Germany propelling hydrogen agenda, critical players are from or have links with fossil fuel and other polluting industries
Green hydrogen, contrary to its squeaky-clean image, is not a “holy grail of the energy transition”, a new report has warned.
The so-called ‘fuel of the future’ has severe limitations — it is energy inefficient and also indirectly contributes to global warming. However, a huge lobby linked to fossil fuels is pushing the hydrogen agenda.
Producing green hydrogen on a large scale requires vast amounts of land, water and renewable energy, which could lead to human rights issues, highlighted the report Germany’s great hydrogen race, published March 23, 2023.
The European Union plans to spend billions on public subsidies for hydrogen. The EU intends to increase green hydrogen production capacity as part of the bloc’s REPowerEU plan to 20 million tonnes, half of which will come from imports.
Germany has had a vital role in setting the EU’s agenda. Hydrogen is now at the core of the bloc’s climate and industrial policies. Propelling this movement is a broad network of companies, industry associations and consultancies.
Some 100 German businesses have been identified as critical players along the value chain for green hydrogen. Of them, many are from or have links with fossil fuel and other polluting industries, the report noted.
They are jumping on the hydrogen bandwagon to lock in harmful infrastructure as well as production and consumption models, it added.
Germany’s hydrogen lobby employs hundreds of lobbyists and spends millions influencing German politics.
A chemical company headquartered in Germany, BASF, a large user and producer of fossil hydrogen, had a lobbying budget of €3.8 million (Rs 33.78 crore) in 2021 and currently employs 24 lobbyists, according to the report.
Fossil or grey hydrogen accounts for 99 per cent of the globally produced hydrogen.
Furthermore, Germany is also betting on blue hydrogen, which is also produced from fossil fuels. It deploys carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, where carbon dioxide emitted during production is captured and stored underground.
In 2021, blue hydrogen accounted for 0.7 per cent of global hydrogen production. Its total greenhouse gas emissions, which include methane, are only moderately lower than those of grey hydrogen, the report warned.
Germany plans to import blue hydrogen and its derivatives from Norway and the United Arab Emirates.
Green hydrogen involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from renewable energy sources like sunlight or wind.
It accounted for only 0.04 per cent of globally produced hydrogen in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.
Hydrogen could indirectly contribute to global warming when it reacts with a molecule — hydroxyl radicals — that are responsible for breaking down and eliminating methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Without available hydroxyl radicals, methane continues to stay in the atmosphere, a 2023 study concluded.
Energy loss associated with green hydrogen is another major deterrent. For example, 30 per cent of renewable energy is lost while producing hydrogen. More losses occur when hydrogen is converted into ammonia for fertilisers. Even liquefying the gas for transport causes losses.
“Wasting scarce renewable energy capacity on hydrogen use could lead to higher emissions overall when fossil fuel power plants are fired up to fill the resulting gaps in the electricity grid,” it added.
Further, it could lead to delayed climate action. When funds are channelled into green hydrogen, more focus would be on inefficiently heating homes with hydrogen instead of increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, the new report highlighted.
The authors also warned that producing green hydrogen requires vast land, water and renewable energy. This could trigger land-use and water conflicts, human rights violations and energy poverty.
It could also delay the decarbonisation of the electricity grid in producer countries.
Ancient tribes have been forced out of their land to make way for Neom, a planned smart city in Tabuk Province in northwestern Saudi Arabia. This sparked unrest and several protesters have been sentenced to death.
Despite that, Thyssenkrupp — a German industrial engineering and steel production multinational conglomerate — will install an electrolyser, an apparatus that splits water into hydrogen, in the megacity, according to the report.
Germany has hydrogen diplomacy offices in Angola, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Oman. It has forged energy partnerships and dialogues on hydrogen with Brazil, Chile, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Qatar, South Africa, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam, the report stated.
Land conflicts have erupted in South Africa’s Boegoebaai, a planned port and export processing zone for green hydrogen. Germany had supported feasibility studies here.
“The corporate-driven green hydrogen race unfolding in Germany and the EU follows centuries-old colonial patterns: resources are being appropriated to fuel Europe’s economy, while negative impacts like ecological damage and land conflicts are conveniently outsourced to the periphery,” the report read.
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