On 14 September, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the creation of a European Hydrogen Bank with great fanfare during her State of the Union speech. In late September, the Commission announced that it would provide no less than €5.2 billion in state aid to encourage the private sector to invest in hydrogen development – the aim is to raise up to €7 billion more. At a time when sobriety and independence from fossil fuels must be central to our energy policies, and given the sums involved, we must question the relevance of these choices.
For several years now, hydrogen has been on the rise. It is presented as a future revolution in the energy sector, as it is supposedly a “clean energy”. But the devil is in the details. Two, to be precise: first, in the projects that will be financed, the distinction between fossil hydrogen and green hydrogen is not clearly established. In view of the projects underway today, this strategy will lock us into fossil fuels and so-called “low-carbon” energies. Secondly, the use of hydrogen should be limited to areas where its climate benefits are clearly demonstrated.
At present, more than 95 per cent of hydrogen comes from fossil fuels. As hydrogen is not an energy source in itself, but a carrier, it requires large volumes of other sources for its production: today, fossil fuels. The problem is that we do not currently have sufficient renewable energy capacity to produce 100 per cent green hydrogen.
The production – still far too low – of renewable energies must not be diverted from its current uses, and even less so for an energy vector whose added value is limited to a few sectors.
The production – still far too low – of renewable energies must not be diverted from its current uses, and even less so for an energy vector whose added value is limited to a few sectors. We, as environmentalists in the European Parliament, have consistently demanded that renewable energy used to produce hydrogen should come from additional capacity – in other words, the deployment of appropriate renewable energy capacity in proportion to the need for renewable hydrogen – in order to avoid competition between the capacity required for electrification, electrolysers and the achievement of European climate targets.
Hydrogen should therefore only be used to decarbonise the European economy where electrification is not possible: high CO2 emitting industries, steel, cement, chemicals... and possibly later on for transport applications without alternatives (shipping, aviation, long distance transport).
We are far from sharing the enthusiasm of the President of the European Commission. Hydrogen is not the much hoped-for miracle solution. Worse, it overshadows the real emergency: sobriety. Hydrogen is the new mantra of the status quo. A “new” energy that would allow us to question neither our infrastructure, nor our modes of production and consumption, nor their impact on the living world. In short, the magic formula for pretending to change everything so that nothing changes.
However, without energy efficiency, without massive renovation of buildings, without questioning our habits, there will be no ecological transition. On 14 September, the European Parliament adopted its version of the objectives that the Union should pursue in terms of energy efficiency. It is crucial that the Member States agree on the same ambitions and, above all, put in place public policies to achieve these objectives. Enabling every European to live in decent housing conditions, and to heat properly, is a particularly urgent issue, as the coming winter will see an increase in fuel poverty for many households.
Hydrogen is the new mantra of the status quo.
Achieving climate neutrality by 2050 will require the use of green hydrogen. It is one of the solutions for decarbonising our economy. But before its use can be developed on an industrial scale, it is necessary to increase investment in research to improve energy efficiency, which is currently unsatisfactory.
It is also imperative to invest massively in renewable energy infrastructure that can meet the needs of the territories. In order to be effective and socially accepted, the development of renewable energies must be decentralised and involve a balanced network of territories, and ideally provide for infrastructure on the scale of the communities that will benefit from it.
We call on the European Commission to review its priorities and to make hydrogen not the only component of decarbonisation, but one of many in order to put the Union on the path to energy independence, fair transition and carbon neutrality.