A group of European scientists urged the EU to back green hydrogen from renewables as its energy transition engine, warning the climate benefits of blue H2 from fossil fuels are “limited” even if abated by carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), whose members include the national science academies of EU member states plus the UK, Norway and Switzerland, sent the warning as they called on the bloc to remove subsidies and other incentives for fossil fuels.
“Direct and indirect support to fossil fuels sends the wrong signals,” said William Gillett, EASAC’s energy programme director. “The EU should rather strengthen carbon pricing and revise the emissions trading directive to build investor confidence in future markets for renewable electricity and renewable hydrogen.”
The European Commission’s new hydrogen strategy, unveiled in early July, prioritised green hydrogen – produced using mainly wind and solar energy – over blue, derived from natural gas abated with CCS. The latter would only be used on a temporary basis until renewable H2 achieves scale.
The ability of green hydrogen to meet early demand without the help of the blue variety has emerged as one of the talking points of the energy transition.
“Even in combination with CCS, fossil-fuel based hydrogen still has a significant carbon footprint. To achieve carbon-neutrality, the EU should take a leadership role in global markets for renewable hydrogen and in the manufacture of low cost electrolysers to produce it,” said Gillett.
The scientists believe the fast growing demand for hydrogen in the EU must be met by a massive increase in renewable electricity, together with certified imports from third countries.
“Electricity is a great way to decarbonise our economy. But important sectors such as ships, trucks, planes and steel production cannot easily be powered by electricity.
“The growing demand for hydrogen and synthetic fuels will require much more renewable electricity to be generated in the EU. In addition, Europe will need imports and must therefore develop partnerships with third countries to drive global trade in renewable hydrogen and in technologies to produce it,” explained Gillett.
The scientists also highlight the importance of avoiding premature and expensive lock-ins to new or renovated infrastructures that are subsequently made redundant by cheaper technologies or market developments.
“In the electricity sector, distributed generation is playing an ever increasing role. Building on this experience, it makes good sense to think local for hydrogen and adopt a phased approach: initially deploying distributed electrolysers for local hydrogen production, feeding into local market networks,” said Gillett.
“Also the synthetic fuels pathway is less efficient than using electricity together with a battery or using electricity directly, so hydrogen or synthetic fuels will only predominantly be used where electrification is not an option.”
The European Commission wants to see at least 6GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers installed in the EU by the end of 2024, producing up to 1 million tonnes of green H2. Currently, just under 10 million tonnes of grey hydrogen – made from unabated fossil fuels – is produced across the continent, mainly for use in oil refining, ammonia fertiliser production and chemicals.
Under the EU's plans, installed electrolyser capacity will increase to at least 40GW by 2030, producing up to ten million tonnes of green H2.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) last month produced a study showing global fossil fuels enjoy annual subsidy support worth $3.1 trillion, around 20 times the level the world’s governments offered to renewables.
Irena said decisive policy support for the energy transition and a comprehensive “rebalance” of subsidies away from fossil fuels could by 2050 lead to a dramatic fall in the subsidy bill for the entire energy sector to $475bn.
Renewables would take $209bn of that, with a residual $139bn for fossil fuels, mostly accounted for by support for CCS.