30th Mar 2023

EU's new definition of 'green' hydrogen adds fossil loopholes

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After a long delay, the EU Commission on Monday (13 February) published detailed rules defining hydrogen and crucially: when it can be counted as green.

"Clear rules are key for this emerging market to develop and establish itself in Europe," energy commissioner Kadri Simson said in a statement.

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The commission proposes three levels based on which can be determined if renewable hydrogen is indeed made from renewables.

The most direct way to ensure this is the case is if there is a physical connection between a solar or wind farm and the green hydrogen production site. But because this is expensive, the commission built in some flexibility.

So another easy way to determine green hydrogen is actually green is if a country or region produces more than 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. By commission calculus, this implies the grid produces less than 18 grams of greenhouse gas 1 kilowatt-hour, a level determined 'green' under EU rules.

The thing with additionality

Another way to make sure hydrogen is green is through so-called power purchasing agreements between clean power generators and hydrogen producers. In this case, hydrogen is only allowed to be produced if renewable electricity is available.

This is called the additionality requirement, meaning that green hydrogen is always made with new additional solar and wind energy and does increase fossil fuel use elsewhere.

Making sure this is the case is no easy feat. Under the current proposal, green energy production is matched monthly with the hydrogen production level. By 2030 this will switch to an hourly check.

An hourly check comes close enough to know clean energy supply is used to fulfil demand from the hydrogen production site.

But the monthly matching has been widely slammed by experts as opening the door to greenwashing: "It's bullshit," said Paul Martin, a senior chemical technology expert and a designer of chemical plants who has worked in sustainable energy for 30 years.

Martin: "If you sell me 100.000 kWh, and we shake hands, and I use it whenever I want, and you dump renewable energy in the grid whenever it's available–whether anybody needs it at that time or not—doesn't mean the electricity I buy is green."

From 2028 hydrogen producers are required to prove they get their electricity from renewable energy installations no older than 36 months. This is another safeguard to ensure hydrogen production does not take away existing renewable energy from the grid.

But added to this is another flexibility: all sites built before that time can operate without the additionality requirement until 2038, leaving hydrogen producers a 15-year window to use clean energy from the grid, potentially increasing the use of gas or coal elsewhere during that time

The French exception

Industry had been calling for clear rules on hydrogen for months, but deep disagreements over its contents, especially between France and Germany, delayed the process.

Germany had lobbied to loosen green requirements for imported hydrogen, which it lost. France had lobbied for nuclear energy to be included as a 'renewable' energy source for the production of hydrogen, which it won. In part.

Nuclear power is not green according to one EU official speaking anonymously—"no, no, no, absolutely not"— but the commission's rules do allow for nuclear to be used for the production of green hydrogen, provided the hydrogen producer procures a similar amount of renewable power from somewhere else.

This creates a loophole that allows France to benefit from its nuclear electricity supply and set up green hydrogen production sites faster without eating into existing electricity supply.

The European Parliament and the member states now have two months to scrutinise the deal, with an extra two months if necessary. There is no possibility of amending the proposals, but they can be rejected.

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