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Collaboration: the key to building a European hydrogen backbone

As the Hydrogen Envoy of the Netherlands, based in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, Noé van Hulst works to strengthen cooperation with governments and international companies in order to build a market for clean hydrogen. In his view, appointing top advisors on hydrogen – a step also taken by countries like Japan, the UK and Germany – can help to encourage the kind of collaboration and mutual inspiration we need if we are to develop clean hydrogen and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. As the Netherlands plans to capitalize on its unique opportunity in the hydrogen market, Noé van Hulst explains the factors behind hydrogen’s success in his country, while making the case for hydrogen as the missing link to Europe becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent. 

Why do you believe hydrogen is the right solution for a successful energy transition?

So far, the energy transition has focused mainly on electricity. In fact, it has been an electricity transition more than a global energy transition, meaning that everyone is doing more wind and solar, which is fantastic and needs to continue, but it only helps to decarbonize the electricity system, which is only 20% of total final energy consumption. The question is then how are you going to decarbonize the rest? With further electrification, which is the trend that everyone expects to see continue, you may double the electricity share, but you will still remain with 50-60% of energy that you cannot electrify. Here, as we say in the Netherlands, you will have to “green” the molecules. Greening the molecules means decarbonizing sectors that you cannot reach with electrification, such as heavy industry, heavy-duty transportation, parts of the heating sector and seasonal energy storage – for all of that you need green energy molecules. We see no other alternative, except  biogas, but it has severe volume limitations. We see only clean hydrogen that can do the bulk of this job. Of course, the efficiency of fuel cells and hydrogen solutions also needs continuous improvement, which can improve the business cases of these options in many applications: hence the need to boost international cooperation on through Mission Innovation, IEA TCP, etc. It’s all about greening the molecules and decarbonizing the hard to abate sectors. In short, clean hydrogen is not the silver bullet to solve the energy transition, but it is the missing link. It is the best fitting complement to green electricity.

Gif Hydrogen clean energy

What role does hydrogen currently play in the Netherlands and throughout Europe?

"Once you start thinking about how to reach net zero emissions by 2050, you realize you still have a lot to do, much more than what we are doing now. We are convinced, along with more and more countries and companies, that we need clean hydrogen to make that work."

It is still very new. We started out with a very ambitious climate policy including a target of -49% CO2 reduction by 2030. At the European level, we are advocating for the whole EU to move towards a target of -55% by 2030, which would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Along with other EU countries, we have committed to climate neutrality by 2050, meaning zero emissions. Once you start thinking about how to reach net zero emissions by 2050, you realize you still have a lot to do, much more than what we are doing now. We are convinced, along with more and more countries and companies, that we need clean hydrogen to make that work.

Why is hydrogen taking off in the Netherlands?

The first big driver is our ambitious climate policy and the need to decarbonize these difficult sectors. In the Netherlands, we have a lot of energy-intensive industries e.g. in the harbor of Rotterdam and a lot of refineries. Across Europe, we are already the second largest producer and user of grey hydrogen, so a lot of experience in safely handling hydrogen. Second, there is the fact that we have a very strong gas infrastructure, which can be repurposed to transport clean hydrogen. We will also have a lot of pipeline capacity opening up as we phase out of the production from the Groningen gas field in the North of the country, which needs to close in the next couple of years because of earthquakes. Though it will bring down gas production, it will also give us a unique opportunity in the Netherlands to repurpose that pipeline capacity to transport clean hydrogen. No other country has such a big pipeline capacity available in the next 5 years. Finally, we have a lot of offshore wind potential, which will be used mainly to green our power mix over the next 10 years. But after 2030, we will still have a lot of offshore wind (perhaps 60 GW) that can then be used to produce green hydrogen. In addition, we are also producing blue hydrogen particularly in the Rotterdam harbor, by storing the CO2 in offshore gas fields in the North Sea. This production will be used over the next 10 years to help build up the infrastructure that we can later use as green hydrogen becomes more available.

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Prinses Amalia offshore wind park in Netherlands.

Is this pipeline conversion process already underway?

"Our vision is that in 10-15 years we should have a European hydrogen backbone connecting North to South and East to West, so we can transport hydrogen across Europe thus creating a liquid European clean hydrogen market." 

We already have one 12-km pipeline in the South of the country, by Gasunie, between Dow Chemicals and Yara, which was an old gas pipeline that has been repurposed for 100% hydrogen transportation. It’s already in operation and we already know it works. Now we are working on preparing the new capacity that will be coming on stream soon. We have a roadmap of pilot and demo projects to make this happen, first on a local level around the big industrial clusters near Eemshaven in the North, the Port of Rotterdam, Zeeland in the South, the Port of Amsterdam and Chemelot in the Southeast. Local networks and transportation will be built up around those clusters first, then Gasunie will connect all those clusters with a hydrogen backbone. We think the entire project will be ready in 2026. Then the next step will be to roll it out internationally, and connect it to Germany, Belgium, France and further south. Our vision is that in 10-15 years we should have a European hydrogen backbone connecting North to South and East to West, so we can transport hydrogen across Europe thus creating a liquid European clean hydrogen market.

How would you gauge the appetite for hydrogen among the national governments in Europe?

"Projects are developing and the new European Commission has issued the New Green Deal, with hydrogen playing a pivotal role to make it happen, since we will never become the first climate-neutral continent without clean hydrogen."

It is increasing very rapidly now. I think everything is going faster than we expected, to be honest. If you would have asked me one year ago, I would have said it’s relatively uneven, with a lot of activity in northwestern Europe – UK, Norway, Germany, Benelux, France and Austria – but not so much elsewhere. But nowadays I think we see a lot happening in southern Europe: Portugal, Spain, Italy. Even in Eastern Europe, I’m seeing more activity in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic and Ukraine. Projects are developing and the new European Commission has issued the New Green Deal, with hydrogen playing a pivotal role to make it happen, since we will never become the first climate-neutral continent without clean hydrogen. So I think the appetite is growing rapidly, and I’m really optimistic for that reason. We are even looking to use hydrogen as a bridge between Europe and North Africa and leverage their great potential for green hydrogen. Even beyond Europe, we see this vision extending to the neighboring states and regions. That’s what we should aim for and the potential is definitely there.

What factors do you think drove the turnaround in Southern and Eastern Europe?

A combination of factors. First, there is the strong drive towards decarbonization across Europe. There is also the rapidly falling cost of renewables, particularly in Southern Europe, you’ve seen prices for solar options last summer reaching 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour. All these countries can now produce much more renewable energy than they need for their own grids and decarbonization efforts. That gives all the countries in Southern Europe an opportunity to build a new export industry on the back of green hydrogen.

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Solar power station in Spain.

Which governments are leading the way on hydrogen and what factors have driven their success?

"We need to scale up massively over the next 10 years. If we all do it together, that will only make the process go faster and everyone will benefit from larger scale and lower cost. It’s not a race, it’s mutual inspiration."

It’s a field that’s becoming much more crowded. In the European Union, I think a lot of other governments are picking up the slack. But I don’t see it as a race. On the contrary, I think the more countries that discover this, the more we can work together and the faster we can go. I’ve said elsewhere that as European countries, we should not develop hydrogen on our own, but instead we should work together from the beginning and we can go much faster in terms of the scaling up that we need to do. We should not underestimate the major challenges that we are still facing, notably in terms of getting the cost of hydrogen down. We need to scale up massively over the next 10 years. If we all do it together, that will only make the process go faster and everyone will benefit from larger scale and lower cost. It’s not a race, it’s mutual inspiration. For example, by studying the French or German strategy, I can pick up on ideas that we haven’t tried and maybe accelerate our hydrogen rollout even more.

Have you seen that type of collaboration picking up more in recent years?

Yes, I think it is starting to work. Last January, we publicly announced the first big joint project with Germany, which will analyze offshore wind from Germany and the Netherlands. Germany has had some trouble getting wind into its electricity system, so this feasibility study is now looking at landing the German and Dutch offshore wind fields in the Netherlands, converting it into green hydrogen, then using the gas pipeline capacity I mentioned earlier to transport the green hydrogen to Germany industry in North Westphalia, as well as Dutch industry in the South. This is a completely new approach that has never been tried, namely landing German electricity in the Netherlands and seeing how we can jointly use our infrastructure to transport it back to Germany through these pipelines. It’s not going to be easy considering the myriad of regulatory barriers to overcome, but this very innovative approach speaks to a willingness at the highest level to challenge ourselves to develop joint solutions. If we can make this work, it will be a major game-changer for the entire European clean energy market. We have another longer-term project going on with the North Sea wind power hub, with Germany and Denmark, where we will look at connecting offshore wind across those three areas. It will involve building artificial islands to land and perhaps even convert the power partly offshore to green hydrogen before transporting it through gas pipelines onshore. Approaches like these are starting to pop up and I think it’s exactly what we need.

According to you, what respective roles should both governments and oil and gas industries play in the global deployment of clean energies?

I don’t see it as separate things, I think we need new public-private partnerships to make this happen, because it’s all relatively new and so we need to find out what types of support mechanisms will work best. We need to work closely with the companies who make it happen, as well as institutional investors and banks, to make these early projects more attractive. I know the Hydrogen Council is already doing this, but I also see a role for the European Investment Bank here. We may also need to build off of our experience in offshore wind, so we can have a predictable de-risking framework so that investors and companies know how to invest in scaling up these technologies. We may need to invent new auction mechanisms where we connect offshore wind to the demand for green hydrogen. We may have to get creative with new mechanisms, such as mandatory targets for decarbonizing gas through clean hydrogen. A certain clear objective like 10% in 2030, as was recently proposed by European gas TSO’s can help us create the market and make these projects more bankable and investable.

As the former chairman of the IEA governing board, what are the most significant hydrogen projects you observed during your time at the agency?

It came after my time, but the IEA report for Japan’s G20 presidency was the most important project I’ve seen. It was a game-changing report showing just how important hydrogen would be in the energy transition. I think it was important for Japan’s G20 presidency, since the country is obviously a leader in hydrogen. Coming from an agency that looks at all technologies and all fuels, I think that was important for the entire world to see them recommending hydrogen.

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Shibuya, Japan. 

You listed three reasons why the IEA’s “Future of Hydrogen” report is a game-changer. Has the report made waves in the industry?

Yes, I think so. I think the most important impact is that it showed people that we’re not paying enough attention to hydrogen. I think it had a big impact on raising awareness at the highest levels, both in industry and government. In the Netherlands, we’re hosting a workshop called “Scaling Up Around the North Sea”(once this is feasible again), where we are inviting the countries in the region to talk about how to make this happen, share our experiences and work even more closely together. I think the report has already been taken to heart by many countries.

The Hydrogen Council recently published its “Path to Competitive Hydrogen” report. What does this study tell us about the future of hydrogen?

"The cost of clean hydrogen may come down rapidly in the next ten years. [...] It is starting to have a significant impact in the decarbonization of manufacturing industry, heavy-duty and long-haul transport and to start contributing to building seasonal storage."

In my view, this report shows that there is a solid basis to expect that the cost of clean hydrogen may come down rapidly in the next ten years. And that is of course exactly what we need in order for clean hydrogen to begin having a significant impact in the decarbonization of manufacturing industry, heavy-duty and long-haul transport and to start contributing to building seasonal storage. In short, the report underlines the big momentum behind clean hydrogen. Of course, the current Covid-19 crisis makes the situation more challenging. But we should use the clean hydrogen momentum to make scaling up hydrogen a key component of Green Recovery Plans.

In three words, what is your vision of the hydrogen society?

Engaging, enthusiastic and upbeat!