Belgium hammers hydrogen strategy


Tinne Van der Straeten, it must be said, does not sit still. A hydrogen strategy really fell from the skies on the eve of COP26.

We were able to watch how, still reeling from the shock, she reached a deal in principle with the Namibian Minister of Energy for the import of green hydrogen a few days later in Glasgow. Chile and Oman, two more nations with plenty of wind and sun, are also partners in this narrative.

The minister’s website summarizes the hydrogen plan as follows: “Its goal is to make Belgium a European import center for green hydrogen and a pioneer in hydrogen technology.” In other words, Belgium must become a hydrogen supply and transportation hub. For personal use, Germany, and Europe.

Today, the need for hydrogen as an energy carrier is overwhelming. The European Union has proclaimed hydrogen as the “missing link” in the transition to a new, sustainable energy strategy in 2020, following the lead of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.

The Flemish coalition accord has the potential to make the country the European leader in hydrogen technology. Waterstofnet, a Flemish-Dutch lobbying group, already has over a hundred enterprises keen to enter this lucrative industry. Almost the same businesses are lining up for help from the Walloon administration, and they are now receiving strategic backing from the federal government.

It is undeniable that hydrogen can and will play a significant role in the transition to a carbon-free civilization. There’s a significant reason behind this. The final component of climate policy is the shift from fossil to renewable energy sources.

Electricity from renewable sources, namely wind and sun, should be used to power all aspects of economic activity as much as feasible. The benefit is that it may occur anywhere, on a large or small scale, on land or at sea. However, windmills do not always turn, and the sun does not always shine at night.

The more the future reliance on renewable energy sources, the greater the risk of supply disruption. If there is an excess of sunlight or wind, storage must be feasible in order to establish an energy reserve that can bridge a gap in supply. Batteries can only give temporary relief in tiny amounts and for a limited time. As a result, hydrogen is unavoidably mentioned.

It is undeniable that hydrogen can and will play a significant role in the transition to a carbon-free civilization.

Hydrogen is a highly potent kind of energy. It’s why hydrogen is used to power rockets. It can be preserved in huge quantities and for extended periods of time with ease.

However, hydrogen does not occur naturally. If all of the power is generated from renewable, or variable, sources, the easy answer is to use the surpluses during peak production and low demand for water electrolysis.

Water splits into hydrogen and oxygen gas, a basic action that many of us performed in physics class. The hydrogen track’s main benefit is that it can also be used in reverse, which makes it so unique. In a fuel cell, hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air to create electricity, with water vapor as the exhaust product. The entire round-trip operation produces no CO2, making it carbon-neutral. Green hydrogen is used for temporary storage and energy reserves in this procedure.

From a purely technical standpoint, the hydrogen track is not cost-effective since every conversion results in a natural loss of energy. According to the doubters, if around 30% of the energy capacity is lost in electrolysis and another 50% is lost in the reverse operation, the overall energy efficiency is only 35%.

Hydrogen is a highly potent kind of energy. It’s why hydrogen is used to power rockets.

If renewable energy can be used directly, the entire procedure is obviously unnecessary, but this is not always the case and not always. The bigger the proportion of renewable energy, the more obvious the necessity for storage becomes.

Wind and solar energy are rapidly becoming the cheapest energy sources, therefore the energy loss is more than offset by the lower cost of renewable energy. In any event, the hydrogen path is already the greatest choice for decarbonizing long-distance heavy transport, industrial heating, and as a raw material for heavy industries, which together consume 15% of world energy.

Expanding that route in the future is thus essentially an issue of long-term vision.

There are additional compelling reasons to begin investing in hydrogen generation right now. The energy shift is a transformation that must affect all aspect of society, including industry, transportation, and construction and home heating. Hydrogen may play a variety of roles in all of these domains. For this reason, the’missing link’ that bridges and unites the various energy demands is appropriately referred to.

In any event, for 15% of world energy use, hydrogen is already the most viable choice.

Expanding that route in the future is thus essentially an issue of long-term vision.

To turn hydrogen into energy, the first three applications use a combination of storage tanks and fuel cells.

On a macro scale, hydrogen can keep the electrical system balanced by absorbing daily and seasonal peaks and troughs. To maintain this balance in highly changing situations and with widely scattered sources, a “sensible grid” (smart grid) is required. The discussion is titled “The lights should not go out,” and new gas-fired power plants are now being depended on to replace nuclear power plants when they close. However, this is due to a lack of investment in renewable energy.

Transportation accounts for around 22% of CO2 emissions, and it is the only sector in which emissions are increasing. The automobile industry has made it obvious that battery electric passenger vehicles are the way to go. However, the combination of hydrogen tank and fuel cell is considerably more apparent when it comes to heavy and long-distance transportation.

When nuclear power plants close, new gas-fired power plants are expected to replace them. This is solely due to a lack of investment in renewable energy.

Another type of electric propulsion is in the works for trucks, buses, trash trucks, ships, trains, and aircraft. Due to a scarcity of green hydrogen and hydrogen charging stations, the bus manufacturer Van Hool, which was a world leader in this field, will not stop producing hydrogen buses in Belgium.

About 20% of CO2 emissions come from heating and cooling houses and buildings. Hydrogen isn’t the most obvious resource in this situation. Direct use of renewable power in heat pumps, heating networks, and cogeneration are the greatest ways to replace oil and natural gas as fossil fuels. However, hydrogen generation and storage can also play a significant role in combining wind turbines or solar parks with hydrogen storage on a local scale in communities and apartment complexes, for example. We’re not even talking about Prof. Martens’ successful efforts at KUL to generate hydrogen straight from solar panels.

Despite a scarcity of green hydrogen and hydrogen charging stations in Belgium, bus manufacturer Van Hool will continue to produce hydrogen buses.

It doesn’t end there, though. The most remarkable application of hydrogen is as a raw material in industrial operations where fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas are no longer available. CO2 emissions from these processes presently account for 17% of total CO2 emissions. Hydrogen is the most immediate solution for this, at least in two important areas.

ArcelorMittal, our country’s top emitter, is responsible for 8% of total emissions. The steel industry may replace coke with hydrogen for iron ore reduction, as is now happening in a Swedish steel factory. It paves the way for the production of carbon-neutral steel in the future.

Methane (green natural gas) and methanol may be produced by mixing hydrogen with CO2. By manufacturing so-called green molecules, also known as e-fuels, this offers trapped CO2 a “green destination.” Methane can be utilized for heavy transport or in the gas network. In petrochemical operations, such as the manufacturing of ammonia and fertilizers, methanol can replace petroleum as a raw ingredient. The Antwerp port’s Power to Methanol pilot project intends to develop this option for the petrochemical cluster.

ArcelorMittal, our country’s top emitter, is responsible for 8% of total emissions.

Green hydrogen is a crucial component in the transition to a carbon-neutral society because of its extremely diverse application and lack of CO2 emissions.

Large capital organizations, it goes without saying, are keen to penetrate these new markets. This future market’s potential is nearly limitless. On a worldwide scale, the Hydrogen Council is a lobbying organisation comprised of nearly all major petroleum, gas, and energy companies.

Yes, why shouldn’t fossil monopolies want to control sustainable industries? They don’t want to miss out on future energy opportunities as they continue to plow through fossil and nuclear resources.

Energy monopolies don’t want to miss out on future energy outlets since they continue to use fossil and nuclear resources unchecked.

However, they will require government assistance to do so. Their issue is that it necessitates massive investments that are not immediately lucrative, or at least not as profitable as fossil and nuclear resources. Only a tiny portion of the necessary expenditures in this early stage of renewable technology can be justified on business grounds, according to the respected Mc Kinsey consultancy.

This is the gap, according to Mc Kinsey, that the government must close. Over the next 30 years, the study bureau estimates that European governments would have to pay out 4,900 billion euros in subsidies. It is a cost the government bears in order to make hydrogen “marketable” and to assist private monopolies in gaining control of these markets.

“That is the sum taxpayers should provide investors to entice them to participate in the energy transition: 365 euros per man, woman, and kid in the EU27, every year for 30 years,” says Mc Kinsey. Without a question, it’s painful and unjust, but it’s not unthinkable.”

To assist private monopolies win these markets, European governments should spend EUR 4,900 billion in subsidies.

On a big scale, this is also the case with the hydrogen track. According to the International Energy Agency, 17 countries have created hydrogen strategies, with another 20 in the works. [3]

The German and French governments gave their approval after launching assistance packages worth 9 and 7 billion euros for the development of the hydrogen economy last summer. In July 2020, the European Union released its own Hydrogen Strategy, which aligned with a roadmap for the growth of significant strategic infrastructure projects (Important Projects of Common European Interest).

Governments taking part in these initiatives are authorized to provide private corporations with astronomically huge subsidies. These are used to fill up the profit gap till the investments become lucrative.

Subsidies for energy monopolies are generous.
This is the time when we, too, will see the long-awaited breakthrough. For a long period, the Flemish-Dutch lobby organization Waterstofnet, to which over 100 corporations are attached, has exerted pressure, with Engie at the helm. Around the same corporations are queuing up behind Tweed, a lobbying organization in Wallonia.

It is therefore unsurprising that the 6 billion euros that our nation receives as part of the European Union’s Recovery Plan, which is split equally between the federal government and the governments of the Flemish and Walloon provinces, is spent mostly on hydrogen projects.

Governments are permitted to provide private corporations with astronomically huge subsidies. They help to close the gap in profitability.

The governments of Flemish and Walloon give €125 and €160 million, respectively, to promote the growth of the hydrogen industry in their respective regions, while the federal government provides €95 million for hydrogen and CO2 infrastructure development. The Flemish government generously supports hydrogen production pilot projects in Zeebrugge (Colruyt) and Ostend with a funding from the European Recovery Fund (DEME).

But this is merely the beginning. The senior CEOs of ArcelorMittal, father and son Mittal, were greeted at Ghent city hall just before the COP26. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Prime Minister Jan Jambon promised them that Flanders would provide 350 million euros in subsidies for a 1.1 billion euro investment to put the steel industry on the road to carbon-free manufacturing using hydrogen.

The most major professional organisation of employers, Agoria, requests a hydrogen strategy immediately in March 2021. Agoria brings together approximately 2000 technological firms from the manufacturing, digital, and telecommunications industries. The federal level is now present, following the Flemish and Walloon regions.

What does not come under the jurisdiction of the regions, such as offshore, massive backbone infrastructure, and imports, is handled by the federal government. The government is making two huge promises in the water and on land: the development of an island in the second offshore zone and the installation of a hydrogen backbone connecting ports and industries. The island project serves as an energy crossroads for links to neighboring nations as well as the mainland. The pipes will be extended to the big industrial clusters in the ports of Ghent and Antwerp on the Belgian mainland.

There are severe doubts regarding the government’s import policy.

The most critical decision, though, is to go all-in on hydrogen imports. Many problems are raised by the hasty choice to focus on hydrogen imports from South America, southern Africa, and Oman in the Middle East. Because the approach expects that domestic hydrogen generation would remain restricted, it is a departure from a big investment plan on the ground. There would be insufficient space for the essential renewable energy expenditures.

It is undeniably true that there are more favorable locations on the planet for solar and wind-powered electricity generation. It’s also true that Belgium only has a tiny territorial zone in the North Sea, with a little area. However, there are still significant concerns regarding the government’s import plan.

It is a transit-oriented approach that focuses on Belgium. Because of transportation expenses, according to Dutch expert Ad Van Wijk, importing hydrogen from North Africa, where production circumstances are more favorable, costs the same as producing it in the nation.

At home, the possibilities for investment and interaction with near neighbors have just just begun.

It goes without saying that shipping firms like CMB and Belgian ports welcome the import of hydrogen from Chile or Namibia, not just for Belgium but also for the European hinterland. They had already formed a Hydrogen Import Coalition, maybe to offset the decline in gas and petroleum imports by importing hydrogen. And this, despite the fact that opportunities for investment in our own nation and collaboration with our near neighbors have just just begun.

A hydrogen strategy is unique in that it necessitates long-term planning that impacts society as a whole and cuts across all sectors. In any event, it will begin with a massive surge of renewable energy investment.

If large investments are made in renewable sources, the nuclear phase-out would be completely achievable without the need of gas-fired power plants. Major offshore projects, onshore cooperative projects, large solar parks, and support measures for local and individual solar panel deployment are the best ways to achieve this.

If large investments are made in renewable sources, the nuclear phase-out would be completely achievable without the need of gas-fired power plants.

Furthermore, the simultaneous roll-out of the most efficient hydrogen production and storage technologies must begin with a global vision in which the various sectors’ cohesiveness and the growth of the distribution network are as closely integrated as feasible. Environmental organizations Bond Beter Leefmilieu, Greenpeace, and Inter-Environnement Wallonie have expressed alarm over this.

They applaud the federal government’s announcement of a hydrogen strategy today, but they also warn against hijackers on the coast, particularly in the gas industry. It is critical that they do not establish programs that will keep us enslaved to fossil fuels.

The governments will pay out large subsidies for the formation of a “mature market” if we want a common denominator for the present hydrogen initiatives, whether European, federal, or regional. A mature market is one with adequate sales prospects for private enterprises to profit from their investments and exploitation.

It is up to the latter to choose if the subsidies are sufficient to allow them to take risks and invest their money. As a result, many pilot projects are launched, albeit in a disorganized and generally unrelated manner. As a result, there has been a proliferation of state-sponsored programs on a far larger scale than is required.

Environmentalists warn about hijackers on the coast, particularly in the gas industry. It is critical that they do not establish programs that will keep us enslaved to fossil fuels.

While no one knows if Engie-Electrabel has the finances to dispose of nuclear waste, the company is in the lead for government funding for several hydrogen initiatives. Private money makes the decisions, while governments help to scale up test initiatives and develop successful markets.

Furthermore, the government funds all infrastructure, which is first tailored to ArcelorMittal and the petrochemical sector in Antwerp. Everything now is aimed around appeasing the largest polluters, in order to persuade them to turn around as quickly as possible by piling on subsidies and footing the bill for infrastructure.

Finally, the federal government and the regions’ lack of collaboration and shared vision is noticeable in this situation. In the hydrogen file, the problem surrounding the nuclear departure and gas-fired power plants is replicated.

Everything now is aimed around appeasing the largest polluters, in order to persuade them to turn around as quickly as possible by piling on subsidies and footing the bill for infrastructure.

This indicates that a significant potential to build the whole energy strategy under public administration has been wasted, in which the government may coordinate strategic investments under its own management and with democratic engagement from customers. It would be so much easier if there was a single agreed vision for renewable energy generation, storage, and distribution that grew out of a foundation of public effort. In this aspect, a government investment bank may be a great leader.

Arnes Biogradlija
Creative Content Director at EnergyNews.Biz

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