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In 10-15 years the hydrogen market could work like the LNG market today – interview with Dr. Axel Wietfeld, CEO of Uniper Hydrogen

In the fight against climate change, Germany is betting on climate-neutral technologies and market-ready innovations. Green hydrogen is a key element in this context. Indeed, green hydrogen is crucial for decarbonisation in major sectors such as the German steel and chemical industries or in aviation, shipping and heavy goods traffic.

On the sidelines of the Flame conference, which took place in Amsterdam on 3-5 May, CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Dr. Axel Wietfeld, CEO of Uniper Hydrogen, about the lesson CEE countries can learn from Germany when it comes to developing a hydrogen economy and the barriers that are still present, especially in terms of right infrastructure.

Germany has a clear decarbonisation agenda and roadmap for hydrogen, expecting 10 gigawatts (GW) of installed electrolyser capacity by 2030. However, we are also very realistic that the green hydrogen production in Germany won’t be enough to replace fossil fuels. Thus, in the future, there is also the intention to import hydrogen into Germany.

The country’s plan mirrors Uniper’s strategy. Mr Wietfeld explains that the company works on three streams at the same time. First, is the production of decarbonised hydrogen, either green or blue with a focus on Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the Nordic countries.

Secondly, we are looking at the global origination of hydrogen meaning that we will purchase hydrogen on the global market and import it into Europe or other promising markets. Within 10-15 years the hydrogen market could work similarly to the current LNG one.

He adds that the company is having bilateral negotiations with other parties and it is active in H2Global, a foundation to orchestrate the supply of green hydrogen for the German market.

“The third pillar,” Mr Wietfeld continues, “is to convert and re-purpose our existing gas assets and make them hydrogen ready.” With gas assets, he is referring to gas underground storage and gas-fired power plants. The goal is to reach carbon neutrality by 2035.

“Storage is also a great opportunity in the hydrogen market because it is required, due to its need for flexibility reasons,” he continues. “Especially regarding security of supply and balancing fluctuating renewables, hydrogen will be even more important in the future than the natural gas industry today.”

According to Mr Wietfeld, a lesson to learn from Germany is the presence of a clear political roadmap and superb cooperation between the public bodies and policymakers.

“What we could improve in Germany is to get more traction on the ground,” he recognises. “Implementing hydrogen projects and a funding scheme in a pragmatic and less bureaucratic way.”

When it comes to existing barriers, he mentions first of all the non-viability of green hydrogen from an economic point of view.

The regulation is also a barrier in terms of getting it really implemented – for example, we have been waiting for the regulated act for two years – and finally, the infrastructure.

Referring to any plan to connect hydrogen production in Germany with CEE countries, Mr Wietfeld is not optimistic as the domestic production in Germany won’t even be sufficient for the local demand, so it will be less likely to export hydrogen to other countries in the first place. Indeed, huge growth in hydrogen demand is expected in Germany by 2030, which means that imports would amount to around 70 per cent. However, once a hydrogen transportation network is implemented and connects different regions, a liquid market will evolve with intra-European trading opportunities.

“For CEE it is also the case of being served by the Mediterranean countries, such as Italy,” he highlights.

He goes on by mentioning several projects carried out by Uniper in Germany. First, the one in Bad-Lauchstaedt together with VNG which is combining a new wind farm, an electrolyser to produce green hydrogen, a storage underground facility and a repurposed gas pipeline supplying hydrogen to local customers.

“Another example is our large scale project in Wilhelmshaven, close to the North Sea where we are combining all of our visions: an electrolyser up to 1 GW, then we supply the hydrogen via pipeline infrastructure to the German market, including underground storages. Additionally, we are planning an import terminal for hydrogen/ ammonia in the same place to use it as the gate into the global hydrogen exporting industry.”

And this comes on top of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) FSRU import terminal that was already announced at the beginning of May when Federal Minister Robert Habeck and the Lower Saxony Ministers Olaf Lies and Bernd Althusmann set the “first pile-driving” for the construction of the first terminal for LNG in Germany. Uniper, as builder and operator of the terminal, will invest around 65 million euros in the project.

Mr Wietfeld concludes by saying that hydrogen is now fully accepted also by end-users as the industry has shown that it can be handled. “We have a lot of experience with hydrogen, we can handle the safety requirements and customers already trust us,” he says. “I actually see excitement for hydrogen and decarbonised gas in the customers’ sectors – also in the mobility one, as heavy-duty vehicles, trains and buses will be one of the first customers for hydrogen.”

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