As it seeks to accelerate efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the European Union is betting big on hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuels like oil, and for good reason: hydrogen emits no CO2, so if produced using clean energy sources, the fuel could have a big impact in the global fight against climate change.
Last year, the European Commission issued a dedicated Hydrogen Strategy as a first step in that direction. According to the Commission, “the strategy’s goal is to decarbonize hydrogen production – made possible by the significant reduction in the cost of renewable energy and the acceleration of technological breakthroughs – and to extend its usage in areas where it can replace fossil fuels.” According to the Strategy, hydrogen’s contribution of the European energy mix should increase from 2% to 14% over the next three decades, with initiatives such as the multicountry HyDeal Ambition plan driving the fuel source’s development.
More recently, in May, the European Parliament embraced “green” hydrogen derived from renewable sources as part of Europe’s energy transition, following a legislative initiative led by rapporteurs Jens Geier (S&D) and Hildegard Bentele (EPP) from the Industry and Environment committees, which culminated in MEPs voting overwhelmingly in May to support and expand the Commission’s hydrogen strategy. The acceptance of green hydrogen by Brussels has been hailed by both scientists and supporters of green energy sources.
However, while the European Commission and the European Parliament regard hydrogen produced using clean, renewable energy sources as a cornerstone of the continent’s post-carbon future, the argument over how to produce industrial amounts of the gas continues at the EU member state level. Hydrogen is created through an electrolysis process in which devices known as electrolyzers use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen ions, but the eventual carbon footprint of hydrogen fuel is dependent on the energy source used to produce that electricity.
At the moment, the majority of hydrogen produced in the EU is derived from fossil fuels. Because green hydrogen is more expensive to produce, coal-dependent Central and Eastern European countries like Poland prefer less climate-friendly “grey” hydrogen and do not want their output to be removed from the mix. “It is crucial for our region that this [EU] regulation is colorblind and does not discriminate between different ‘types’ of hydrogen,” Micha Kurtyka, Poland’s Minister of Climate and Environment, stated.
Nonetheless, as Brussels and EU member states argue about the colors of the hydrogen that they hope will replace oil and coal as a fuel source, European companies are taking bold steps to expand production of truly clean hydrogen outside the EU. In Kazakhstan, for example, the German-Swedish company Svevind Energy announced in June that it was collaborating with the Kazakh Invest National Company on the world’s largest green hydrogen complex, which would be powered by 45 GW of wind and solar energy installed in the vast Central Asian country.
According to the firms, the renewable energy “will feed 30 GW of electrolyzers to produce around three million tons of green hydrogen every year,” while excess electricity output will likely be sent into the region’s major economy’s electric grid. Kazakhstan’s multibillion-dollar green hydrogen project will take a decade to complete and, if completed as currently planned, will comfortably outperform most other big clean hydrogen projects being evaluated globally. The Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia, for example, intends to use 26GW of wind and solar capacity to produce 1.8 million tons of hydrogen per year, while Oman announced plans in May to build a green hydrogen plant on the Arabian Sea that will use 25GW of renewable energy to power 14GW of electrolyzers.
Eni, which has been working in Kazakhstan since 1992, is also in talks with KazMunaiGas to expand hydrogen capacity, having already developed a total of 150 MW of renewable energy capacity in the nation over two wind farms and a PV plant. Kazakhstan’s economy, like that of Oman and EU member states such as Poland, is currently based on the extraction of fossil fuels; however, unlike Poland, the Central Asian nation has stated that it is willing to make significant investments in renewable capacity to produce sustainable green hydrogen.
In the United Kingdom, France’s EDF is looking to use surplus energy from the planned Sizewell C nuclear power plant to produce “pink” hydrogen, addressing the question of what to do with the $28 billion power station’s baseline output when intermittent renewable energy sources feed electricity into the grid. Despite leaving the EU, the United Kingdom shares continental Europe’s ambitions for clean hydrogen, with a target of 5 GW of production by the end of the decade. Sizewell C, according to the French energy business, could power a 1 GW electrolyzer and produce enough hydrogen for 80,000 automobiles while also powering six million households.
Across the English Channel, politicians say that nuclear power, together with renewables, is critical to producing clean hydrogen in France. A number of energy experts agree that nuclear technology, both in Europe and elsewhere, is suitable for creating clean hydrogen in the future. “The quantity of clean hydrogen that we’re going to need to properly decarbonize our economic sectors is absolutely enormous,” says Elina Teplinsky, a nuclear scientist based in Washington. “We will require all possible hydrogen generation sources, including nuclear.”