Why does Spain seek to send hydrogen over new gas pipeline to France?


In order for Spain to create a new gas link with France through Catalonia as an alternative to Russian fuel, there is one criterion – the most important – that must be met: hydrogen must be allowed to go through the pipeline.

According to Enagas’ estimations, the infrastructure for natural gas alone would cost 225 million against 370 million to adapt it to hydrogen. Why, given Spain hardly generates it (let alone green hydrogen that is produced without emissions, which is still a rarity)? The solution rests in renewable energy sources and the future.

By parts: Spain now has a formidable network of underused regasification facilities (six in operating and the Musel, in Gijón, one step away from being operational). But the continent’s newly erupting energy crisis is beginning to resuscitate projects that had been abandoned (and the high prices make them attractive).

Approximately 500 bcm [billion cubic meters] of Europe’s natural gas consumption comes from Russia. Arturo Gonzalo, the chief executive officer of Enagás, stated a few days ago that the approximately 20 bcm of extra regasification capacity might be used to export this gas to European markets at a reasonable price. However, if there is a genuine switch to renewable energy sources, this fossil fuel will diminish over time. Europe aims to be emission-free by 2050 and has begun to promote blue hydrogen (which emits greenhouse gases that are absorbed and stored) and, most all, green hydrogen, which is produced by electrolysis, a technique that uses an electric current to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. If this current is derived entirely from renewable sources, the end product is entirely clean. At this stage, the country is most interested in the initiative.

Spain has a plenty of sun and wind (though little water). Now, it also gets funding from European funds. The nation’s potential to generate electricity from renewable sources (solar and wind energy) continues to increase, but storage is a concern when the system cannot absorb all of this production. Green hydrogen is a method of storing and transporting energy derived from renewable sources, but despite considerable enthusiasm, it is prohibitively expensive and (for the time being) utterly inefficient to make.

According to the International Energy Agency, one kilogram of green hydrogen (containing about 33 kWh) costs up to five euros, whereas the same kilogram of energy produced from fossil fuels costs less than one and a half euros. This is why the government granted a 16.3 billion dollar grant at the end of last year to develop technology, expertise, and industrial capacity in this field. It is for this reason that both the governmental sector (headed by the National Hydrogen Center in Puertollano) and the private sector (with hundreds of initiatives, such as the Basque Hydrogen Corridor managed by Repsol-Petronor) are attempting to establish a robust industry.

Then there is the technological aspect, which tries to convert the current gas network to hydrogen by using it. Currently, and without large investments, a tiny amount of hydrogen (no more than 5 or 10 percent) may circulate via the traditional gas network (5 or 10 percent, at most). Utilizing the existing network to increase gas flow across the continent is a separate issue. According to a European Commission estimate of investment requirements until 2030, between 50 and 75 billion euros will be required for electrolyzers, 28 to 38 billion euros would be required to upgrade the EU’s internal gas pipelines, and 6 to 11 billion euros will be required for storage. The European Union aims to produce 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen and import another 10 million tons by 2030 in order to replace natural gas, coal, and oil in difficult-to-decarbonize industries and transport sectors.

With European money, the possibility is evident. What goes wrong? David Valle, former director general of Industry, Energy, and Mines for the Community of Madrid, emphasizes that many things are unfortunate. “Demand-side clients in Central European nations are prepared for natural gas, not hydrogen (green or not). Natural gas, not hydrogen, is meant for heating boilers, kitchens, various types of industrial furnaces, combined cycle plants, and the full central and capillary network of pipes that transport gas to each user.” According to him, their conversion would be extremely difficult and time-consuming.

On the technological side, there are also several barriers, since hydrogen alters mechanical qualities, particularly the resilience of steel (making it more brittle), which would have a negative impact on pipelines. Additionally, as the smallest molecule, it has a rather high leakage rate.”

Verónica Rivière, executive president of Gas Industrial, who has long advocated for more connectivity with France in order to utilize Spanish facilities, notes that possibly an even greater barrier exists in the offices. “The entire French network would have to be strengthened in order to feed northern Europe,” she explains. Will the neighboring nation comply? According to my knowledge, France will expand its own regasification plants. Germany plans to construct two more on its land; let’s see what transpires. Germany should sign long-term contracts to transport this gas through the Pyrenees.

Perhaps the wager makes little sense in the near term, but seizing the opportunity can help Spain cease being an energy island and become an energy exporter. In times of war, this is what the continent needs the most.

Nedim Husomanovic

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