Hydrogen – new oil in the transport sector?

Dec 7th, 2020
Manuela Kropp, Project Manager Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels
Refuelling with hydrogen

Everyone is talking about hydrogen and how it can help in the ecological transformation of our economy. In July 2020, the European Commission published its hydrogen strategy [1] as part of the European Green Deal. 26 European Member States have joined the "Hydrogen Initiative" and 14 Member States have included hydrogen in their national strategies for alternative fuels. In summer 2020, Germany presented its national hydrogen strategy [2], as did the USA [3].

In order to meet the climate targets of the Paris climate agreement, immediate and comprehensive emission reductions are needed in all sectors where many greenhouse gases are produced: energy, industry, buildings and transport. And hydrogen can be an important means, though not a panacea. In a climate-neutral energy system, the demand for hydrogen in Germany could correspond to between 25 and 55 percent of future total energy requirements, and thus to 8 to 18 times the current production of hydrogen [4]

But not all hydrogen is the same - it depends very much on how the hydrogen is produced. If this is done with renewable electricity, the resulting fuel is "green hydrogen" and thus an excellent low-CO2 energy carrier, which is urgently needed in energy-intensive steel and cement production, for example. Yes, one could almost say that without this hydrogen these industries will not be able to be de-carbonised. However, if hydrogen is produced with fossil fuels (e.g. natural gas), as is the case in most cases today, it cannot be regarded as climate-friendly at all and, on the contrary, is a loophole for the European gas industry to hold on to fossil fuels. In its hydrogen strategy, the European Commission unfortunately does not oppose either hydrogen produced with natural gas (blue) or hydrogen produced with nuclear power (yellow).

In the transport sector, which is responsible for about a quarter of Europe's greenhouse gas emissions, so-called "alternative fuels" are discussed as supposedly reasonable alternatives: electricity-based fuels such as hydrogen and synthetic e-fuels [5]. A working group of the German "National Platform Mobility of the Future" on behalf of the German Federal Government is currently thinking about this [6].  The question is whether the use of alternative fuels can be counted towards the European fleet limits in terms of emission reduction. The car manufacturers are in favour of this and call the use of fuel cells "emission-free" [7], but the environmental associations rightly warn that "green hydrogen", for example, should not be wasted as fuel in cars, but should only be used to a limited extent, if at all, in heavy goods traffic, shipping or aviation, where electrification is difficult to achieve.

However, it is also clear that freight transport by electrified rail, powered by renewable electricity, is much more climate-friendly than heavy-duty transport on the road powered by "green hydrogen" would ever be. This is because the conversion of renewable electricity and water to hydrogen causes conversion losses that do not occur when used directly in electrified rail transport [8]Freight transport by electrified rail is therefore much more climate-friendly than heavy goods transport powered by "green hydrogen". A cross-border, European approach is necessary for rail transport, since electrification is lacking at many points in the rail network or there are infrastructure gaps at border crossings between Member States. In recent years, the share of rail freight transport in Europe has remained almost unchanged at a meagre 18% [9] - this is unacceptable in terms of climate policy.

This makes it all the more problematic that some car manufacturers such as Daimler are already focusing on hydrogen propulsion, BMW and Audi want to follow suit and are also planning to launch a car model with a fuel cell on the market. [10]  Daimler wants to start customer trials with its first hydrogen truck in 2023 and then go into series production from 2025. [11]  This is highly problematic, because "green hydrogen", produced with electricity from renewable sources, is far too valuable to be wasted in motorised private transport or in the growing heavy goods traffic on the road. This is because the European electricity mix (excluding heat) in 2019 contained only about 35% renewable electricity, with the remaining 65% coming from coal, natural gas and nuclear power [12] - "green hydrogen" produced with renewable electricity must therefore be used sparingly. It should only be used in industry, for example in steel and cement production. The total energy consumption for the EU in 2017 contained only about 15 percent renewable energies [13] - but we need at least 50 percent by 2030 to meet the Paris climate targets [14].

This is where European legislators need to change direction in energy and transport policy: the European targets for the expansion of renewable energies must be raised urgently (from the current 32% to at least 50% of final energy consumption by 2030), also in order to produce sufficient "green hydrogen"; the European state aid rules must support a strong national expansion of renewables in the forthcoming 2021 reform and reject coal and nuclear power; electricity-based alternative fuels must not be used in cars and, if possible, not in heavy goods vehicles; public transport in towns and cities and in rural areas must be expanded everywhere, and the share of rail transport for freight and passengers in the EU must grow urgently.

We therefore need a European industrial policy that focuses on the massive development of renewables, on alternative production capacities for rail and public transport vehicles [15] and on a "green hydrogen strategy" for certain industrial sectors. There is an interesting discussion on this in many left-wing parties in the EU [16] - for example, the president of the Belgian ptb, Peter Mertens, in his latest book proposes the creation of European public consortia, something like Airbus, but absolutely public, with pan-European production and management companies across the continent, for energy, for transport and for digital change. [17]

The European Commission has declared 2021 the "Year of Rail". It's time for it to keep its word and for the European "Green Deal" to really drive forward the social-ecological transformation. Because "green hydrogen" will never be the new oil.


[1] Eine Wasserstoffstrategie für ein klimaneutrales Europa, COM 2020 301 final https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/de/fs_20_1296

[2] Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie, Die nationale Wasserstoffstrategie, Juni 2020 https://www.bmbf.de/files/die-nationale-wasserstoffstrategie.pdf

[3] US Department of Energy, Hydrogen Strategy, Enabling a low carbon economy, July 2020

[4] Wuppertal Institut (2020), CO2-neutral bis 2035: Eckpunkte eines deutschen Beitrags zur Einhaltung der 1,5-Grad Celsius-Grenze. Bericht. Wuppertal, Seite 15

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-24/german-carmakers-seek-e-fuel-help-as-eu-tightens-climate-goals (access 7.12.2020)

[6] Alternative Kraftstoffe, Wirtschaft und Umweltverbände uneins, Handelsblatt, 1.12.2020

[7] https://www.vda.de/de/themen/innovation-und-technik/antriebstechnik/alternative-antriebe.html

[8] See: Kleine Anfrage LINKE. Bundestagsfraktion, 4. August 2020, Ökologische Folgen und Kosten der Wasserstoffwirtschaft

[9] Eurostat, Energy, Transport and Environment Statistics, 2019 edition, S. 76

[10] Brennstoffzellen-Autos: diese Modelle mit Wasserstoffantrieb gibt es schon, https://efahrer.chip.de/e-wissen/brennstoffzellen-autos-diese-modelle-mit-wasserstoff-antrieb-gibt-es-schon_10814, access on 27.10.2020

[11] https://www.handelsblatt.com/unternehmen/industrie/wasserstoff-trucks-daimler-will-diesel-lkw-bis-2030-ueberfluessig-machen/26190916.html?ticket=ST-8693441-D7nb5vL5VBTcBcTHLPck-ap6 (access on 7.12.2020)

[12] https://www.rechargenews.com/transition/renewables-provided-record-35-of-eu-power-in-2019-as-coal-collapsed-report/2-1-750790

[13] Eurostat, Energy, Transport and Environment Statistics, 2019 edition

[14] See press release of Climate Action Network, 30.11.2020 http://www.caneurope.org/publications/press-releases/2052-eu-on-the-right-path-in-emission-reductions-but-it-must-pick-up-the-pace-towards-2030

[15] How new jobs can be created: Mario Candeias, The Rent Cap Moment for Mobility, Luxemburg, May 2020 https://www.theleftberlin.com/post/a-rent-cap-moment-for-mobility

[16] See here an event by the left group in the European parliament THE LEFT https://www.guengl.eu/events/the-future-of-clean-energy/

[17] Peter Mertens, Uns haben sie vergessen, Die werktätige Klasse, die Pflege und die Krise, die kommt, Berlin 2020, p. 132