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The transition from blue to green hydrogen: an energy revolution has begun

Green hydrogen has been making the headlines for some time now and while many insist on the importance of transitioning from blue to green hydrogen, the Secretary and Member of the Board of the Hungarian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Zoltán Mayer reminds that right now there is only one plant in Europe producing blue hydrogen and it is in France, so practically at the moment, it doesn’t even exist. Thus, what is the reality around the hydrogen debate?

First of all, some definitions. Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas which is split into hydrogen and CO2. Green hydrogen comes from renewable energy which splits water by electrolysis, thus getting hydrogen and oxygen. Basic chemistry. And if we stick to this definition, blue hydrogen contains a bad word feared by everyone: carbon dioxide. However, some experts argue that actually blue hydrogen for the time being is the cheapest option we have.

Does cheaper mean more problematic?

“Blue hydrogen is cheaper (than green one), it is true,” Mr Mayer tells CEENERGYNEWS. “Right now the cheapest version of hydrogen is grey hydrogen [0.9-1.7 US dollars/kilogram]: the blue one is twice more expensive while the cost of green hydrogen is 5-7 times higher (depending on location and production method, scale and so on).”

Also, Aleksandr Riepkin, president of the Ukrainian Hydrogen Council, agrees that blu hydrogen is cheaper. However, hydrogen produced from natural gas carries another series of problems as we also need to capture the CO2 emitted.

“If we compare everything that we need to build, in terms of technology, to adapt natural gas, then it will be cheaper to produce green hydrogen,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS.

And carbon capture and storage is not even enough.

“Utilisation would be much better, however, we have not yet elaborated on a solution at industrial scale,” says Mr Mayer. “The CO2 can be used in several applications but we cannot forget about the supply chain. Then again, how much hydrogen is needed for that? A vicious cycle.”

Therefore at the end of the day, the question is not how much producing green hydrogen will cost but when we will make this investment because eventually, we must invest in it. Either today by building the right infrastructure, or later in a decade when natural gas won’t be an option anymore.

We have all the ingredients but we don’t use them: a problem of magnitude

So is it just about money? After all, we have all the technology we need to produce green hydrogen. The raw material is actually given by nature, whether is the sun or wind. Then we have to harness this energy and the past years have shown that the technology to build solar panels and wind turbines is advancing fast while costs are falling. We also know how to build an electrolyser. Then why are we not producing green hydrogen considering that we have all the ingredients?

“The scale of production is slow,” points out Mr Riepkin. “The biggest electrolyser in use now is only 20 megawatts (MW) and we need to reach something like 80 gigawatts (GW).”

At this point by doing some simple math, one could think about the possibility to use more electrolysers at the same time.

“Then the question would be where to get so much water resources,” argues Mr Riepkin. “In Ukraine, we are conducting research for renewable potential and now we are looking for water and where to build an electrolyser without harming the environment or affecting agriculture.”

For him, countries along the Danube are advantaged because they can use the river to transport hydrogen. Hungary is one of those countries where the Danube river runs. However, also Zoltán Mayer agrees that the magnitude of production is too big.

“Oil refineries are the biggest consumers and producers of hydrogen,” he explains. “If we think about, for example, at Hungary’s refinery MOL Dunai Finomító we would need approximately one GW size electrolyser to turn grey hydrogen into green hydrogen. And of course, the same size of (theoretically non-intermittent) renewable energy production capacities would be necessary as well. A magnitude that currently is too big.”

By way of comparison he points out that 2 GW of Hungary’s electricity come from the Paks nuclear power plant, so it is as talking about half of a nuclear plant’s production for only one (large) industrial installation’s hydrogen to turn into green.

“The enormous amount of electrolysers is one of the biggest issues that also affect industrial policies at a national level,” he says. “Blue hydrogen can therefore still play a role while green hydrogen will gain momentum later and/or emerge gradually.”

Step by step

Doing it gradually means to find solutions on how integrating hydrogen step by step in different sectors. Early adoption of green hydrogen could be applied in the transport sector by installing small electrolysers in traditional fuelling stations.

An ambitious roadmap for the deployment of hydrogen in the European Union as outlined in ‘Hydrogen roadmap Europe, a Sustainable Pathway for the European Energy Transition(FCH JU, 2019)/Green Hydrogen for a European Green Dea

“With this hydrogen, it would be possible to stabilise the grid (offer grid balancing services) and to have electricity storage,” says Mr Mayer. “Furthermore, it would help the transport sector reaching its mandatory share of RES (14 per cent) by 2030: hydrogen could be counted in this obligation as renewable fuels are (like bio-ethanol, biodiesel, or bio-methane).”

Later solutions regard energy storage, more precisely the electricity one.

“It is not the old concept of power to power that we have to keep in mind,” highlights Mr Mayer. “The new concept takes the surplus of energy from the grid, converts it and doesn’t take it back exclusively to the grid but it also can send it to the transport or the industrial sectors (so turn into other forms of energy or materials).”

What is the situation in CEE?

With the adoption of the hydrogen strategy last July, by 2030 the EU wants to deploy 40 GW hydrogen generating capacity and receive another 40 GW from the neighbouring regions.

Commissioner for energy Kadri Simson estimated that the CEE region is an area with a lot of potential being home to the third-largest consumer of hydrogen in Europe: Poland. Indeed, Poland’s Ministry of Climate and Environment submitted the draft version of the Polish Hydrogen Strategy until 2030 with a perspective until 2040, setting ambitious but at the same time realistic goals for the development of hydrogen technologies.

And other countries are not far behind. Lithuania’s Ministry of Energy established the hydrogen platform for the participants to cooperate for the creation and development of hydrogen technologies. Also, Greece’s natural gas supply company DEPA signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the regional authority of Western Macedonia for the development of a green hydrogen infrastructure.

“Hungary is a little bit late in the race for hydrogen technology deployment, and green hydrogen production,” says Mr Mayer. “It is currently expensive but if we scale up the technology, costs will come down eventually. And if we consider the climate protection targets and other tools like carbon taxes, there is an incredible need to start engaging in the hydrogen economy.”

When it comes to neighbouring regions, the EU considers Ukraine to be a priority partner to implement the European Hydrogen Strategy as it stands out for its hydrogen output and transport capacity. In this regard, the Ukrainian Hydrogen Council was the first member of Hydrogen Europe from a non-European Union country, a historical moment for Ukraine and the development of hydrogen in the country.

“We have already existing pipelines that in the future can be used for the transportation of hydrogen from and to Europe,” comments Aleksandr Riepkin. “Also, Ukraine has great potential for offshore wind which is cheaper and can be built quicker.”

Overall, it is estimated that approximately 505,133 million cubic metres (mcm) of green hydrogen could be produced in Ukraine annually. Also, in Ukraine 50 per cent of the electricity comes from nuclear, making some people think about the possibility to use pink hydrogen.

“There isn’t anymore a tendency to build big reactors, it is the time of small modular reactors and financial institutions will soon stop financing nuclear,” underlines Mr Riepkin. “In Ukraine, we have extra electricity at night (produced by nuclear) and we could use it for an electrolyser but it would be more efficient to use renewables.”

Witnessing the hydrogen revolution

“There is a huge potential for hydrogen because of the current trends: every country is installing huge capacities of intermittent RES which are rather volatile and it is difficult to store energy in batteries or hydro pumps in those amounts, which is necessary (especially for weekly or even seasonal storage). Here hydrogen could play a role,” recognises Mr Mayer.

He suggests, for example, for governments to introduce a regulation that requires energy companies to use one-two per cent renewable and or blue hydrogen in their energy consumption. Then when prices go down they could increase this share.

“Oil companies are already obliged to blend certain ratio of biofuels, so something similar should happen with green and blue hydrogen in the fuels, or the chemical sector using grey hydrogen at present,” he notes.

Several options are out there but it is a step-by-step process. As Commissioner Simson said, hydrogen is not just a new energy carrier, but the beginning of a revolution in the energy system and like every revolution, it needs time to happen.

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