport of hydrogen. Also and especially of green hydrogen. We are in close contact with the Russian energy ministry about that.

"We offer Russia support and a deepened cooperation."

German hydrogen strategy

Germany as part of its national hydrogen strategy launched last spring said it wants to ramp up a massive production of green H2 produced from domestic renewable energy sources, as well as large-scale imports from the EU and beyond.

But the €9bn ($10.9bn) strategy also left loopholes for blue hydrogen, by stating Germany will allow for temporary imports of fossil-based hydrogen if it is linked to CCS.

Russia currently is Germany’s biggest provider of natural gas (ahead of Norway and the Netherlands), and the country has an interest of keeping it that way as Germany is its biggest gas client in the EU.

As Germany and the EU are trying to exit all fossil-based energy sources – including natural gas – to reach their net zero target by 2050, Russia has been trying to join the emerging European hydrogen economy. But the Eurasian giant often either leaves out whether that means green or blue hydrogen, or is openly hostile to the green variety as it could undermine its possibilities to continue exporting natural gas.

Alexander Ishkov, head of the energy efficiency and environmental department at Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, for example, at a December 2020 conference lashed out on the terminology used to define how hydrogen could be produced — grey, blue and green hydrogen — as "discriminatory" Recharge's sister publication Upstream reported.

Instead, he suggested a "scientific approach" should be taken by applying permissible limits of CO2 emissions to all hydrogen production methods.

Ready for hydrogen cooperation

Russian trade and industry minister Denis Manturov during the German-Russian conference today said the development of hydrogen power is of great importance to both countries, but didn’t detail which form of hydrogen he meant.

"We are ready for open cooperation in this area, including the development and production of equipment and the implementation of infrastructure projects for the manufacturing and storage of hydrogen as well as its transportation," Manturov said.

Stephan Weil, the premier of the German state of Lower Saxony, at the same conference said that the German-Russian energy partnership will remain, but its essence may change significantly as Russia could play a central role in the production of renewable energy.

"The potential of the country is huge, its territory is quite suitable for wind power and solar energy production," Weil said.

But the state premier also stressed that Germany will still rely on natural gas for coming years in the medium term, as the country is simultaneously exiting nuclear and coal-based power.

Nord Stream 2 and geopolitics

Weil said that he therefore also supports the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would double Gazprom’s capacity to export Russian natural gas to Germany to 110 billion cubic metres per year.

Nord Stream 2 has come under attack by climate activists across Europe, who say the pipeline will cement the use of climate-destroying gas in the EU, while central European nations such as Poland and Ukraine fear the direct link from Russia to German under the Baltic Sea will lessen their bargaining power with Russia as gas pipeline transit countries.

The US government has also been demanding to stop the project, because of fears of a higher dependence of Germany and the EU from Russian natural gas.

At the same time, the US is believed to want to push exports of its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. That wouldn’t be better for the environment, however, as US gas comes mostly from fracking, which has a worse climate record than Russian gas. Also shipping LNG to Europe causes further CO2 emissions.

To safeguard Russian gas exports to Germany, Gazprom in December has proposed to build a major processing plant on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast to convert imported methane into hydrogen.

Ishkov suggested that Nord Stream's infrastructure could potentially be used to transport CO2 back to Russia where it can be stored.

The colours of hydrogen

Green hydrogen : produced by splitting water (H2O) molecules into hydrogen and oxygen inside a machine called an electrolyser that is powered by renewable energy. It is also known as renewable hydrogen. If the electricity used is not 100% renewable, then it is not green hydrogen, it is electrolytic hydrogen.

Grey hydrogen : produced by splitting methane (CH4) molecules using a process called steam methane reforming (or a similar process called autothermal reforming). The remaining carbon reacts with air to form CO2. For every tonne of H2 produced, nine to 12 tonnes of CO2 are produced. Grey hydrogen can also be produced from coal gasification, which is common in China. This is sometimes known as brown or black hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen: this is produced the same way as grey hydrogen, but the CO2 emissions are captured and stored (or used). Strictly speaking, this is low-carbon hydrogen as only 95-99% of the CO2 released be captured.

Turquoise hydrogen: produced by heating methane to high temperatures inside pyrolysis ovens (ie, in the absence of oxygen, so CO2 cannot be formed in the process). This technology is still at the experimental stage.

Purple hydrogen: produced by gasification of municipal waste (heating it to temperatures of more than 1,000°C), which produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. This is an unofficial term disliked by the hydrogen-from-waste industry, which prefers to call its product “green hydrogen”.

By Leigh Collins

Vladimir Afanasiev at Upstream in Moscow contributed to this article