Renewable hydrogen is Europe’s best bet for emissions-free mobility

It’s expensive (for now). It’s not competitive (yet). That shouldn’t stop the EU from going all in making hydrogen a cornerstone of the green economy
Enertrag's hybrid power plant in Brandenburg, Germany, where green hydrogen is produced from wind power. | Photo: Alamy

By Ismail Ertug

Ismail Ertug (DE, S&D) is a member of the European Parliament's Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN), where he is rapporteur for the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure.

12 Oct 2022

Hydrogen from renewable energy can be a clean alternative to fossil fuels, but it’s not yet competitive and often very expensive. This should not stop the European Union, committed to the Paris Agreement and climate neutrality by 2050, from recognising the central role it can ultimately play in the long-term economic and energy transition.

While hydrogen represents only a small part of the European energy mix, accounting for less than two per cent of our energy consumption, our strategy should primarily be based on renewable hydrogen as only this is sustainable in the long term.

Essentially, renewable hydrogen is hydrogen produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity from solar, wind or hydro, allowing those power sources to be stored as a gas without the traditional emissions. While renewable hydrogen is a considerable way from achieving cost parity, multiple global stakeholders are investing in changing that, including the US Department of Energy, which launched a “Hydrogen Shot” to bring the cost down 80 per cent to $1 per one kilogram by the end of the decade.

The EU has the potential to reduce the demand for Russian gas by two-thirds within a year.

While renewable hydrogen ramps up, low-carbon hydrogen can play a transitional role. While derived from non-renewable sources, low-carbon hydrogen is required to achieve at least a 70 per cent reduction in emissions compared to fossil fuels, meaning it will have an immediate impact on our carbon goals while bridging the gap. It is of the utmost importance that fossil-based hydrogen is phased out as soon as possible.

I truly believe in hydrogen and in its future as an alternative means of sustainable fuel. In these terrifying times amid war and conflict, we see our dependence on gas. But the EU now has the potential to reduce the demand for Russian gas by two-thirds within a year. Hydrogen could be one solution to be finally independent of fossil fuels as we realign our energy markets, which is why I truly welcome the REPowerEU initiative to fully divest from Russian fossil fuels by 2030 as an excellent basis for completely diversifying mobility.

The expansion of hydrogen infrastructure will provide significant benefits to the mobility sector. Both electric vehicles, which could charge at stations that use hydrogen to generate electricity, and hydrogen fuel cell cars make this the time to quickly organise emission-free mobility.

I was the Rapporteur for the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive (AFID) in 2014, and I currently see many parallels with regards to hydrogen and the recharging infrastructure. There is a huge so-called chicken and egg dilemma coming up because what do we need first? Hydrogen cars for which we build an infrastructure or an infrastructure for hydrogen cars?

We need to take a brave step forward ahead of time to find solutions to these questions. If there is no sufficient infrastructure, there will be a high risk of stranded assets for the industry. In addition, neither consumers nor manufacturers are ready to wholeheartedly buy or produce hydrogen powertrains. According to the Commission’s proposal, it is still too early for the full deployment of a hydrogen infrastructure.

The Commission proposes publicly accessible hydrogen stations along the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) core by 2030. This is not ambitious enough.

The Commission proposal states that by 2030, publicly accessible hydrogen stations along the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) core and comprehensive networks should be deployed. In my opinion, this proposal is not ambitious enough. The EU should incentivise the development of hydrogen infrastructure and not LNG for trucks on the road, for example.

The plans of the major manufacturers suggest that fuel cell trucks will be ready for series production as of 2026. It is therefore absolutely worth having a discussion around the binding targets not only for 2030. In my draft report on the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR), I suggest a hydrogen infrastructure for trucks as of 2027 and a card payment obligation in charging stations, which is more ambitious than the Commission’s proposal. 

Now rapid technological development is taking place. While drafting my report, I met a lot of stakeholders developing and investing in this technology. And I believe that Europe must harness the full potential of the hydrogen-refuelling ecosystem. We should now give manufacturers the security for further investment in and development of hydrogen technology.

It goes beyond the road, too. For maritime ports, we should have hydrogen infrastructure by 2030. In addition, we should examine other modes of transport for hydrogen such as rail and aviation. Airbus has recently launched its hydrogen pilot project with a 2035 target.

Another example, from my home country of Germany, is Deutsche Bahn testing solutions for supplying trains with hydrogen by developing mobile hydrogen filling stations. Since green hydrogen is produced on-site using green electricity which is then stored in a mobile storage facility, a train could be refuelled as quickly as a diesel train. The overall aim should be to replace all diesel trains in regional transport first, and then beyond.

With green hydrogen, local CO2 emissions can be reduced to zero. The first on-field trial operation is planned for 2024, and I think we should support these brave initiatives at the EU level. We have to back such initiatives with green technology but, unfortunately, these two modes of transport were not being considered by the Commission in its current AFIR proposal. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must take them into account in order to reach a more sustainable and greener transport in the future.

Read the most recent articles written by Ismail Ertug - Why Green mobility needs the right infrastructure