Green hydrogen: Europe’s new hope for energetic sovereignty and industrial innovation

Social IssuesEnvironment

  • Author Lori Bernard
  • Published May 4, 2024
  • Word count 936

Europe’s energy sector is a collateral victim of war. When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine exploded, the block was forced to look beyond Moscow for their liquefied natural gas supply, which has significantly decreased from 40% to 9% of pipeline gas. Enduring a conundrum to replace the source, Brussels rushed to secure alternative sources of energy, through agreements with countries like Egypt, Israel, and Azerbaijan for the supply of natural gas. But it’s a short term solution to a long term problem; the conflict in Gaza quickly endangered the Israeli energetic agreement, and highlighted the fragility of foreign energy reliance

The EU has historically been overly dependent on external supplies, but recent times have brought to light the need to develop a sovereign source of energy and the challenge to transition into green, renewable sources: “We shifted the climate agenda to being an economic one. This has given a clear sense of direction for investment and innovation. And we have already seen this growth strategy delivering in the short-term. Europe's industry is showing every day that it is ready to power this transition. Proving that modernisation and decarbonisation can go hand in hand”, promised Ursula Von Der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in her 2023 State of the Union address.

At the heart of this energy transition is green hydrogen, produced through the electrolysis of water using electricity generated from renewable sources. This process ensures that the hydrogen production is carbon-neutral, offering a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. And the European Commission's endorsement of green hydrogen is evident in its comprehensive Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe. This strategy outlines a roadmap for expanding green hydrogen production, infrastructure, and market, aiming to decarbonise sectors where electrification is not feasible.

Benefitting industries across the Union

Green hydrogen is a game-changer for the energy sector. Crucially, it can be stored and transported, which offers a resilient solution for managing the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. Moreover, by converting surplus renewable energy into hydrogen, the EU can enhance its energy security, reducing dependency on external energy supplies. This strategic energy storage can also mitigate the variability of renewable energy, ensuring a stable and reliable energy supply across the continent. The benefits trickle into the transportation second; hydrogen fuel cells present a promising alternative for heavy-duty and long-haul vehicles, which are challenging to electrify. By transitioning to hydrogen-powered trucks, ships, and eventually planes, the EU can drastically reduce the carbon footprint of its transportation sector. Urban mobility solutions, such as buses and trams powered by hydrogen, could lead to cleaner cities with significantly lower emissions.

Industries like steel, cement, and chemicals, known for their high carbon emissions due to the requirement for high-temperature processes, can also leverage green hydrogen as a clean energy source. Using hydrogen not just as fuel but also as a key raw material in these processes will lead to a significant reduction in industrial carbon emissions, steering these sectors towards sustainability. And in the heating sector specifically, hydrogen offers innovative solutions for decarbonising both residential and commercial buildings. Through the use of fuel cells and the potential blending of hydrogen into the natural gas grid, the heating sector can move away from fossil fuels, reducing emissions and improving air quality in urban and rural areas alike.

A solution for the farmers

The first months of 2024 saw swarms of tractors flood European capitals in protest against the impacts of EU policies and subsidies, that tend to favour sustainable solutions over farmers’ work conditions. Many agricultural workers worry that the EU's environmental and sustainability regulations increase their operational costs without providing sufficient financial support or compensation. Policies aimed at reducing chemical pesticide use, promoting organic farming, and enforcing stricter environmental standards are seen as financially burdensome to farmers who are already struggling with thin profit margins. But the application of green hydrogen extends into agriculture, bringing a positive impact to the production of green ammonia and fertilisers. This shift not only reduces the agricultural sector's carbon footprint but also supports the transition towards more sustainable and eco-friendly farming practices, contributing to the EU’s broader environmental goals.

The push towards green hydrogen is stimulating extensive research and development in electrolysis technologies, fuel cell efficiency, and innovative storage solutions. This focus on innovation drives advancements that are essential for the widespread adoption of green hydrogen. Concurrently, the development of a dedicated infrastructure, including production facilities, storage systems, and transportation pipelines, is creating opportunities in the construction and engineering sectors, further supporting economic growth and job creation. Green hydrogen-centric operations are dotted throughout Europe. The Spanish town of Zaragoza has launched several initiatives and projects aimed at leveraging renewable energy sources for hydrogen production, focusing on applications ranging from industrial processes to transportation. Italy, for example, hosts an innovative green hydrogen operation in the town of Spinetta Marengo, where advanced materials tailored for hydrogen production, infrastructure, and mobility are being developed. And Groningen, in the Netherlands, has positioned itself as a leader in the green hydrogen economy in the Netherlands. The region is home to several pioneering projects, including HyStock, aiming to convert renewable energy into green hydrogen, and thus serving as a model for energy transition efforts.

Finally, beyond its direct applications, the shift to green hydrogen has profound environmental benefits. By promoting efficient water use and reducing carbon emissions, green hydrogen contributes to a more sustainable and resilient environment. And the financial landscape is also evolving, with significant investments flowing into the green hydrogen economy. This financial momentum is supported by green finance initiatives, sustainability-focused funds, and public-private partnerships, underscoring the economic viability of green hydrogen.

Lori Bernard is passionate about all things sustainable and European environmental policy

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