That is the impression one gets when one briefly reflects on the fact that green hydrogen decision-makers are pushing Europe's supply problems onto the African continent. There are already plans in hot, sunny regions to build huge plants to meet Europe's future green hydrogen needs by reproducing existing dependency patterns. Currently, Europe imports more than two-thirds of our primary energy needs from fossil fuels. While the era of fossil raw materials is coming to an end, the doors are opening to a new era with a new source of raw materials: hydrogen. However, we need to review the supply model and the dependence on potential imports.
The potential for hydrogen is incredibly high. Current scenarios show that a greenhouse gas-neutral, hydrogen-fueled energy and industrial system is the energy and industrial system of the future, especially to cover the final energy demand in industry, transportation and also as a raw material for the chemical industry. In addition, the possibilities of using neutral green hydrogen to drastically reduce CO2 emissions from these manufacturing processes is enormous.
The problem is that hydrogen production consumes a lot of energy. Splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen molecules requires electricity, lots of electricity. To produce climate-friendly green hydrogen, electricity from renewable energies is also needed, and it is not yet available to the extent that will be needed in the future.
However, one thing is certain: the use of hydrogen will be an indispensable key factor in achieving Spanish and European climate targets. For the decarbonization of any industrial sector and also of transport, the use of hydrogen has enormous potential. But the road to a hydrogen economy, and a green one at that, is more like a hurdles race than a 50-meter race, and the gold medal is won in the high jump. But no one manages to win in two disciplines in a single attempt. Nevertheless, that is exactly what is being attempted.
In October 2020 the Spanish government published the Hydrogen Roadmap. It includes concrete measures to stimulate research, innovation and development in the field of green hydrogen and recognizes that hydrogen, especially green hydrogen, is indispensable for achieving ambitious European climate targets. And explicit attention is drawn to the fact that it is essential to promote the production and use of hydrogen at national level. And it sets a target that by 2030, 25% of the hydrogen used industrially should come from renewable sources, i.e. some 125,000 tons per year and more than 1.5 GW of electrolyzer capacity. However, it is possible that we will not reach these figures and that a large part of the hydrogen demand will have to be imported. And this is just the case for oil, gas and also coal. It is understandable that the lack of this source of raw materials in Spain makes imports indispensable. But for hydrogen?
In principle, it is not necessary. At least not to the extent currently demanded by politics, the economy and above all the raw materials industry. Certainly, in terms of sunshine hours, Spain has an unbeatable position compared to other countries in the world, and it has onshore and offshore wind power plants that are climatically well located. But the challenge of rapidly building the infrastructure needed to produce and transport these renewables in order to be able to produce larger quantities of green hydrogen may prove that this is not the right way to go. With each new partner, intermediary and additional kilometer of pipeline, the switch to hydrogen becomes more complex and more expensive, and does not reduce CO2 emissions - quite the contrary.
Here we are again about to kill two birds with one stone. But this is too simplistic. A single measure, importing green hydrogen from North Africa or Saudi Arabia, is intended to achieve two goals. Firstly, to cover one's own hydrogen demand in a climate-neutral way and secondly, to escape from a more rapid expansion of renewable energies. It would be a nice solution, but it does not work and must not be allowed to work.
Europe can itself produce the quantities of green hydrogen it needs to avoid dependence and keep imports, which are necessary anyway, to a minimum. As with oil, dependencies are always associated with a situation of uncertainty. This is also demonstrated by the cobalt deposits needed in the Congo, a country in crisis, but also by the situation of uncertainty in Bolivia, rich in lithium. We must learn from these cases. We Europeans must not externalize our problems, but must systematically promote the expansion of renewable energies and thus also the production of green hydrogen in our countries.
The approach intended by European policy only puts our problems on the back burner and opens up avoidable conflicts. Obtaining green hydrogen as cheaply as possible from abroad does not go far enough to counterbalance a committed, serious and climate-neutral strategy that has been set for 2050. At the same time, this creates demands on African countries to implement our European climate protection policies. In addition to political unrest, economic insecurity and humanitarian emergencies, there is also a lack of water to produce green hydrogen, and many regions in Africa suffer from water shortages. This illustrates, once again, many examples in the oil and gas sectors where the local government has not taken the interests of the population into account. Entire areas and villages have dried up as a result. We can only hope that if hydrogen production is established outside Europe, probably inevitable, it will be fundamentally different from the results generated in oil production.
Africa will be an important pillar for Europe in the future. But, from Europe's point of view, it would not be sensible to prevent possible cooperation in the hydrogen sector, nor to close itself completely to this possibility. Moreover, Europe should also be a pillar of support for Africa and should start to find solutions to the problems that affect us on this continent. Otherwise, the problem that we Europeans are trying to avoid can be, in the worst case, the starting point for other problems. Both for us and for Africa. And at this point we must ask ourselves whether we can justify this, and whether we want to become dependent again. The answers to these questions are part of politics, but showing the world that Europe can also stand on its own two feet is the task of ambitious and innovative companies that take matters into their own hands.
Frans Pieter-Lindeboom is Regional Director of Lhyfe in Spain.