Will sanctions on Russian energy drive a hydrogen revolution?

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. (Courtesy: Artem Beliaikin/Unplash)

Although most European nations have been making great strides towards a greener energy mix, it’s fair to say that Russia’s recent actions have accelerated the continent’s renewable energy plans.

The European Union has announced that it will ban all Russian oil imports via sea freight. Non-EU countries have implemented similar regulations. The UK will, for instance, phase out all Russian oil imports before the end of this year.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact this could have. Russia is a major player in the fossil fuels sector and supplies the EU with about 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day. This oil fills Russia’s coffers up by an astonishing $1bn a day. 

While there are obvious ethical reasons Europe should disengage from this supply channel, it would also leave many countries with a huge energy deficit. For example, Lithuania imports 83% from Russia. Finland and Slovakia are not far behind with imports of 80% and 74% respectively and the rest of Europe has similarly steep reliances on Moscow’s black gold.

Having so many eggs in just one basket was never a good idea and we’ve now seen energy prices explode across Europe. 

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The path to a hydrogenized Europe

Governments are seeking immediate solutions to the fuel poverty crisis that has engulfed millions of Europeans.

While politicians love to promise their countries carbon neutrality, the reality is that these promises are often made for a distant future. But this crisis requires prompt action and there simply isn’t the renewables infrastructure, as things stand, to plug the gap left by Russian oil.

There’s a clear downside to this – energy will be costly for the foreseeable future. But the upside is that Russia’s aggression has forced the rest of Europe to bring that ‘distant future’ forward on a scale never ventured previously.

With everything being considered, hydrogen technology has found itself the frontrunner in terms of ‘what can help to alleviate the pain now?’

What is hydrogen power?

Hydrogen is a renewable fuel that produces water, electricity, heat. Because hydrogen has a wide usage base, it was obvious that hydrogen would play an important role in national decarbonization strategies. 

Due to hydrogen’s high efficiency and zero-or near-zero emissions operation, the technology has the potential to become the largest slice of Europe’s energy pie.

Germany leads the charge

Germany’s dependence upon Russian oil has been reduced to 12% since the outbreak of war. The country benefits from being a pioneer of renewable energy and was on the front foot to do this, but Germans still need to make up for the oil that they’ve lost. 

The BBC recently reported that Veronika Grimm, an economics professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and currently one of Germany’s three special advisors to the federal government, has called for an acceleration in hydrogen adoption. 

According to the BBC, “Ms. Grimm’s enthusiasm is gaining traction… dozens of countries have published national hydrogen strategies, or are about to.”

As things stand hydrogen is not a perfect solution. Large-scale hydrogen deployment poses serious obstacles that must be overcome. However, this situation has a silver lining: Countries, industries, politicians, and other stakeholders need to work together to solve the problems with hydrogen. This is not a time to be optimistic about the future when someone else will have solved them.

What’s the issue?

The production of hydrogen is a major problem. As an energy product, hydrogen has flawless green credentials, but in order to produce it, you’d need to power an electrolyzer and these are often powered by coal, oil, or gas. Checkmate.

What we need is ‘green’ hydrogen produced via renewable sources. The middle east already does this by using solar energy to power their electrolyzers. France has opted for nuclear so far.

Imperfect solutions in imprecise times

It is clear that hydrogen should be powered by solar or wind, but this brings us back again to the problem of an underdeveloped renewables infrastructure.

Germany’s Veronika Grimm is pragmatic in her approach, stating that “accepting blue hydrogen [from fossil-fuel-powered production] will help create the supply that we need for a budding industry… [this] will foster technological breakthroughs in Germany and encourage potential suppliers to invest in green hydrogen production”. 

Acceptance of this multi-colored mixture would allow the country to wean faster from Russian products while developing cleaner and greener hydrogen for future generations.

To signal their seriousness in investing rapidly in this approach, Germany’s economic minister Robert Habeck has announced the doubling of the two-year-old target for the production of green hydrogen. Germany will have 10 GW of hydrogen produced domestically by 2030, according to his strategy.

Two birds, one stone

Decarbonizing Europe is plainly something of a long-term goal for the continent and prior to Russia’s offensive, a great many wheels were already in motion for projects that now become all the more pertinent.

Earlier this year, for instance, British firm Dulas was awarded funding by the Welsh Government’s Smart Living HyBRID* SBRI to undertake a project looking at the feasibility of hydrogen production in Wales using renewable energy sources. 

The project examined the available technologies and assessed the technical and commercial feasibility of hydrogen production at Welsh Water’s Llyn Celyn hydropower plant and at a wind farm. 

The report’s conclusions are very positive and demonstrate that:

1) Green hydrogen can be more competitive than current diesel prices. 

2) A 10 MW electrolysis system could produce fuel for approximately 70 heavy-duty trucks each day.

3) These developments are occurring so quickly that green hydrogen technology will be available across the country.

Hydrogen in the renewable energy mix

It is hoped this project will serve as a blueprint for green hydrogen production at scale.

Andy Skipton-Carter, commercial lead for consulting at Dulas, comments, “Green hydrogen will undoubtedly be part of the renewable energy mix in the future and as manufacturing scales up, the price of green hydrogen will come down.

Dulas celebrated 40 years of delivering projects in renewable energy. We have seen the same thing happen with solar PV and wind over these years. Initially, it was quite a big investment but the cost of solar and wind energy has come down significantly in recent years and it’s now cheaper to generate than energy from fossil fuels. We are already seeing that the output from this work, and other work on green hydrogen, is stimulating activity around hydrogen production and use in Wales and Dulas are actively supporting a range of developments.”

Local energy security is key

Green hydrogen will not only help nations escape the whims superpowers, but will also enable them to create the future they envisioned for the 2030s and beyond.

It is expected that many European countries will attempt to replicate the Welsh model in the earliest possible time.

It can be difficult to overcome addictions. But the Russian hostilities in 2022 have shown us that we need to get out of this habit before resources run out and the world becomes more energized. 

We really don’t have any other option.