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Will sanctions on Russian energy drive a hydrogen revolution?

Due to hydrogen’s high efficiency and zero-or near-zero emissions operation, the technology has the potential to become the largest slice of Europe’s energy pie.

Although most European nations have been making great strides towards a greener energy mix, it’s fair to say that Russia’s recent actions have accelerated the continent’s renewable energy plans.

Over the past month, the European Union has agreed to ban all sea freighted Russian oil imports, and non-EU countries have put similar regulations in place. The UK, for example, will phase out all Russian oil imports by the end of the year.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact this could have. Russia is no small player in the fossil fuels industry and supplies the EU with approximately 2.2 million barrels per day of crude oil. This oil fills Russia’s coffers up by an astonishing $1bn a day. 

There are clear, ethical reasons for Europe divorcing itself from this supply channel but this would also leave many nations with an enormous energy deficit. Lithuania imports 83% of its oil from Russia for instance. Finland and Slovakia are not far behind with imports of 80% and 74% respectively and the rest of Europe has similarly steep reliances on Moscow’s black gold.

Having so many eggs in just one basket was never a good idea and we’ve now seen energy prices explode across Europe. 

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The pathway to a hydrogenized Europe?

With millions of Europeans now entering fuel poverty, governments are looking for immediate solutions.

Although politicians all like to make promises about their countries becoming carbon neutral, it is the case that these proclamations are usually about some point in the distant future. But this crisis requires prompt action and there simply isn’t the renewables infrastructure, as things stand, to plug the gap left by Russian oil.

There’s a clear downside to this – energy will be costly for the foreseeable future. But the upside is that Russia’s aggression has forced the rest of Europe to bring that ‘distant future’ forward on a scale never ventured previously.

With everything being considered, hydrogen technology has found itself the frontrunner in terms of ‘what can help to alleviate the pain now?’

What is hydrogen power?

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces only water, electricity, and heat. It has been obvious for some time that hydrogen would play a key part in many national decarbonization strategies as it has a broad usage base. 

Due to hydrogen’s high efficiency and zero-or near-zero emissions operation, the technology has the potential to become the largest slice of Europe’s energy pie.

Germany leads the charge

Since the start of the war, Germany has reduced its dependence on Russian oil to an impressive 12%. The country benefits from being a pioneer of renewable energy and was on the front foot to do this, but Germans still need to make up for the oil that they’ve lost. 

The BBC recently reported that Veronika Grimm, an economics professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and currently one of Germany’s three special advisors to the federal government, has called for an acceleration in hydrogen adoption. 

According to the BBC, “Ms. Grimm’s enthusiasm is gaining traction… dozens of countries have published national hydrogen strategies, or are about to.”

However, as things stand, hydrogen is only a theoretically perfect solution. Large-scale hydrogen deployment presents serious barriers that need to be overcome. Nonetheless, one of the silver linings of this situation is that countries, industries, and politicians now need to work together to finally solve the issues with hydrogen, rather than optimistically pointing to that vague future date when somebody else has cracked it.

What’s the issue?

A big part of the problem is the production of hydrogen itself. As an energy product, hydrogen has flawless green credentials, but in order to produce it, you’d need to power an electrolyzer and these are often powered by coal, oil, or gas. Checkmate.

What we need is ‘green’ hydrogen produced via renewable sources. The middle east is already doing this by powering its electrolyzers with solar energy. France has so far opted for nuclear.

Imperfect solutions for imperfect times

Clearly, the gold standard would be for hydrogen to be powered via solar or wind but again, this brings us back to the issue of an underdeveloped renewables infrastructure.

Germany’s Veronika Grimm is pragmatic in her approach, stating that “accepting blue hydrogen [from fossil-fuel-powered production] will help create the supply that we need for a budding industry… [this] will foster technological breakthroughs in Germany and encourage potential suppliers to invest in green hydrogen production”. 

Accepting this multi-colored mix would enable the country to wean itself more quickly from Russian products whilst developing leaner and greener hydrogen for future generations.

To signal their seriousness in investing rapidly in this approach, Germany’s economic minister Robert Habeck has announced the doubling of the two-year-old target for the production of green hydrogen. His strategy will see Germany served by 10 GW of domestically manufactured hydrogen by 2030.

Killing two birds with one stone

Decarbonizing Europe is plainly something of a long-term goal for the continent and prior to Russia’s offensive, a great many wheels were already in motion for projects that now become all the more pertinent.

Earlier this year, for instance, British firm Dulas was awarded funding by the Welsh Government’s Smart Living HyBRID* SBRI to undertake a project looking at the feasibility of hydrogen production in Wales using renewable energy sources. 

The project examined the available technologies and assessed the technical and commercial feasibility of hydrogen production at Welsh Water’s Llyn Celyn hydropower plant and at a wind farm. 

The conclusions of the report are extremely positive and show that:

1) Green hydrogen can be competitive with current diesel prices, 

2) that a 10 MW electrolysis system could produce green fuel for around 70 heavy-duty trucks per day

3) and that developments are happening so rapidly that green hydrogen technology is ready to be deployed across the country.

Hydrogen in the renewable energy mix

It is hoped that this project will become a blueprint for providing green hydrogen at scale.

Andy Skipton-Carter, commercial lead for consulting at Dulas, comments, “Green hydrogen will undoubtedly be part of the renewable energy mix in the future and as manufacturing scales up, the price of green hydrogen will come down.

Dulas has just celebrated 40 years of delivering renewable energy projects and we have seen this very same story happen with solar PV and wind over the years. Initially, it was quite a big investment but the cost of solar and wind energy has come down significantly in recent years and it’s now cheaper to generate than energy from fossil fuels. We are already seeing that the output from this work, and other work on green hydrogen, is stimulating activity around hydrogen production and use in Wales and Dulas are actively supporting a range of developments.”

Local secure energy supply is key

Not only will domestic and local supply of green hydrogen emancipate nations from the whims of superpowers, but it will also bring forward the future that we imagined would arrive in the 2030s or beyond.

It is anticipated that many European nations will seek to replicate the Welsh model at the earliest.

Breaking addictions is hard, but the Russian hostilities of 2022 have taught us that we must break the habit now before resources grow scarcer and more of the world becomes energized. 

We really have no choice.

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