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Europe’s Hydrogen Strategy To Nowhere

Samuel Furfari, European Scientist

What the EU is promising in this area is nothing more than tax expenditure for a solution that no one in the world will adopt.

The European Commission presented its hydrogen strategy in July 2020. It is convinced that it will be possible to make ‘clean’ hydrogen a viable solution for a climate-neutral economy and to build a dynamic value chain for this resource in the EU. It is even convinced to do that over the next five years. The European Commission is convinced that “from 2025 to 2030, hydrogen needs to become an intrinsic part of our integrated energy system, with at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and the production of up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU”. For 2030 hydrogen produced with renewable energy should be deployed across all the EU. In doing so, it follows the example of Germany, which launched its hydrogen strategy a month earlier. The Commission know that this will be a conflict with the market law and propose therefore to create a value chain by boosting the demand for hydrogen that does not exist presently; this will require a “supportive framework” i.e. an imposition to the market by policy.

A false solution to a real problem

Since more than 40 years, the EU is promoting renewable energy first in supporting the development of new technologies and since 2001 obliging by legislation the production of renewable electricity and from 2009 also for others renewable energy. Since 2000 the EU and its Members States have spent more than €1 million millions to reach with wind and solar energy 2.5% of its primary energy demand. The aim now is to reach 100% by 2050. Despite a strong development during 2008-2015, investment in intermittent renewable electricity in the EU is not keeping pace. But some Member States are continuing their headlong rush towards a stillborn solution. Let’s also remind that for the EU renewable energy means practically wind and solar. For them, hydropower, which is the flagship of the permanent, controllable, economical and clean renewable energies that were massively installed in the 1950s, is a taboo subject. Wind and solar energy production being by nature intermittent, in case of insufficient demand, the excess must be disposed of by paying to get rid of it, and this cost is borne by all consumers, and particularly the domestic consumers. 

Storing this excess of electricity is therefore a must, but the utopian promises made by politicians and certain industrialists regarding batteries have not and will not be kept for intrinsic reasons linked to electrochemistry but also to geopolitics, because China controls the battery market through its stranglehold on rare earths. It remains the solution to convert into hydrogen the electricity that the market does not want. This is the rationale behind the strategy: to find a solution to the problem of intermittency of wind and solar electricity.

A very inefficient solution

The conversion of this unwanted surplus electricity into hydrogen will be realised by electrolysis of water and then either use it as fuel or convert it back into electricity in fuel cells. That is a marvel: clean electricity producing clean fuel that only produces water when it is consumed. As a bonus, this will be an alternative to electric vehicles in case this other imposed strategy doesn’t work either! Let’s observe that Germany, Japan, South Korea and even Russia have just announced major investments in hydrogen-powered mobility, so as not to depend too much on rare earths and Chinese batteries. Enthusiasm is at its height: trains, ships and even aeroplanes are going to run on hydrogen. They haven’t yet thought about hydrogen-powered bicycles and trotinettes, but it won’t be long before they do!

This goes far beyond the utopia of biofuels at the beginning of the 2000s, imposed by the EU despite common sense and scientific data, and whose echo of failure remains very discreet. In 2008, the EU had decreed a 10% production of biofuels for transport by 2020 but in 2018, the same EU decided to move from a “minimum” to a “maximum”. They could not ban it despite the negative impact on the environment because their 2008 directive had led industrialists to invest in the sector. So, we continue to subsidise a production that is bad for the environment. With the new hydrogen strategy, we are rushing towards the same failure and the same waste of subsidies because it is totally inefficient from an energy point of view.

Here is the proposed mechanism: 

    1. Produce intermittent and therefore sometimes excess electricity using wind and solar power.
    2. Transform this electricity into hydrogen by electrolysis of water.
    3. Compress or liquefy the hydrogen to store and transport it.
    4. Burning it to produce electricity.

None of these steps require new technology, they just need the investment to be realised. But industrial chemical processes are never 100% efficient. Step 2 is at best 80% efficient, and step 3 is 70% efficient. Step 4 with fuel cells – an expensive technology that is not yet mass-produced despite 30 years of public support in the EU and the USA – is 50% efficient today. The efficiency of the whole process is therefore 0.80 x 0.70 x 0.50 = 0.28. Of the 100 units of energy produced by wind turbines or solar panels, not even 30% remains. The process is totally inefficient and therefore will not have any industrial application without subsidies. The inefficiency is, of course, translated into a higher cost.

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