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The enormous potential of ultra-sustainable advanced renewable hydrogen

  • Oct 24, 2022
EU Reporter

As the ongoing war in Ukraine sends global energy prices skyrocketing, we are now faced with the “double whammy” of shortages and blackouts this winter, adding further severe pressure to our already stressed economies and daily lives.

With Europe starting to wean itself off its long-term dependency on Russian energy, it would be logical to assume that lawmakers in Brussels would urgently assess all feasible alternative energy options and empower Member States to plug immediate shortages and strategies for longer-term energy security.

In the light of the urgent need to secure Europe’s energy supply, the imperatives of the Green Deal and our transition to cleaner and renewable fuels, it is disappointing to see some viable opportunities missed and, worse, certain specific national interests undermining the ambitious emissions targets that they have themselves set.

This is particularly true with regard to a key piece in the puzzle of Europe’s energy transition to a green economy - hydrogen.

Hydrogen as an energy carrier is an excellent substitute for fossil fuels used for transportation, in the production of ammonia and for other industrial applications. This gas, which can itself be produced using renewable power, provides high-grade heat, enabling it to meet a range of energy needs that would be difficult to address through electricity alone. Furthermore, it is the only renewable energy that can be efficiently stored and does not suffer from the inherent weaknesses of wind and solar power (intermittency, inefficient transport and difficulty of storage).

A free and fair debate about hydrogen’s role in the EU energy mix is particularly apt in the light of two delegated acts published this summer by the European Commission. These acts seek to clarify the EU rules applicable to renewable hydrogen under the 2018 Renewable Energy Directive.

The Revision of the Renewable Energy Directive is currently in “trilogue” between the three main EU institutions. Just last month, the European Parliament voted in favour of a 45% target for renewable energy in the EU’s energy mix by 2030, more than double the current rate of 22%. This paves the way for negotiations with the 27 Member States to finalise a text before the end of the year. The directive is part of EU plans presented last year aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before the end of the decade.

Separately, the Commission has tabled its REPowerEU plan, which, essentially, represents the EU’s hopes of realising the green transition sooner.

This is all good; indeed it creates extremely ambitious targets for renewable hydrogen. So why have the EU institutions prioritised hydrogen from wind and solar (aka Renewable Fuels of non-Biological Origin or RFNBOs) over and above other sources of hydrogen - despite the many other more sustainable and hugely scalable methods currently available to make advanced renewable hydrogen? Such a narrow view is, frankly, incomprehensible in the face of the evidence in favour of renewable hydrogen.

In particular, this applies to renewable hydrogen made from biomethane. Not only does biomethane-based renewable hydrogen tick all the boxes when it comes to its uses in the modern energy market, but its environmental credentials are impeccable too. When made from the most sustainable feedstocks such as waste straw and to the most stringent “net-zero” greenhouse gas targets, as a small number of companies across the world are currently doing, it offers an opportunity to:

  • Deliver a sustainability profile that is at least as good and potentially better than that of RFNBOs;
  • produce large volumes of sustainable zero-emission hydrogen that will help meet the EU’s overall objectives for hydrogen; and
  • ensure that the Repower EU objective of producing 35 bcm of biomethane is implemented in the most sustainable and carbon-efficient manner possible.

Unfortunately, advanced renewable hydrogen was left out of the energy package recently approved by MEPs. An oversight? Or a deliberate, political, significant omission which should be reconsidered?

The European Parliament would do well to understand, and recognise, the “huge” potential of advanced renewable hydrogen derived from sustainable waste feed stock.

Two factors appear to be driving this aversion to advanced renewable hydrogen. Firstly, the massive investment and subsidies backing RFNBOs have resulted in intense pressure to distort policy-making towards picking winners in the market place. The EU is at risk of seeking to protect an expensive sector that will not reach the bloc’s desired targets. This is preventing an open market for the rapidly changing new advanced renewable technologies.

Secondly, many in Brussels have an aversion to crop-and-wood-based methods to produce biomethane, which, they claim, drives deforestation, proposing instead that agricultural land should be dedicated to food rather than fuel production.

But there are highly sustainable options available for making large volumes of biomethane from ultra-sustainable feedstocks, such as waste straw. In the recent “Gas for Climate” report for Guidehouse, three experts, Sacha Alberici, Wouter Grimme and Gemma Toop, conclude that “biomethane can play an important role in meeting the European Union (EU) 2030 GHG reduction target and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.”

The report goes on, “Additionally, biomethane increases European energy security by reducing the dependency on Russian natural gas and can alleviate part of the energy cost pressure on households and companies.” It also finds that there are enough sustainable feedstocks available in the EU-27 to meet the REPowerEU 2030 target.

Having studied the biomethane potential per technology and country, the authors state that “a potential of 38 bcm is estimated for anaerobic digestion in 2030 for EU-27 increasing to 91 bcm in 2050.”

Their overarching conclusion is that the incorporation of highly sustainable advanced biofuels could (and should) be one of the major growth sectors, perhaps even the principal one, for Europe in the coming years.

The current energy crisis is actually a great opportunity to relook at the foundation for achieving Europe’s hydrogen “vision”. One key part should be advanced renewable hydrogen made from sustainable biomethane.



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