Hydrogen is not an end in itself, but an important building block for the transition to climate-friendlier infrastructures. An absolute prerequisite for this is the additional expansion of renewable energies. The recent decision by the EU Parliament has left this hanging in the balance.
For the climate-friendly transformation, green hydrogen is an essential factor. It enables some industrial applications and parts of the transport sector to be defossilized or decarbonized. But: To be able to produce green hydrogen, an additional and faster expansion of renewable energies is urgently required. However, a corresponding proposal submitted by the EU Commission in May 2022 was rejected by the EU Parliament. Whether the additional renewable energies so urgently needed for hydrogen production will be available is therefore a question for the time being.
If no additional renewable energy resources are created, to draw on already existing ones would require taking away from the electric power sector. This would, on the one hand, reduce the overall energy efficiency, since the conversion of electricity into hydrogen is accompanied with efficiency losses. On the other hand, the quantities of electricity used for hydrogen production in the power sector would have to be partially replaced through fossil energies, which is counterproductive to CO2 reduction and therefore to meeting the legally set climate targets for Germany.
In the current situation and against the background of the fossil energy crisis resulting from the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, it is imperative to not promote fossil structures that are not urgently required for security of energy supply.
The hydrogen economy must additionally be viewed against the backdrop of the energy policy triad of prosperity, energy security and climate protection. This triad must be approached intelligently. The hydrogen economy certainly offers potential in this, since it is sometimes the only decarbonization and defossilization option for important applications in the industrial and transport sectors. For example, it offers immense opportunities as a storage and flexibility option for the power sector and as a substitute for the CO2-intensive blast furnace process in the steel industry. Furthermore, a variety of jobs and export opportunities for clean technologies can be created.
For assurance of planning and investment security, producers of hydrogen and its derivatives have been placed on a fixed roadmap (Hydrogen Roadmap Europe), by which stakeholders can avoid bad investments as well. A flexible use of electrolyzers can ensure that hydrogen is produced with low emissions and at low cost. Legacy clauses – with exemption periods for plants built in the early term as well as sensible entry paths into the regulations for additional renewable energies – could combine a quick ramp-up of the hydrogen economy with possibilities for long-term planning.
If the EU Parliament decides to relax the rules on hydrogen production, though, this could drive up electricity prices and thus the production costs of hydrogen even further. Because: The electricity withdrawn as a result would then have to be replenished through expensive natural gas-fired power plants, which in turn would increase the cost of renewably produced hydrogen.
In addition to criteria for electricity obtainment, other sustainability criteria must also be set – and globally. We now have the opportunity to shape and establish a global hydrogen economy that contributes locally and internationally to the achievement of climate targets and sustainable development goals (SDGs), creates value in all partner countries and strengthens international relations. For this, it is crucial that the EU cooperates with all relevant actors in the partner countries to unite the respective interests in the best possible way.
We need climate protection in order to secure our economy in the long term. In short: On a Rhine without water, we will not be able to transport goods efficiently. We must not forget one thing: Climate protection today is always cheaper than climate protection tomorrow. Therefore, we should now implement serious climate protection measures as quickly as possible. We need a rapid ramp-up of the hydrogen economy in order to achieve the climate targets. To this end, we should in particular accelerate and incorporate more in the expansion of renewable energies.
Author: Ulrike Hinz, WWF Deutschland, Berlin, firstname.lastname@example.org