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Solar energy: a key enabler for renewable hydrogen uptake

Green hydrogen is expected to revolutionise the energy industry in the next decades. According to the Hydrogen Council, by 2050, hydrogen might provide an enormous global economic value (2.5 trillion euro in annual sales of hydrogen and equipment). Additionally, the carbon emission reductions might be as high as 6 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent annually (similar to the current greenhouse gas emissions in the US).

Following its hydrogen strategy released in July 2020, the European Union has committed to “installing at least 6 gigawatts (GW) of renewable hydrogen electrolysers in the EU by 2024 and 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers by 2030”. A huge target that fits perfectly with the ambitious goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. And, as the most cost-competitive and versatile electricity source, solar is a critical ally to making Europe the world leader in renewable hydrogen.

It is not just a talk anymore but a lot of projects are under development all around the world, especially in those hard-to-abate sectors, like the transportation and the heating ones, that cannot be fully electrified.

However, Carina Krastel, Commercial Director of the European Green Hydrogen Acceleration Center (EGHAC) at EIT InnoEnergy reminded us that everything that can be electrified should be electrified.

“We cannot lose efficiency to convert it to hydrogen and then use hydrogen for the process,” she said speaking at the SolarPower Summit, organised by Brussels-based association SolarPower Europe. “The priority is for hard-to-abate sectors. For example, steel is very difficult to decarbonise and hydrogen can help. Or the satellite industry.”

Hydrogen can help, but in order to reach a future based 100 per cent on renewables, hydrogen must be green.

“Renewables are already competitive,” said Christian Pho Duc, Managing Director H2 Projects at Smartenergy and Vice-Chair of SolarPower Europe’s renewable hydrogen Workstream. “To cover 1,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of green hydrogen demand, a full 280 GW of renewable electricity supply would be needed. And solar energy is a key enabler for renewable hydrogen uptake.”

Mr Pho Duc mentioned that in order to accelerate the uptake of renewable hydrogen, first of all, an ambitious EU taxonomy is needed, avoiding investments in new polluting assets. Secondly, a clear definition of renewable hydrogen must be provided, developing a robust traceability mechanism.

“Definitions are crucial,” agreed Mrs Krastel. “The devil is in the details: what does it mean green hydrogen? What does renewable hydrogen include?”

Wind, both onshore and offshore, can be one of the sources utilised to produce green hydrogen. However, for Ulrik Stridbaek, Vice President and Head of Regulatory Affairs at Danish energy company Ørsted, we are not going forward quickly enough and there is not a sufficient amount of projects.

“When it comes to offshore wind we can easily fulfil the European target but there are other challenges,” he said during the SolarPower Summit. “At sea, it is very busy: we need room for biodiversity and we cannot ruin the environment if we are saving it; we have to deal with fishing interests, oil and gas interests, shipping and so on. The other struggle, that we share with solar PV is the lack of the grid which is not there for hydrogen.”

Indeed, as highlighted by Mr Pho Duc, developing electricity grids to ensure the massive build-out of renewables is key to take leadership in renewable hydrogen. Thus, the TEN-E should keep a priority focus on modernising and expanding Europe’s electricity grids.

But such a challenge can also become an opportunity and help Europe’s competitiveness. In this regard, Mr Stridbaek underlined the need for better and cheaper electrolysers; cheap electrons, which is something already happening with the falling costs of solar, wind and other renewables.

To turn these challenges into opportunities a balance is needed. Building too many projects at the same time could be counterproductive: if all the projects currently under development do not happen, neither the EU will reach its 1,200 TWh target.

“There is the risk of something that is the contrary of additionality,” he said. “The best approach is to plan everything at the same time: hydrogen and renewables.”

At least, for all the speakers we are on the right path for now.

“The level of commitment, dedication and progress on policymaking is unprecedented,” concluded Mr Stridbaek. “I really do think that has made the difference with all industries. Everybody now thinks that this is going to happen and it is also thanks to a political signal. There is always room for improvement we are already working in the right direction to reach the net-zero target, the 55 per cent target, we are doing the right thing.”

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