Europe commits to hydrogen for ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ sectors

Hydrogen can be a clean fuel of the future in sectors that are not suitable for electrification. That was one of the key messages from the European Commission as it published its hydrogen strategy earlier this month. T&E has given a cautious welcome to the plan, which it says rightly focuses on electrification as the key to decarbonising the economy while hydrogen offers a credible and scalable alternative to land-hungry biofuels in aviation and shipping.

Having committed to be ‘climate neutral’ by 2050, the EU has to tackle the way it generates and manages energy, as the energy it uses in sectors such as transport, industry and heating is currently responsible for 75% of greenhouse gases. The Commission has therefore published two strategies: one for integrating energy by ending the current ‘silos’ model where energy used for transport, industry, gas and elsewhere is all managed separately; the other to make the most appropriate use of hydrogen.

Much speculation has centred on a possible future role for hydrogen, especially as significant progress has been made on battery electric vehicles. But in launching the EU Hydrogen Strategy, the Commission said: ‘Hydrogen can support the decarbonisation of industry, transport, power generation and buildings across Europe … [it can] power sectors that are not suitable for electrification and provide storage to balance variable renewable energy flows … The priority is to develop renewable hydrogen, produced using mainly wind and solar energy.’

T&E’s executive director William Todts said: ‘This is the right plan at the right time. Hydrogen is the missing link in Europe’s strategy to decarbonise planes and ships where electrification is not an option. The Commission is planning to propose new fuels legislation for the maritime and aviation sectors by the end of this year – it seems still to be focused on biofuels, but this hydrogen strategy means that now has to change.

‘Now the EU needs to create laws that force airlines and shipping companies to start using zero-emission fuels including hydrogen, ammonia and synthetic kerosene.’

The one area of the Commission’s proposal that T&E – and several other environmental NGOs – have criticised is a loophole that could allow large amounts of hydrogen to be produced from fossil fuels. The communication leaves the door open to EU funds being used to support ‘blue hydrogen’, which is produced using fossil gas. ‘Hydrogen is only as clean as the energy used to produce it,’ added Todts, ‘and relying on fossil gas just delays the decarbonisation of the economy which the EU has committed to.’

The Commission has set targets for hydrogen production from renewable energy – 1 million tonnes (mt) of fuel by 2024, 10mt by 2030 – and has launched a European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, bringing together industry, civil society, ministers and the European Investment Bank. It also wants to introduce common standards of monitoring, terminology and certification, based on life-cycle carbon emissions, so it is easier for investors and consumers to work out what the cleanest choices are.