Clean energy through hydrogen: the stuff dreams are made of

With its "hydrogen strategy," the German government wants to advance the energy transition. But before that, a lot of problems have to be solved.

Hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the universe – but not in the earth’s crust Photo: Alexander Limbach/imago

There was a six-month delay, many different drafts and a lot of back and forth, especially between the ministries for research, economy, environment and transport – but then the German government was finally able to present its widely announced "National Hydrogen Strategy" in June.

When it comes to the "petroleum of the future," Germany will "become a global pioneer," promised CDU Research Minister Anja Karliczek, and "achieve and secure world market leadership in hydrogen technologies […] in the long term." Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) said that they would "take on a pioneering role, as we did 20 years ago with the promotion of renewable energies". And SPD Environment Minister Svenja Schulze praised the "double boost" for climate protection and economic recovery after Corona.

Petroleum of the future, world market leader, pioneer – no promise is too great when it comes to what a green energy supply for the world might look like and who might earn from it: H2 is the hydrogen these dreams are made of. Germany, as the mother country of the energy turnaround, wants to have an important say in the global poker, and the "national strategy" for this is being cautiously greeted by industry, politics, science and also environmental associations.

Hardly a week goes by without the topic of hydrogen being on the agenda: lobbying organizations are positioning themselves, the German government’s "Green Hydrogen Innovation Officer" is providing information. Last Monday, the Economics Committee of the Bundestag debated the issue, and in November, the "Energy Turnaround Congress" of the state-owned German Energy Agency (dena) will deal with it. With a total of 9 billion euros in government aid and new rules and laws, the government wants to move the project forward. However, important technical and energy policy issues remain unresolved.

The beauty of technology? Everyone finds something to love about it

But first, Germany has a strategy and, as part of the 130 billion euro economic stimulus program for the economy in the Corona crisis, a lot of money. To create a "strong domestic market," the government wants to boost production and consumption of "green" hydrogen generated with green electricity. By 2030, it wants to support the construction of large H2 factories, electrolysers, with the capacity of 5 gigawatts, and by 2040, 10 gigawatts. It also wants to make headway in building supplier factories, H2 infrastructure such as refueling stations, pipelines and research.

Hydrogen is transparent, but is often referred to by colors to denote the type of production:

Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of water, using only electricity from renewable sources. The production is CO2-free.

Gray hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels such as natural gas. The waste product is CO2, which is then released unused into the atmosphere – the production of one ton of hydrogen generates around 10 tons of CO2.

Blue hydrogen is gray hydrogen, but its CO2 is captured and stored during production. Hydrogen production can be considered CO2-neutral in balance sheet terms.

Turquoise hydrogen is produced by the thermal cracking of methane. Instead of CO2, solid carbon is produced in the process. If this is permanently bound and only electricity from renewable energy sources is used, production is CO2-neutral.

Source: German Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Green power from solar and wind plants will make H2 a clean "key element of the energy transition," the government plan promises. The beauty of the technology? Everyone finds something to love about it. The CDU/CSU and industry see the opportunities for exports and innovation, the SPD and the trade unions hope for new clean jobs, and environmentalists are looking forward to energy without harmful CO2 emissions.

So far, however, very little hydrogen is produced in Germany; the government’s plans would increase capacity a hundredfold by 2030. And to fuel virtually all processes with green hydrogen by 2050, consumption of the eco-storage medium would have to increase from about 5 terawatt hours now to 600 terawatt hours.

The strategy envisions the use of hydrogen primarily in the chemical and steel industries to replace fossil fuels. But trains, which until now have run on diesel locomotives, trucks and aircraft also urgently need CO2-free fuel for the planned "climate neutrality," which H2 products can supply as a gas or liquid. For cars and heating in buildings, on the other hand, electric solutions such as e-drives and heat pumps are considered more efficient.

The tug-of-war between the ministries over the H2 strategy ended with compromises: Research and Environment pushed through that only hydrogen from green electricity and not, for example, also from natural gas should be promoted – and the Economics Ministry that only 5 and not 10 gigawatts should be achieved by 2030. A committee of the responsible state secretaries is to coordinate the work, and a "national hydrogen council" with 26 representatives from research, industry and associations is to advise them. Environment Minister Schulze warned, "Whoever says yes to hydrogen must also say yes to wind energy."

Political economist Maja Gopel has written an orderer, "Rethinking Our World." We talked to her about possible futures, the liberating nature of prohibitions and a childhood among hippies – in the taz am wochenende of October 31/November 1. Also: A look at the last days before the US presidential election. And: The most important facts about the Corona Partial Shutdown. Always from Saturday on the kiosk, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a side blow against the CDU/CSU, which has long put the brakes on the expansion of renewable energies. After all, eco-hydrogen needs eco-electricity. The current plans for 5 gigawatts of H2 capacity would mean that the expansion target of 65 percent green electricity in 2030, which is already difficult to achieve, would grow to around 68 percent, calculates Jochen Bard, an expert from the Fraunhofer Institute for Energy Economics. Around 1,000 additional wind turbines would have to be built by 2030: "The decisive lever is the rapid expansion of renewables, where we have a lot of catching up to do."

The strategy also envisages that large amounts – up to 80 percent of Germany’s demand in 2050 – would have to be imported. This could happen either from EU states that convert wind offshore to H2 or from states in North Africa, for example. There are already plans for Morocco.

Shortly after the Germans, the EU Commission presented its plans for the expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure. The lobbying association Hydrogen Europe had been drumming up support for this for months. The Brussels authority is also setting itself ambitious goals: It is talking about 40 gigawatts of electrolysis capacity by 2040 and another 40 gigawatts of imports. This would require an estimated 80 to 120 gigawatts of additional wind and solar farms (there are currently about 330 gigawatts of them in the EU), at a cost of about 20 to 35 billion euros a year.

"Very large figures are being bandied about," says Matthias Deutsch of the think tank Agora Energiewende. At the same time, he says, there has been little transparency so far as to exactly where in the German plans what money is to flow and what, for example, the H2 infrastructure of the future is to look like. The German Federal Network Agency is advising on how the current gas pipelines could possibly be used or converted for hydrogen. However, a law is still missing for this.

Before the brave new energy future can begin worldwide, however, major hurdles still have to be overcome: Will Germany and the EU also accept hydrogen that is not produced with green electricity, but with gas or nuclear power? Do possible H2 plants in North Africa or Russia deliver to Europe or do they also supply their own population? Is the transport via pipelines or via tankers?

And also: Does Europe make itself dependent on unstable regions and shady regimes by importing hydrogen? In this way, the "new oil" would repeat a problem of the old oil.