Director Energy Program - Instituut Clingendael
We are standing before a formidable challenge: a global energy transition that should enable us to avoid further global warming. A number of ambitious targets have been set in this context, and hydrogen will play a key part in their realisation. At present, our energy mix can be roughly broken down into 20% electric power and 80% power from gas or liquid fossil fuels. While the share of electricity produced using wind and solar is already increasing, this solution does not satisfy the required technical standards for a number of applications like heavy transport, aviation and high-temperature industrial processes. Hydrogen forms an excellent solution for realising a cleaner energy system in these sectors. Hydrogen helps cut back CO2 emissions, is easy to store and cheaper to transport than electricity, can be made from a variety of base materials and can be produced locally.
We can already see steps being taken in this area – although the discussion primarily focuses on green hydrogen. Which is not bad in itself, but we do need to keep in mind that for industry, green hydrogen is no viable option in the short term. This is due to the fact that there currently isn’t enough green hydrogen in terms of quantity, and its production is still too expensive. This means that if we intend to achieve the emission reduction targets set for 2030, we cannot avoid using an alternative in addition to green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen offers a good solution; blue can be produced straight away – we don’t have to wait with setting up a hydrogen economy.
The objective is cutting back our CO2 emissions. Some opinion leaders believe that we should also cut back industrial activity in general. This is not a good idea. Our oil companies need to stay here, and decarbonise here. We should not move these kind of companies to e.g. Asia, as we did in the past. At the time, the idea was: well, then we simply will not accommodate refining and industry in the Netherlands. But we need these sectors. We explicitly do not want to export our CO2 problem.
The development of a hydrogen economy plays a crucial part on the achievement of the 2030 climate goals. This is not done overnight. We need to develop completely new value chains, and developing these new systems is a very costly affair – in part because right now, CO2 emission rights are still too cheap. It is very clear what we need to achieve by 2050. Although I am still surprised to see how rigidly people keep referring to this end goal. If it were up to me, we would spend a lot more time talking about how we actually get there. We need to think in terms of periods: we currently have different needs than in e.g. in 2032, and we also have different options at our disposal. We should pay a lot more attention to industrial dynamics when thinking about the transition and which steps we need to take to arrive at a net-zero society.
Since there is still considerable uncertainty regarding the pace at which innovations are introduced, or the volumes realised, developments in the hydrogen economy could run into delays if we do not take all options on board. To resolve this, we can draw lessons from the past. Other large-scale projects also didn’t turn out exactly as the initiators planned 10 years beforehand. Just consider the situation two or three decades ago. We could not have imagined what the world looks like today either. Which innovations would accelerate change – we had no idea at the time. That is why we now need to remove certain obstacles for a set period. Help companies get on the path towards renewal and improvement. Invest and support. This is particularly important for parties that are following our lead – they have a need for perspective. We need to keep building this new value chain step by step. The H-vision project is a great way to get the hydrogen economy underway.
H-vision’s solution makes a start on circularity. And in the near future, it will contribute to the large-scale introduction of green hydrogen. With the large-scale production of low-carbon hydrogen that is primarily made from refinery gas, H-vision offers industry an opportunity to substantially cut down on its CO2 emissions in the short term. Unfortunately, this concept of industrial application is not universally embraced: some people see it as an ‘obstacle’ standing in the way of purely green solutions.
Coby van der Linde
I take a different view. Over the next few years, changes to the energy mix are what will help us realise the set targets. This includes green solutions, of course, but it will probably take some time before we have sufficient offshore wind power to utilise these options on a large scale. Although we do see that public support for offshore wind farms has risen dramatically in recent years. Right now, we are working on 1GW parks – only a few years ago, these were considered incredibly large. Nowadays, they are actually already too small for our purposes. Which route we need to take to the eventual solution is becoming increasingly clear. We are working towards an optimal situation, but we first need to take a number of intermediate steps.
One challenge is that we need to convert the existing system – we can not simply start from scratch. This occasionally makes the discussion quite complicated. In 10 years’ time, we will have a far greater supply of wind power – at which point the mix will have once again changed. We need to accept that for the moment, we are not here yet. Although we have charted a course for the years ahead, in which H-vision can serve as the flywheel for new development. By making industrial processes circular and offering climate-neutral solutions. It is a complex cycle that needs to be set in motion – a huge challenge.
We are on course, but we need to preserve the momentum. The project requires financial support – which is also something you could expect to come from the EU. The Green Deal is an important part of the European agenda – we should not be afraid to take the necessary steps. We do need long-term confidence at this point. I am a bit concerned about the upcoming elections. We have solid plans on the table right now, and we should not end up in a situation where we once again have to negotiate about the most effective approach. I have also observed a lack of creative thinking in this regard. We should not just be thinking in terms of our end goal, but above all how we can get there. This is the main intellectual challenge. If you ask what the route towards our final destination should look like, this gives rise to a completely different discussion. In other words: we need to engage far more in dialogue about which steps could be taken, rather than rejecting ideas out of hand if they do not fit perfectly within our envisioned end result. Over the next three decades, we should hopefully see new innovations that are not even on our horizon right now – as has also happened in the past.
It is important to talk in terms of steps towards a climate-neutral system – among other reasons because it allows us to translate these complex innovations into a language that everyone understands. Not just for ideological reasons, but also for practical considerations. We are moving towards a radically different energy and materials system. We are still on track, but we need to keep pushing forward. There needs to be more confidence. Whatever happens, we will be building this hydrogen economy!