Hydrogen – the key to more climate action in Europe

FAQs Hydrogen – the key to more climate action in Europe

At an informal video conference, the EU energy ministers, chaired by Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier are deliberating about how the EU’s 2030 energy targets can be achieved. The Hydrogen Strategy is one important approach. But what is it? Here is a round-up of FAQs. 

The pump at a hydrogen filling station

The EU believes hydrogen has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

Photo: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg/Getty Images

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a chemical element found in the natural environment. Water, for instance is composed of oxygen and hydrogen atoms - H2O. The chemical symbol H is used to designate hydrogen.

Why is hydrogen now being referred to as the "new oil"?

Hydrogen can be used in many ways in the industry, transport, power and building sectors as a feedstock, a fuel or an energy carrier and storage. When hydrogen is used, no CO2 is released and no air pollution is caused. 

What makes (green) hydrogen better than fossil fuels?

Provided hydrogen is produced using renewable energy, such as electrolysis powered by green electricity, very few – ideally no – greenhouse gas is generated. The situation is very different when it comes to generating electric power from fossil fuels like oil, anthracite or lignite, or from nuclear power. These processes cause CO2 emissions. And the fuels are finite.

Green, grey, blue and turquoise hydrogen – what’s the difference?

Green hydrogen is obtained through the electrolysis of water. All electricity used is generated from renewables, meaning that both the electricity used and the production of hydrogen is CO2-free, irrespective of the electrolysis technology used.

Grey hydrogen takes a fossil fuel as its starting point. In most cases, a process of "steam reforming" is used. This involves heating natural gas to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen. Since the CO2 is released unused into the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect is worsened. Ten tonnes CO2 are produced for every tonne of hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen is essentially also grey hydrogen, but the CO2 released as a result of steam reforming is captured and stored. This is referred to as CSS – carbon capture and storage. The CO2 resulting from hydrogen production is thus not released into the atmosphere, and so the hydrogen production can be considered CO2-neutral.

Turquoise hydrogen is produced by using heat to split methane. The process is also known as pyrolysis, methane cracking or methane decarbonisation. Rather than CO2, it produces solid carbon. To make this type of production CO2-neutral, the heat supplied by the high-temperature reactor must be generated from renewables and the carbon residue must be bound permanently.

What is the goal of the EU’s Hydrogen Strategy?

Hydrogen can help decarbonise industrial processes and branches of the economy, where CO2 emissions must be reduced as a matter of urgency, and where this is difficult to achieve. Hydrogen has hitherto been used on a limited scale only in the EU, and is largely generated from fossil fuels. 

The aim of the strategy is to decarbonise the production of hydrogen, which means moving the energy sectors towards lower use of carbon. The aim is to achieve a zero-carbon economy in the long term. This is possible, since the costs of renewable energy are dropping rapidly, and technological development is accelerating. Hydrogen is also to be used in sectors in which it can replace fossil fuels.

What type of hydrogen does the strategy promote?

The strategy focuses on renewable hydrogen, since it offers the greatest potential for decarbonisation. This makes it the option that is most compatible with the EU’s goal of becoming climate-neutral.

The strategy also recognises that during a transition phase other low-carbon procedures used to generate hydrogen, for instance using carbon capture and storage or other types of low-carbon electricity, can help make hydrogen production cleaner, reduce emissions in the short term, and increase the market.

Green hydrogen is still very expensive. Can the costs be reduced?

At present, hydrogen is still more expensive than traditional fuels. That is the case with most innovative technologies at the start. This is why partnerships are to be launched with countries like Australia or African states, where the climatic conditions are often more favourable for the production of green hydrogen than in Germany. Research and support for innovative approaches are also to significantly reduce the still high costs of generating clean hydrogen.

Can the EU become a world leader in clean hydrogen technology?

The international dimension is an important part of the EU’s strategy. Clean hydrogen opens up new opportunities to redesign Europe’s energy partnerships – with neighbouring countries and regions, but also with regional and bilateral partners. 

Since the EU has been promoting research and innovation in the hydrogen sector for many years, it is already ahead of the pack in the development of technologies and complex projects. It is the leader in terms of technologies such as electrolysers, hydrogen filling stations and large-scale hydrogen fuel cells. The aim of the strategy is to consolidate the leading role of the EU. This is to be done by ensuring a complete supply chain for the European economy and further developing the EU’s international hydrogen agenda.

Where does the Commission see options for using hydrogen?

Hydrogen is an important way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in sectors in which decarbonisation is difficult, and electrification is either difficult or impossible. This is true, for instance of branches of industry such as steel production or heavy goods traffic. As a carbon-free energy carrier, hydrogen would also make it possible to transport renewable energy over long distances and could be used to store large quantities of energy.

It could be used directly in industry, for instance in refineries, in the production of ammonia and in new types of methanol production where it could reduce or replace carbon-intensive hydrogen, and could replace some of the fossil fuels used in steel production. Hydrogen has the potential to lay the foundations for the CO2-free steel production procedures laid out in the Commission’s new industry strategy for the EU.

In the transport sector, hydrogen is a promising option where electrification is difficult – for buses used in local public transport, for instance, for commercial fleets of vehicles or for certain parts of the rail network. Heavy commercial vehicles, including coaches, special vehicles and vehicles used in long-distance road transport could also be decarbonised by using hydrogen as a fuel. The use of hydrogen fuel cell trains could be expanded and hydrogen could be used as a fuel in inland water transport and in short sea shipping.  

In the long term, hydrogen can be used as the basis for producing synthetic liquid kerosene and other synthetic fuels, making it an option for the decarbonisation of air and sea traffic.

In the European Green Deal, the EU has set itself the goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050. Hydrogen will play an important part in achieving this. On 8 July 2020, the European Commission presented its Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe. The strategy looks at how to exploit the potential offered by hydrogen through investment, regulation, creating markets, and research and development.