Five European sectors that are looking to hydrogen

Hydrogen was one of the agenda items at the Electrify Europe conference in Vienna last month.

Hydrogen was one of the agenda items at the Electrify Europe conference in Vienna last month.

BY JASON DEIGN:

Hydrogen’s value as an alternative fuel is being tested in a least five European industry sectors, according to information presented at Electrify Europe last month.

The best-known of these is transport, where hydrogen is being used in conjunction with cars, buses and heavy-duty vehicles.

But hydrogen is also being eyed in Europe by the heating power, refining and steel sectors, said Nicolas Kraus, European Union policy and regulatory affairs manager at the industry body Hydrogen Europe in Belgium.

“Hydrogen will help us to implement a low-carbon economy,” he asserted. “This is not a dream. It’s a reality.”

Hydrogen Europe, which is sponsored by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation, is spending €1.4bn on demonstrating the technology, he said.

Towards a hydrogen economy

The most visible part of Europe’s move towards a hydrogen economy is in transportation.

Hydrogen recharging stations are being built in Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK, data from the Hydrogen Mobility Europe project shows.

In May, the Zero Emission Fleet vehicles for European Roll-out project, a €26m demonstration programme, said 180 hydrogen fuel cell electric cars would act as taxis, private hire rides and police transports in Paris, Brussels and London.

And in June, the French energy company Engie inaugurated France’s first alternative multi-fuel station and the country’s largest hydrogen utility fleet, made up of 50 hydrogen-powered Renault Kangoo ZE vehicles.

Hydrogen is also increasingly being used across European bus fleets, with 368 vehicles having been procured through European Union-funded projects such as the Joint Initiative for hydrogen Vehicles across Europe. 

Fuel-cell models

At the same time, bus manufacturers such as EvoBus and Van Hool are incorporating fuel-cell models into their product line-ups. It is a similar story with goods vehicle manufacturers.

In autumn the Norwegian truck maker Scania, for instance, will be supplying four fuel-cell lorries for a test by ASKO, Norway’s largest wholesaler of foodstuffs.

In Netherlands, meanwhile, VDL is working on another hydrogen-powered truck also due on the roads this year. Colruyt Group is using hydrogen-powered pallet transporters in its Dassenveld distribution centre in Halle.

The numbers involved in these pilots are miniscule in relation to traditional European vehicle fleets, and many problems remain before hydrogen can become fully entrenched in Europe’s transport system.

The cost of fuel-cell buses, for example, remains exorbitant, at €450,000 per unit. And critics argue that the faster pace of battery electric vehicle adoption could leave hydrogen as “only a niche fuel for trucks and buses.” 

European policy makers

However, the not insignificant amount of public finance being spent on pilot schemes indicates a willingness by European policy makers to at least see if hydrogen can work in transportation.

And with continuing uncertainty over the lithium-ion battery supply chain, it makes some sense to investigate hydrogen as an alternative, or supplement, to batteries in transportation.

In the meantime, said Kraus, other sectors are also taking interest in hydrogen as a fuel. The heating industry, for example, is looking to add hydrogen to gas in pilots now underway in France and the UK.

The power sector, too, is interested using hydrogen as a way of de-carbonising natural gas. The most obvious way to do this is to blend hydrogen with natural gas, effectively reducing the carbon intensity of gas-fired plants.

But an alternative proposal by Equinor, formerly Statoil, involves extracting hydrogen from Norwegian natural gas, through steam methane reforming, so it can be used directly as a fuel.

A 440MW hydrogen-driven turbine

The concept would see leftover carbon dioxide being stored so it cannot escape into the atmosphere. The project envisages having a 440MW hydrogen-driven turbine coming into operation by 2023 in Netherlands.

Hydrogen technology is also being tested for oil refining, with Shell having established one of the largest electrolysis plants at its Rhineland refinery in Germany.

Producing hydrogen from electricity rather than natural gas, as is currently the case, would cut oil refining carbon emissions by 20%, said Kraus. “It’s a market that electrolysers are very happy to tap into,” he said.

The final sector that is looking into hydrogen in Europe is the steel industry. The Voestalpine steel plant in Linz, Austria, for instance, has a 6MW electrolyser to feed renewable hydrogen into the steelmaking process.

Other projects in a similar vein include HYBRIT in Sweden and SALCOS in Germany. None of these projects could be viewed as transformational, but Hydrogen Europe has lofty ambitions.

By 2030, said Kraus, “we will put in place around 5m vehicles, 13m households will have fuel cells in Europe, we will have an accumulated investment of €52bn and we will reach roughly 1m jobs.”

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