A split has emerged within the German cabinet as to whether its forthcoming national hydrogen strategy should exclusively support green hydrogen produced from renewable energy or include so-called 'blue hydrogen' produced from fossil fuels with the carbon captured and stored.
With billions of euros in subsidies at stake, the decision could have a massive impact in driving down the cost of either technology through economies of scale.
The conflict goes beyond party affiliations, and pits powerful economics and energy minister Peter Altmaier from Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) against both his CDU colleague Anja Karliczek, the science minister, and environment minister Svenja Schulze from the Social Democrats (SPD).
“The future belongs to green hydrogen alone,” Karliczek said in an interview to the weekend edition of business newspaper Handelsblatt, which the ministry deemed important enough to publish as the main item on the frontpage of its website.
Environment minister Schulze when presenting a Power-to-X action programme last year also stressed that only green hydrogen must be used to reach a positive climate effect.
Even transport minister Andreas Scheuer from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, over the weekend spoke out in favour of hydrogen in transport (for lorries, buses, or trains) that is exclusively made from green hydrogen – although Scheuer’s eco-credentials otherwise are blurry. The minister continues to defend diesel cars and is strictly against a speed limit on Germany’s Autobahns, although the measure would reduce emissions.
In his draft national hydrogen strategy — which also mulls holding special tenders for offshore wind farms dedicated at the production of hydrogen — Altmaier explicitly included fossil-based hydrogen linked to carbon capture and storage (CCS).
“In order to be able to achieve a rapid market ramp-up of hydrogen technologies for the decarbonisation of various areas of application, CO2-neutral ("blue") hydrogen will also have to play a role, above all for economic reasons,” the draft seen by Recharge states.
According to Handlesblatt, Norwegian oil major Equinor has been lobbying Berlin for months in favour of blue hydrogen derived from its natural gas.
However, while green hydrogen production is a zero-carbon technology, blue H2 production is not. A maximum of 95% of the carbon can be captured when producing hydrogen from natural gas, and that is only when using the more expensive autothermal reforming (ATR) method, which is more expensive than the far more common steam methane reforming (SMR) process. There are also scientific doubts as to whether CO2 stored in underground reservoirs will stay there forever, or what geological processes the technology could trigger.
Besides, it is questionable whether building up a massive CCS infrastructure including specified vessels and pipelines to transport the climate-killing CO2 would be worthwhile.
“With the National Hydrogen Strategy we should think green, global and big,” Karliczek said in the interview.
“We must not get bogged down with blue hydrogen and should instead concentrate on the question of how we can make green hydrogen successful and where we can get green hydrogen from.”
It is unclear whether the little-known science minister or environment minister Schulze will be able to change the mind of Altmaier, who is a close confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel and in charge of the main lines of Germany’s Energiewende — its transition from nuclear and fossil fuel to renewable energy.
Like Altmaier, Karliczek believes that Germany won’t be able to meet all its future hydrogen needs through domestic production alone, and thinks the country will have to import most of it from abroad.
The government is already exploring opportunities for hydrogen production and the resulting supply chains in West African countries such as Ghana, the science minister said.
The economics and energy ministry couldn’t tell Recharge when the draft of the hydrogen strategy will be voted on in the cabinet, nor whether Altmaier would be willing to compromise on the green v blue hydrogen question.
An environment ministry press official said negotiations between the ministries were ongoing, and stressed minister Schulze favours the use of green hydrogen in difficult-to-decarbonise industries such as steel making and chemicals over its use in transport.
Voting on the hydrogen strategy as early as by the end of this month - as minister Altmaier hopes for - may be too ambitious, the press official thinks, but like the economics ministry couldn't tell either when the proposal would go to the cabinet.
UPDATES to add environment ministry comment