23 September 2020 | Reading 12 mins.

Hydrogen: The rockstar of the energy transition

Frank Wouters
Director of the EU GCC Clean Energy Network

Frank Wouters, Director of the EU GCC Clean Energy Network

Combined with renewable-sourced electricity, hydrogen has the potential to entirely replace hydrocarbons in Europe by 2050. The new ‘Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-neutral Europe’ is more ambitious than global targets which puts Europe at the forefront of the energy transition and hydrogen front stage now.

The year 2020 has seen the emergence of hydrogen strategies in many European countries, including Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, as well as for the European Union as a whole; most importantly, on 8 July 2020, the European Commission, led on this topic by Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, released the Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-neutral Europe as part of the European Green Deal. The European Hydrogen Strategy refers among other things to the “2x40GW Green Hydrogen Initiative”, issued by Hydrogen Europe, which outlines the role of water electrolysis until 2030, based on the “ambitious scenario 2030” of the “Hydrogen Roadmap Europe” (FCH-JU).

Podcast with Frank Wouters and Marie Kress. Source: Smart mobility podcast

Worth noting: the targeted 80GW of electrolyzer capacity in Europe and neighboring countries is not enough to produce the parallel aim of an additional 10 million tons of hydrogen that Europe is also aiming for by 2030. This is among the most ambitious hydrogen strategies in the world, even more ambitious for example than the Hydrogen Council’s strategy, which leads to 18% of all global final energy demand covered by hydrogen by 2050, making it a $2.5 trillion industry, which is bigger than oil and gas combined. To get there, the Hydrogen Council foresees an installed electrolyzer capacity of 70 GW globally by 2030. The European ambition for Europe alone is bigger than the Hydrogen Council’s target for the world, which is a true game-changer for hydrogen.

In addition to this public sector development, the private sector is also moving. The pipeline of hydrogen projects has grown substantially according to a report by Wood McKenzie, which notes that the list of potential global investments in electrolyzers planned to be operational by 2030 grew from 3.2GW to 8.2 GW, 57% of those in Europe, over the 6 months to March 2020. And the European electrolyzer manufacturers of all final energy can eventually be covered by hydrogen, which will require an additional volume of green electricity as directly used. A substantial part of hydrocarbons is currently being used as a feedstock in the steel, chemical, and refining industries – this is something that hydrogen can replace, but electricity cannot. The epic proportions of such undertaking are mind-blowing, and 30 years is not a long time.

Hydrogen Fue Station Sign. Photo: Alister Thorpe

The new-found enthusiasm enticed Frans Timmermans to label hydrogen the “Rockstar of the energy transition”. At the same time, Elon Musk calls fuel cells “fool cells”, much to the amusement of his fan base, also known as Teslaratis. Although Timmerman’s positive energy, support, and some level of hula-hoop are necessary ingredients for such a profound transition, there is a lot of work ahead. The following points layout the elements of this transition and present some of the perceived controversies.

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