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Hydrogen in Europe turns blue

The European Green New Deal and clean energy investments.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
29 July 2020
6 min read
by Maria Pia Rossignaud
29 July 2020
6 min read

Hydrogen will play a central role in the EU’s Green New Deal. That much is clear from the recent proposals from the European Commission on hydrogen and integrated energy systems. It’s an ambitious plan that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030 and totally by 2050.

But how, you ask? Well, expanding the hydrogen sector to replace fossil fuels is felt to be one of the most convincing solutions. That’s how the Clean Hydrogen Alliance was born, which brings together institutions, businesses and research initiatives under the banner of “clean” hydrogen. The hydrogen we use today (known as “grey” hydrogen) is produced, for mostly industrial purposes and in limited quantities, from fossil fuels, and its low production costs make it appealing to investors.  But the main thing is, it’s not sustainable from an environmental point of view, so it’s not feasible to use it on a large scale, as demanded by the EU’s strategy, which wants quarter of the bloc’s energy demand covered by hydrogen by 2050. That’s why the EU has decided to encourage a move to clean hydrogen, i.e. hydrogen that doesn’t emit CO₂. Brussels has its sights fixed most of all on so-called “green hydrogen”, produced by electrolysing water using renewable energies.

The blue hydrogen

The strategy doesn’t leave out the key role played by another type of hydrogen, so-called blue hydrogen, produced, like its grey counterpart, from natural gas, but with the CO₂ captured and stored, thereby emitting none. The objective outlined in the Commission’s text is to produce 1 million tonnes of decarbonized hydrogen by 2024 and 10 million tonnes by 2030, but it’s vital that new technologies are developed to reduce production costs if this is to be achieved.

In order to make this a reality, we need funds to be allocated to research, so the European Commission, via the European Investment Bank and various EU funding programmes, has outlined a 30-year plan containing some rather astonishing figures: “cumulative investments could reach between 180 and 470 billion euros by 2050”, the statement reads.

The Clean Hydrogen Alliance is based on the battery agreement model – another of the main avenues down which the EU is going – meaning that a bloc-wide platform will be built where all players, both public and private, that produce hydrogen from renewable (or, for now, low-carbon) sources can come together. The main difference will be adhesion to the EU's policy objectives, aimed at channelling investment into hydrogen production and developing “a pipeline of concrete projects to support the decarbonization efforts of European energy-intensive industries such as steel and chemicals”, as the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton explains.

Projects for the South of Italy

There are various possibilities opening up for EU countries at this stage. Thanks to an agreement between Eni and NextChem – a company that is committed to undertaking research on the transition to renewable sources and decarbonization – the team at a refinery on the Ionian coast at Bari will examine the feasibility of a plant producing gases obtained by means of a chemical recycling process. Gas produced in this way will then be refined into two independent flows. On the one hand, there will be hydrogen, which could be sent to the Eni refinery to power fuel hydrodesulphurisation processes, that is to say the processes by which sulphur and its compounds are removed during the processing of mainly organic substances. On the other hand, we would have a gas that was rich in carbon monoxide and could be used at steelworks for both blast furnace processes and new technologies to help the steel industry – which is known for being the biggest “offender” in terms of climate impact – make the difficult energy transition.

In response to the new EU standards, Eni is embarking upon a medium- and long-term course to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. From the “Waste to Hydrogen” plant at the Porto Marghera bio-refinery to the “Waste to Methanol” (WtM) project for producing methanol at the Eni refinery in Livorno, through various agreements with Fincantieri for the production and transport of energy vectors such as hydrogen, our Italian company has long been at the forefront of the energy transition.

Italy’s advantageous position in the Mediterranean means it can make help develop photovoltaic infrastructure in North African countries in a big way, then import the hydrogen produced there to Sicily, 14% cheaper than producing it domestically. Green hydrogen production facilities could also be created in the region thanks to the low cost of electricity generated by wind and solar power.

Other solutions

There are, however, certain areas in which decarbonization is more difficult, which is why EU dossiers highlight the importance not only of renewable hydrogen but also of biomass, sustainable biofuels and synthetic fuels. In the case of the latter, the emphasis is placed on the transition from natural gases to renewable gases and new synthetic gases produced from renewable sources such as hydrogen and synthetic methane.

As well as improving the quality of the air we breathe and preserving the land and seas, such a policy also has economic consequences. The EU is poor in fossil resources and currently imports almost 60% of the energy it needs. With the measures identified thus far and an appropriate investment plan, this percentage could be significantly lowered as a result of lower taxes and expenses and a reduced dependency on foreign markets, among other things.