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European hydrogen vision under fire

A premature push for hydrogen holds the threat of a "serious environmental downside," says the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). The warning is issued in a critical response to the European Commission's (EC) draft report: "Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cells -- A Vision of Our Future," released last month. The report is directed at securing a diverse and sustainable energy supply for Europe by using hydrogen as a key energy carrier. But the risk, says EWEA, is that "public and private research funds are directed away from the development of renewable energy technologies that are a precondition for a realisation of the vision."

An EU blueprint for moving Europe into the "hydrogen era" outlines a major role for fossil fuel and nuclear. The vision is fundamentally flawed, says the European Wind Energy Association

A premature push for hydrogen holds the threat of a "serious environmental downside," says the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). The warning is issued in a critical response to the European Commission's (EC) draft report: "Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cells -- A Vision of Our Future," released last month. The EC report is directed at securing a diverse and sustainable energy supply for Europe by using hydrogen as a key energy carrier. But the risk, says EWEA, is that "public and private research funds are directed away from the development of renewable energy technologies that are a precondition for a realisation of the vision."

The EC vision of European energy independence is mainly based on stripping hydrogen from fossil fuels, "to effectively de-carbonise" them, and "large amounts of cheap hydrogen" from nuclear energy. More hydrogen will only come from renewable sources as technologies mature and their costs drop, according to the EC blueprint. In a schematic overview this is from 2050.

The vision needs expanding, argues EWEA. "The environmental case for developing hydrogen and fuel cell technologies is limited if it happens ahead of the availability of large scale renewable energy." Development of renewables is an "essential pre-requisite for the introduction of the hydrogen age in Europe," continues EWEA. "The draft vision uses a backwards argument," it adds. "The clean credentials of hydrogen are eliminated if its production is from polluting sources."

The 33-page EU report's assumption that hydrogen will "open access to greater use of renewable energy sources" because it holds potential "for storing electrical energy, both for load levelling and to cope with the intermittent nature of renewable energy systems" and for renewables to be introduced to the transport chain is branded a "fallacy" by EWEA. "There is no evidence to support this view."

To unlock Europe's vast renewable energy potential, a Strategic Action Agenda is needed, continues EWEA. Securing renewable energy supplies "will hasten the introduction of the hydrogen economy across Europe." The EC report's recommendation for a five fold increase over current spending on hydrogen and fuel cells "should be applied first and directly to renewable energy sources." Without large scale renewable energy production, "Europe runs the risk of discrediting hydrogen, preventing the development of more beneficial technologies, and increasing the environmental impact through the use of fossil fuel derived hydrogen."

Support for EWEA's arguments may be forthcoming from members of the EC's High Level Group on Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies, on whose behalf the report is written. The strength of disclaimers accompanying the report, particularly that it does not represent "the collective view" of the group, suggests there is a deal of dissension on the vision presented. Despite its grand title, the first paragraph of the report stresses that it only "contains elements that may be used in preparing a vision report" and that considerable revision is expected. Comments are welcome.

The report calls for a European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Partnership, a strategic research agenda and a deployment strategy to fast-track commercialisation "by means of large prestigious lighthouse demonstration projects." These would form the "backbone of a trans-European hydrogen network enabling hydrogen vehicles to travel and refuel from Edinburgh to Athens and from Lisbon to Helsinki."

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