Energy source hydrogen: savior or illusion?

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Whoever visits the US economist Jeremy Rifkin is initially not impressed. His workplace is in a faceless office complex in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, out of sight of the White House and other symbols of power. The fact that Rifkin has influence only becomes apparent when he enters the office.

Photos of him with Angela Merkel, former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso or Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, whom he advises, hang on the walls.

Rifkin asks for a conversation in a well-fitting suit. The American exudes the aura of a bourgeois intellectual, he dispenses with the tie, but not with the pocket square. He has written a total of 21 books, including the bestseller “Third Industrial Revolution” or “The Hydrogen Economy”.

In it he already painted the picture of a society in 2002, in which everyone with the solar panels on the roof can produce hydrogen by electrolysis and feed it into a worldwide network. “The hydrogen economy is here,” Rifkin is as confident today as when the book was published 18 years ago.

But what is it about the story of miracle hydrogen, the hope for clean and freely available energy? Already in 1874 Jules Verne fantasized in his novel “The Mysterious Island” about “Water as Coal of the Future”. Every student knows the process behind it: electrical current flows through electrodes into a tank full of water, the H2O breaks down into its elements hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen can then be turned into electricity again in fuel cells, refined into methane for heating or converted into fuel for airplanes or ships.

U.S. economist Jeremy Rifkin

“The oil companies are already trying to sneak into the energy mix for hydrogen.”

(Photo: Corbis Entertainment / Getty Images)

In contrast to electricity from lines and batteries, hydrogen and its derivatives would always be available where they are needed – and with a sufficiently high energy density.

So far, the “Power to X” process – the conversion of electricity into other energy sources – has not left the laboratories and test facilities. But it is already fueling the imagination of German politics and business. Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier put a draft of the “National Hydrogen Strategy” into the departmental vote a few days ago.

Just a few days ago, the association of gas transmission system operators presented the plan for a 5900 km hydrogen network in Germany. Investors are passionate about the subject, the best example being the record prices from providers such as Ballard Power.

Why should Rifkin’s forecast be better today than it was 18 years ago? The US economist does not have a bad answer: climate change. Due to legal emission requirements and ambitious climate plans, the use of fossil fuels will become increasingly difficult and expensive in the coming decades. Important industries with high CO2 emissions such as steel and chemicals are facing major problems.

The solution could be hydrogen. However, huge amounts of electricity are needed to produce it. The disadvantage is put into perspective if you use electricity from wind turbines or solar panels to produce so-called green hydrogen – in contrast to other manufacturing processes in which the hydrogen is obtained with conventionally generated electricity.

“The future belongs to green hydrogen alone,” said Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek in a discussion with Germany’s most renowned hydrogen expert Robert Schlögl. “You can make billions with it,” the chemist is certain. For him, “the biggest money printing machine is hidden behind the hydrogen issue – that’s as much as oil and gas combined” (see interview).

There is an atmosphere of optimism about hydrogen. According to a new study by McKinsey, a consultancy commissioned by the Hydrogen Council, the cost of hydrogen could drop by up to 50 percent in ten years. With investments of $ 70 billion, hydrogen would become competitive with conventional energy sources in numerous applications.

What is clear, however, is that hydrogen has a future, especially in energy-intensive applications. Contrary to popular belief, the focus is not on cars in which a hydrogen-fueled fuel cell provides propulsion, but on applications in steel mills, refineries or in the transportation of goods. The higher the energy requirement, the more the advantages of hydrogen over electricity from a socket or battery pay off.

The limit is likely to run for trucks: Manufacturers such as Tesla are developing electric trucks there, but due to the necessary battery size they are far from being considered mature. Only yesterday, Thursday, commercial vehicle manufacturer CNH announced that it would build new trucks called “Nikola Tre” in Ulm. The group plans to launch one of the first fuel cell trucks in 2023.

“The increasing tightening of the emission regulations and the sensitization for the climate change demand for alternative drive systems”, said the CEO of CNH, Hubertus Mühlhäuser. One of the reasons to choose the Ulm site: the new government hydrogen strategy.

With all signs of hope, the very big breakthrough of the hydrogen economy, there are considerable obstacles in the way. “What nobody is talking about: namely the costs of manufacturing and building the infrastructure,” says Brigitte Knopf Secretary General of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

According to a study by the chemical association VCI, the chemical industry alone would have to invest around 45 billion euros in order to achieve climate neutrality in the production of only six standard products examined by 2050. The financial challenges for the steel industry are also enormous.

Climate-neutral chemical products and steel products will be significantly more expensive than conventional products. This competitive disadvantage must be compensated for, otherwise European companies can pack up on the world markets.

The EU Commission is already considering a CO2 limit tax, a kind of protective tariff for climate-neutral products. However, such regulations are hardly compatible with the requirements of the World Trade Organization; in extreme cases, green hydrogen could trigger new trade wars.

Steel, a beacon of hope

The facility could hardly be more inconspicuous. The two small blue-gray standard containers almost go down between high blast furnaces, the company’s own power plant and the rolling mills. However, it is the largest “high-temperature electrolyzer” in the world to date. The plant in Salzgitter produces high-purity hydrogen from water vapor and electricity. With him, the Salzgitter Group wants to replace coal in its steel production within the next few decades.

Thyssen-Krupp, the Saarland steel industry and the world’s largest steel cooker Arcelor-Mittal are also working on similar projects. The EU’s climate targets leave them no choice. So far, a mixture of iron ore and coal coke has been burned to pig iron in the blast furnace.

Generations of metallurgists have optimized the process. But the huge CO2 emissions cannot be eliminated. If, on the other hand, hydrogen is used instead of coal as fuel, CO2 is not generated as a waste product, but H2O – i.e. pure water.

“We need green energy,” said Salzgitter boss Heinz Jörg Fuhrmann at the Handelsblatt annual conference “Future Steel” in Düsseldorf a few days ago – and announced that he would build a second electrolyzer in Salzgitter. “To really change, we need planning security,” said Tim Hartmann, head of the Saarland steel group SHS.




For example, dollars would have to be invested by 2030 to make hydrogen competitive in numerous applications. (Source: McKinsey)

It’s about a lot of money. Thyssen-Krupp alone will have to invest around ten billion euros by 2050. For the entire industry, the Steel Association expects costs to be more than threefold. In addition, around 12,000 wind turbines would be needed to meet the high electricity requirements for green hydrogen production.

Customers in the automotive industry in particular have a strict price dictation. And it seems unclear whether at some point they will be willing to pay an extra charge for the so-called “green” steel.

The topic has long since arrived in the traditional industry. This is also made clear by Svenja Schulze’s visit to the Handelsblatt Steel Conference. The Federal Minister for the Environment has recognized the importance of green hydrogen for the steel industry – and wants to give manufacturers, like some other selected industries, privileged access to the raw material. “Hydrogen is a priority for industry,” said the minister.

How green the steel industry already thinks was shown by a small exchange of blows between Schulze and Salzgitter boss Fuhrmann. “In no other sector can electrification save as much CO2 as efficiently as in the steel industry,” said the manager.

“Our highly paid ministerial officials can also do this themselves.” She knows that, Schulze said, and she is in talks with the Ministry of Economic Affairs. “I don’t mean your ministry officials,” Fuhrmann tried to appease with charm.

If you browse through the new draft of the “National Hydrogen Strategy” by Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier, you get the impression that hydrogen is a miracle cure. It is said to become an “indispensable raw material” for various processes in industry.

As the “basis for synthetic fuels” will make important contributions to CO2 reduction. At the same time, hydrogen is “an energy store that can store renewable energies in a supply-oriented and flexible way”. Funding programs are said to add up to stately billions. There is almost no area that should not benefit: industry, mobility, heating market, international trade.



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