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22nd Jan 2021

Green Deal

Timmermans slammed as 'colour blind' on hydrogen

  • 'The biggest challenge we face is that we repeat the same mistakes we made in the previous crisis,' said EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission is expected to announce the Energy System Integration Strategy in June, in which hydrogen could play a key role in the decarbonisation of the economy.

"Hydrogen is of essential importance for the future energy situation of the EU," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told MEP of the committee on industry, research and energy on Friday (8 May).

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"Hydrogen can offer huge opportunities for the EU's economy - mainly as a storage facility and as a fuel for those forms of transport that cannot rely on electricity alone," he added.

Similarly, the EU commissioner for energy Kadri Simson said last week that hydrogen "has the potential to be a game-changer" - especially for the heavy industry and transport sector.

Yet, where the hydrogen originates from makes a difference. Experts differentiate between 'grey', 'blue' and 'green' hydrogen.

Grey hydrogen comes from natural gas and still generates significant carbon emissions, while blue hydrogen production relies on controversial technologies that can capture and store carbon emissions (CCS).

The cleanest version of all is green hydrogen as it is generated by renewable electricity without producing emissions - although this option is also the most expensive at the moment.

"Timmermans is committed to the Green Deal and Paris Agreement, but he seems to be colour blind when it comes to the origin of hydrogen as he is not favouring 'green' over 'blue' [or grey]," said Esther Bollendorff, coordinator at NGO Climate Action Network.

"The gas industry is keen on continuing business-as-usual using fossil gas to produce hydrogen, but decarbonised hydrogen [grey and blue] is not the way to go, because it leaves the doors open to fossil fuels," Bollendorff told this website, stressing that this approach will not limit global temperatures under 1.5 degrees and therefore it is not aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Likewise, Bollendorff warned that "hydrogen cannot play a role in all sectors," adding that the EU's future energy system needs to be based primarily on energy efficiency and renewables.

Fossil-fuel dependency

Yet, natural gas is expected to play a role in the transition towards climate neutrality.

Timmermans admitted on Friday that "natural gas will have to play a role in some parts of Europe" to support the phase-out of coal and oil.

"Ending support to natural gas infrastructure entirely will no doubt be controversial, especially in regions planning to expand gas use to replace coal," points out a leaked scoping paper on gas infrastructure planning from commission seen by EUobserver.

The leaked paper, which the commission is working on for the update of the Trans-European Networks for Energy regulation, reveals that hydrogen will be one of the main new gas priorities.

However, it also reveals the risk of green-washing for future EU projects - funded with EU money - focused on adapting the infrastructure for hydrogen or other 'bio-gases'.

For instance, when the aim is to build a "hydrogen-ready" pipeline that could continue to serve primarily for caring natural gas for years, reveals the leaked paper.

"The biggest challenge we face is that we repeat the same mistakes we made in the previous crisis," said Timmermans, who claims that investing in the energy efficiency of buildings and decarbonising the transport sector will be the priorities of the EU's recovery plan.

However, data indicates that energy efficiency remains very much a 'pending' task for the bloc.

In 2018, energy consumption in the whole EU was five percent above the efficiency target set for 2020 (and 22 percent away from the 2030 target), according to statistics published by Eurostat.

"We will only have one shot of investment," said Timmermans, referring to the recovery plan post-coronavirus crisis.

"We will put an extra burden on the shoulders of our children otherwise our economy will collapse but we need to try to deliver a better world for them and that better world is not based on fossil fuel 21st-century economy," he added.

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