Nearly three years after the Paris Agreement, we start to see governments explore pathways complementary to electrification by renewables to achieve long-term climate objectives. This is smart, as there are limits, technical and economical, to fully electrifying our modern economies. Other forms of cleaner energy or CO2 mitigation are necessary for sectors such as heavy long-haul transport, heating and industry, and we need complementary solutions to increasing renewables share in the power segment.
One option, hydrogen, is now rightly gaining traction among EU policymakers as witnessed by the Hydrogen Initiative Declaration signed by EU energy ministers in Linz just recently.
However, most of the discussion today centers around hydrogen produced from renewable power and electrolysis – also known as ‘green hydrogen’. This ignores the way we can decarbonise the world’s largest source of hydrogen – steam reformed natural gas – with CCUS solutions. Such a technological combination would allow for industrial scale volumes of carbon neutral hydrogen, also called ‘blue hydrogen’, and lay the foundations for a future European hydrogen economy. It provides for Europe being big on big things.
But, for a timely, efficient and effective multi-sector decarbonisation of the European economy, we should not pit green against blue hydrogen. There are reasons to believe in strong complementarities, as they are both clean.
Firstly, for wind and solar power to keep being rapidly deployed, dispatchable carbon neutral sources of power needs to be available when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. Converted gas turbines running on clean hydrogen here provides a solution. Also, in repurposing power generation facilities and natural gas infrastructures, a cost-efficient transformation towards a deeply decarbonised energy system can be achieved.
Secondly, both forms of clean hydrogen must combine to provide the necessary volumes at the conditions needed to achieve emission reductions in sectors where renewables alone will not suffice, and deep decarbonization through electrification is difficult to achieve. Examples are heavy, long-haul land and maritime transport sectors, steel, cement, chemical, and even refining.
Indeed, large industrial-scale production of blue hydrogen will through economies of scale help the integration of smaller-scale green hydrogen, whether it is produced from surplus renewable electricity or dedicated electrolysis value chains. We need both forms of sustainable hydrogen to succeed in building the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen in time for all sectors of the economy to contribute to tackling climate change.
Thirdly, a market for sustainable hydrogen can also make a significant contribution to Europe’s circular economy agenda. On the one hand, Europe’s waste incineration plants combust 80 million tons of waste and emit 60 million tons of CO2 a year. They need access to CO2 handling infrastructure in order to decarbonise. The CCUS infrastructures and value chains built with blue hydrogen projects as a backbone can contribute to the development of a European circular carbon economy. On the other hand, microbiological waste treatment can contribute to green hydrogen production, and will need access to hydrogen infrastructure. Wider deployment can be facilitated by blue hydrogen projects.
Finally, sustainable hydrogen can be progressively blended into the vast European natural gas grid serving energy-intensive industries, households and transport, thereby providing an immediate and wide-ranging decarbonisation across the economy. In the longer term, one could even envisage a full switch to clean hydrogen in the gas grid. This was the reality in a number of European cities during the last century, when town gas was widely used. While the UK might leave the EU, they today lead the EU in terms of progressing how such solutions would look in the 21st century, with their grid conversion projects in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
For the reasons above, sustainable hydrogen and CCUS go hand in hand in European efforts to deliver on the Paris Agreement. By combining the abundance of natural gas resources available to our continent and our vast geological CO2 storage capacity, Europe can further strengthen a global leadership in hydrogen as well as carbon management and abatement technologies.
Importantly, this is not a game of playing a technological catch up with other regions of the world, but one of solidifying our leadership and reap long lasting jobs and growth opportunities. This is what should make blue hydrogen a no brainer for Europe.
In its EU 2050 strategy update, the European Commission should therefore recognise natural gas-derived hydrogen and CCUS solutions as important elements of delivering on the Paris Agreement. In addition, it should recommend Member States to include their plans for sustainable hydrogen in their upcoming Integrated National Energy and Climate Plans under the regulation on the Governance of the Energy Union.
In going green and blue, Europe goes clean.
Olav Aamlid Syversen is Deputy Head of Equinor EU Affairs Office and Chair of IOGP’s EU Committee.