The energy crisis unleashed as a result of the war in Ukraine has thrown Europe's transition plans out of kilter, and it is now looking for a way to secure supply without having to increase fossil fuel consumption and further heat the planet. Green hydrogen, in that context, has been re-launched as a useful alternative to reduce Russian gas consumption. Many countries had already approved their national strategies for the development of this energy source before the invasion, but the emergency situation has precipitated the debate on this technology. Spain has bet heavily on it and is looking forward to building a new pipeline, the MidCat, to pump hydrogen to Europe. Not surprisingly, there are doubts about the capacity of this new green fuel to heat the homes of Europe and keep alive the industrial machinery of the old continent.
An independent study published on Tuesday by the scientific journal Joule shows that the capacity of hydrogen to sustain the decarbonization of Europe is not as high as it is intended to be seen from institutions and companies. In fact, the publication warns that, to date, most of the analyses carried out on this energy source are financed by gas companies, which see hydrogen as the only alternative to survive in a market that tends to get rid of gas. The publication gathers information from prestigious institutions such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research (PIK) and focuses its analysis on the suitability of hydrogen to replace traditional heating systems.
According to the text, heating a house with green hydrogen requires five times more electricity than with an electric heat pump. This is due to the process of obtaining hydrogen, which requires electrolysis, which consists of separating the two components of water through the application of an electric discharge with energy, which can be renewable if it is green hydrogen or fossil to make gray hydrogen.
"Green hydrogen is currently at the peak of a hype cycle. While there are many applications where it is useful, hydrogen will only play a complementary role in the energy system. This is what the independent analysis shows. However, parts of the industry have advocated its use in areas where it doesn't make sense because there are more efficient and economical alternatives," Jan Rosenow, a research associate at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and director of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), told Público.
"Green hydrogen is currently at the peak of a hype cycle
"On profitability, the publication includes some forecasts from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) or the International Energy Agency, which foresee a drop in production costs. However, the author warns that this drop in the price of production is accompanied precisely by a drop in the costs of renewable energies, so that the latter will always remain more affordable and, with it, the electrification of heating systems.
On the other hand, the analysis stresses that 95% of the world's hydrogen production currently uses fossil fuels, so the goal of replacing traditional gas with this clean energy technology is still too far off. Most of the green hydrogen produced is fed into pipelines together with natural gas, occupying only 5-10% of the mix. However, in the event that it were to be transported at 100%, there are logistical doubts and "significant uncertainties about the feasibility of converting the gas grid to hydrogen," the text stresses, referring to the difficulty of replacing not only household boilers, but the internal and external pipelines of homes and buildings.
The real role of green hydrogen
the fact that the potential of this energy source has been magnified in the crisis situation, the decarbonization of the economy requires it to reach all the points where electrification seems unfeasible or unfeasible. "Green hydrogen has an important role to play in the energy transition," notes Rosenow. "First of all, the current hydrogen produced with fossil fuels, which generates between 2% and 3% of global CO2 emissions, must be replaced by green hydrogen," he adds.
In addition, it appears as a tool of change for the transformation of heavy vehicles, which until now have been difficult to electrify. Its use in maritime transport is gaining momentum, and there is also already some research into its possible application in aviation. In addition to this, there are other uses, such as the storage of surplus solar energy or its application in high-temperature industrial processes, such as the manufacture of metals or fertilizers. This is already happening in Spain, where the Puertollano plant, in the hands of Iberdrola, produces green hydrogen to meet the demand of a Fertiberia fertilizer factory.