Earlier this month Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy announced the adoption of a National Hydrogen Strategy. This is the latest piece to fall into place for the European Union’s broad strategy to become a zone of comprehensive sustainability. The German plan comes a few beats after the European Commission’s unveiling of its Green Deal framework which includes a significant focus on hydrogen as a key part of the energy transition. Austria, the Netherlands, and Portugal have also presented hydrogen strategies over the last six months. Norway has too, although it is not technically a member of the European Union. France was ahead of the European curve, issuing its hydrogen strategy in June 2018. But Germany, the home of the largest economy in the 27-country bloc, is positioning itself as the organizational hub for the work of hydrogen implementation.

The Green Deal

On December 11, 2019, in her second week as President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a long-serving German cabinet minister, took the wraps off the far-reaching suite of policy measures that together comprise the European Green Deal. Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent American academic and expert on the economics of sustainable development, was among those who hailed the initiative. He called it “the first comprehensive plan to achieve sustainable development in any major world region. As such, it becomes a global benchmark – a ‘how-to’ guide for planning the transformation to a prosperous, socially inclusive, and environmentally sustainable economy.” The Green Deal Web site says that implementation will require “mobilising at least €1 trillion of investments over the course of 10 years.”

At its highest level, the Green Deal is a blueprint for action with just two goals: “boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a clean, circular economy,” and “restore biodiversity and cut pollution.” Making progress toward these goals will “require action by all sectors of our economy,” including “decarbonising the energy sector; … rolling out cleaner, cheaper and healthier forms of private and public transport; [and] ensuring buildings are more energy efficient” — in other words, three major focuses of the energy transition.

The European Commission’s Green Deal documentation does not reach a level of detail that spells out specific roles for energy carriers like hydrogen and ammonia. Hydrogen advocates, though, have had little trouble identifying elements of the program that will involve hydrogen deployment. For example, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Undertaking, a European “public-private partnership”, points out that “mobilis[ing] industry for a clean and circular economy [will involve] breakthrough technologies [including] clean hydrogen, fuel cells and other alternative fuels, energy storage, and carbon capture, storage and utilization.”

Germany’s National Hydrogen Strategy

While the Green Deal includes a top-down program for addressing the energy transition, Germany’s National Hydrogen Strategy provides a powerful bottom-up complement. It is, above all else, practical.  One of its starting points is recognition of Germany’s foreseeable supply-demand imbalance: “From today’s perspective, it will not be possible to produce the large quantities of hydrogen that will probably be needed for the energy transition in Germany, since renewable generation capacities within Germany are limited. Germany will therefore have to remain a major energy importer in the future.”

If Germany is to remain a “major energy importer” while gearing hydrogen up as an importable energy commodity, several questions come to the fore.  For example, where might the energy needed to produce hydrogen originate? The Strategy’s first answer is that energy can originate within Europe’s own borders: “The EU has high-yield sites for wind energy in the North Sea in particular, and in Southern Europe there is great potential for photovoltaics and wind. These potentials can represent a great opportunity for the production of renewable hydrogen in the long term.” However, Ministry analysis has evidently revealed that European energy resources will not suffice: “If Germany is to reach its climate targets for 2030 and its GHG neutrality target for 2050, importing renewable energy from beyond the European internal market will become a medium and long-term necessity.” The Strategy therefore looks to “international trade in hydrogen and its downstream products [as] a significant industrial and geopolitical factor which creates a need for strategic objectives and decisions, but also offers fresh opportunities for all sides.”

Another question relates to the forms hydrogen could take.  Here the Strategy clearly wishes to avoid a premature narrowing of options. As often as not, a reference to hydrogen is accompanied by an “or” statement, as in “Hydrogen can be used as an energy source … or as a means to produce synthetic fuels.” Prominence is given to the “power-to-X” concept and the possibility of converting electricity to hydrogen and hydrogen to ammonia and/or other molecules.

A third question focuses on the logistics links in the hydrogen value chain: “Developing and putting in place the right transport and distribution infrastructure is key in order to be able to import and develop the sales markets for hydrogen and the products derived from it.” An important part of the answer, the Strategy says, are pipelines. On the one hand, Germany already has a “well-developed gas infrastructure consisting of a tightly-knit natural gas network and the gas storage units connected to it.” This infrastructure could potentially be repurposed for hydrogen transport, with appropriate effort to “investigate whether the compatibility of existing or upgraded gas infrastructure with hydrogen can be ensured.” At the same time, the country could also look to “building and expanding a dedicated hydrogen network.”

German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, National Hydrogen Strategy, June 2020

The Strategy’s pole star is the standing German commitment, “together with the other European Member States, to achieving greenhouse gas (GHG) neutrality by 2050.” For this goal to be achieved, “hydrogen solutions need to be systematically developed to the stage of practical use at industrial scale by 2030.” With this looming deadline in mind, the Strategy sets out an Action Plan consisting of 38 discrete measures that over the next three years will lay the foundation for hydrogen economy implementation. On the production side, for example, the near-term emphasis will be on “demonstration plants at an industrial scale.” On the use side, the focus will be on applications “in which the use of hydrogen is close to being economically viable in the short or medium term.” The further expectation is that the production and use initiatives will come together to form the “basis for a well-functioning domestic market.”

The Strategy’s second phase, starting in 2024, will focus on “stabilising the newly emerging domestic market, moulding the European and international dimension of hydrogen, and using it for German industry.”

National Hydrogen Strategy Proliferation

Recently announced hydrogen plans can be obtained by clicking on the following links: