Fuelcellsworks staff writer Magnolia Tovar Chacon shares her thoughts on the German National Hydrogen Strategy.
Developments in hydrogen production technology will play a pivotal role in the energy transition as it will reduce hydrogen production costs and will lay the foundations of a new energy model
However, technology, without a strong commitment from governments and regulatory entities, will not suffice. To transition to new energy sources that are kinder to the environment and may not be as economically appealing in the short term as fossil fuels, a new vision and set of values are required. Germany recently published its National Hydrogen Strategy and has included its responsibility to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as a potent factor to achieve its decarbonisation goals.
Responsibility as an enabling factor
It was a cold autumn morning of 2007 when my then coworker and I crossed the Dutch-German border. The sky seemed to hang low in an attempt to reach the naked branches of the trees. The bucolic landscape was flat, grey, and full of peaceful beauty. We were heading to a town in West Germany to discuss clean fuel productions with a major oil refinery company operating in the region. Hydrogen is at the heart and center of oil refineries as it is used to remove sulfur and nitrogen from refined oil products, including the ultra-low sulfur diesel that powered our vehicle that morning.
We had entered a territory where fast cars could demonstrate the vision engineers and designers dreamt of during their creative process. Just a few kilometers ago, the Dutch territory seemed like a slow place where the motorway limited drivers to 120 km/h. Now, the speed limit was a target we could choose based on many factors, and responsibility was the most important of them. We both slightly adjusted our behaviour when we crossed the border. My coworker pressed the gas pedal with confidence and held the steering wheel firmly. There is no room for mundane talks when speed is at the driving seat and concentration is required, so we slowed down our morning chat. If we were to taste the pleasures of speed, it had to be done in a responsible manner. The fast lane in the German motorways is not a playground that can be taken lightly. One should restrain from driving there if the skills required to speed are not deeply embedded in one’s being. If freedom is granted to play with speed, there has to be a deep sense of responsibility in those who dare to sit behind the steering wheel in the fastlane.
Responsibility as a driver to transition to a hydrogen economy
Recently, Germany announced its National Hydrogen Strategy. It includes an important value that empowers individuals and societies to take action to transition from one state to the other. This value is a responsibility and is one of the main goals behind Germany’s decision to transition to a hydrogen economy. Whether we are aware of it or not, human beings take decisions based on a set of values that act as a compass in daily life. This is also true on a macro scale. Societies and countries have adopted values on a macro level that play a fundamental role in the development of their societies.
The German Federal Government recognizes Germany’s responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. It was stated in their National Hydrogen Strategy that:
“By developing the hydrogen market and promoting hydrogen as a decarbonisation option, our country can make a key contribution to climate change mitigation around the world”.
Furthermore, Germany has created governance to monitor the implementation of the National Hydrogen Strategy and develop it further. The Federal Government will appoint a National Hydrogen Council. The measures generated by the hydrogen council will be implemented by responsible government representatives in cooperation with relevant partners.
Hydrogen in the industry
In order to materialise the goals of The German Hydrogen Strategy, hydrogen will have to become a competitive option. At the moment, it is mainly used in the oil industry as a feedstock to produce cleaner fuels or in the chemical sector. Industrial (grey) hydrogen is generated from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas. Depending on the feedstock quality of the process, 9 to 12 tons of CO2 is released to the environment per ton of hydrogen produced. The industry produces hydrogen from mature processes and cheap fossil fuel feedstocks that result in lower production prices when compared to hydrogen produced from electrolysis with renewable energy.
Without tools from governments, it will be challenging to replace grey hydrogen as it is impossible to pass the costs of decarbonising the industry to the consumers.
The diesel that fueled our car that autumn morning was treated using grey hydrogen and today oil combustibles are still produced with grey hydrogen. However, the German government has launched several programmes under which it rewards the switch over to low-carbon or green hydrogen options. This includes a programme to decarbonise the industrial sector. This decarbonisation means that processes such as the production of hydrogen will be done with low or no CO2 emissions.
Creating a hydrogen value chain
Today, hydrogen is mainly used in the oil refining and chemical sectors. However, thanks to the efforts of countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and Australia (among others), hydrogen usage will expand to other sectors such as electricity generation (fuel cells or gas turbines), transportation and to harness natural resources energy.
Additionally, traditional industry processes where fossil fuels are used to fuel operations such as the steel industry, will be able to transition to hydrogen to decarbonise their operations.
Large adoption in different sectors will be translated into lower production costs. To materialise these, Germany will continue investing in energy research programmes to build an excellent hydrogen research landscape for the future. If successful, there will be a future global and German hydrogen market that will drive adoption and reduce production costs.
The power of a vision and assuming responsibility
That autumn morning when we visited Germany to discuss clean fuels with a major oil refiner, hydrogen was at the center of the conversation as it is key in the production of ultra low sulfur diesel. Today, hydrogen is shaping the future energy landscape of the country.
Maybe in a not far away future, when I cross the Dutch-German border, it will be in a hydrogen vehicle. This time, hydrogen will not be used to produce ultra low sulfur diesel but it will be fueling the vehicle. No intermediates will be needed. The responsible choice and programmes of the German Government would have contributed to creating a value chain where the industry, the citizens, and the environment have been taken into account to create the new economic model.
When crossing the border, I will remain quiet and concentrated on the road. Maybe I will be able to relax and contemplate the bucolic landscape if the transportation selected will be an autonomous hydrogen vehicle. I will just sit down, buckle up and relax and think back to that cold autumn morning of 2007 and the journey of a humble element from being used to produce ultra-low sulfur diesel, to become the key decarbonisation enabling factor of the largest European Union economy.
Magnolia Tovar Chacon, Staff Writer
Magnolia Tovar is a Chemical Engineer with 18 years of experience in the energy sector in more than 20 countries. She has extensive experience in consulting, business development and management of large consulting projects and is also a certified Ontological Coach.
Magnolia has a passion for creating awareness about renewable energy and the development of a hydrogen global economy.