Europe's energy dependence.

Hydrogen energy: a suitable solution?

Countries agree that Europe must end dependence on Russian fuel and bring changes in energy policies to fight against climate change

ZIGOR ALDAMA

The invasion of Ukraine has shone a stark light on Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies and forced the continent to urgently seek alternative suppliers. This crisis could affect the road towards decarbonisation and greener energy policies, both in the short term and long term.

Javier Andaluz, head of Ecologists in Action's climate and energy programmes, says, "This energy crisis could either end well or badly." He outlined that it would be positive if the European Union pushed for efficient energy, but negative if they "replaced dependence on Russia with dependence on liquified natural gas from the United States, whose environmental impact is twice as bad: firstly, because it is produced by 'fracking', a technique which is especially harmful, and secondly because its transport produces even more CO2".

"The war will change a lot of things," agrees Enrique Monasterio, director of Development and Innovation for Ente Vasco de la Energía (Basque Energy Agency). "It has confirmed the path that Europe set out on in 2016 when they committed to becoming a leader in renewable energy technology. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it's reduced energy dependence on Russia, something which has a high energy and geopolitical cost – in the past year alone, Europe paid Russia 60 billion euros for fuel. Secondly, it's increased the value of the energy industry, which increases new business opportunities."

According to Monasterio, in the short term the strategy against climate change may be hindered by the urgent need to find immediate alternatives to Russian gas, an issue which has even led to the reactivation of disused coal-fired power stations. However, he maintains that, in the long term, this situation will accelerate the Europe decarbonisation process, which has proposed carbon neutrality by 2050. Sources reveal that Spain's Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO) agrees. "The war has intensified the divide between supply and demand, and could accelerate a push for the installation of solar power plants and wind farms." They suggested that the production of bio-gas and green hydrogen could also be accelerated and directly linked to the gas grid.

However, Javier Andaluz from Ecologists in Action warns that "this type of infrastructure requires major planning", and so that the projects won't come online for several years.

Nuclear energy

Monasterio outlined that the search for fast solutions has reopened the old debate of whether to invest in nuclear energy (the United Kingdom has approved the nuclear miniplants developed by Rolls-Royce, and France has succeeded in making this power source be considered "green"), or develop European gas reserves (there are a billion cubic metres of gas in Spain alone).

For Monasterio, the benefits of nuclear power as a sustainable fuel supply are overshadowed by the high level of risk which it carries, and the difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste. He sees it as more feasible to invest in the extraction of European gas until the goal of a world driven entirely by renewable energy is reached.

Spain has announced increased storage capacity for fuel, to avoid the current situation lasting until next winter. Monasterio predicted, "It is easier to stockpile in summer, when prices are lower, but this year will be different because every European country is trying to fill 80% of their required reserves." In the short term, Silvia Pastorelli, the head of climate and energy campaigns for Greenpeace in Europe, considers the solution to be a reduction in demand. "The cleanest and cheapest energy is that which we don't use. There is a lot which can be done to reduce consumption, such as insulating houses better." Pastorelli also recommends increasing taxes on energy companies, "who are profiting from this crisis", in order to fund reform projects.

A turning point

"This has to be the turning point, where Europe stands up to Russia's energy blackmail, without losing sight of its goal to create a 'green planet'," stated Yaroslav Demcenkov, Ukraine's deputy minister for Energy, at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue last Thursday.

Germany's minister for the Environment, Steffi Lemke, announced an unprecedented push for renewable energy and a circular economy. Her British counterpart, Kwasi Kwarteng, stated that "moving away from fossil fuels not only increases self-sufficiency, it also helps us fight the greatest crisis of our time, climate change".

China

However, this paradigm towards which Europe is advancing faster than anyone carries certain risks, the main one being a dependency on lithium and other raw materials. Lemke herself acknowledged this, saying that "dependency isn't only about energy, but also raw materials and supply chains".

China currently produces over 60% of the key minerals required for the environment transition, and by 2025 they could control up to 75% of resources required for the transition to electricity- based systems, such as lithium, cobalt and manganese. They also produce the lithium batteries used in electric cars. This leads many to believe that a move towards renewable energy might replace dependence on Russia with dependence on China.

Pastorelli recognises this dilemma but is convinced that "this is the best time to move away from a toxic system", and emphasises the need to develop a circular economy. "When people see their bills getting cheaper, their perspective changes", she said optimistically.

For Monasterio, "the key isn't to choose one single renewable energy source, but to diversify supply, because each technology requires different raw materials and has different uses".

Spain has demonstrated an unfailing commitment to hydrogen energy as a solution for the future, especially in heavy haulage and industry.

By 2030, they are expected to produce more hydrogen energy than other country on the planet.

Nonetheless, Silvia Portelli from Greenpeace Europe, warns that "there isn't a magic fix which can solve everything", and considers hydrogen energy to be "one of many elements" which will make up European energy in the coming decades.

Enrique Monasterio, from Ente Vasco de la Energía (Basque Energy Agency), agrees. "It is still a distant solution because it's so expensive, but its development and use is more easily justified in the current context of high prices, when the price of gas is 100 euros Mwh."

However, Javier Andaluz, from Ecologists in Action, fears that there is too much development around this gas "which is no good for private mobility nor for heating", and which "requires high pressure, has a low yield (around 25%), and which can't be stored long-term".

Andaluz recalls that "Iceland has been committed to hydrogen for a long time, and still hasn't expanded its uses". For this reason, he considers electrification to be a better alternative. "The problem is that is has to be very well planned out," he said.