[Article originally published in El Salto Diario]
In the current context of a serious energy and climate crisis, the trend of considering green hydrogen as one of the most suitable options to contribute to decarbonizing the economy and achieving climate neutrality by 2050 is on the rise.
The European Union (EU), which has been leading numerous initiatives in emissions reduction and energy transition for years, has incorporated it into its priorities and investment plans, leading to a proliferation of initiatives related to green hydrogen. This has sparked a headlong race to develop numerous projects, some of which risk being unnecessary in the future, becoming oversized and not meeting the needs of the energy transition.
This is the case with the H2Med project, presented by the operators of the gas systems of Spain (Enagás), Portugal (REN), and France (GRTgaz and Teréga) in the latest call for European Projects of Common Interest in December 2022, with the aim of receiving European funding and benefiting from simplified administrative processes for obtaining permits.
H2Med presents itself as the EU’s first green hydrogen corridor, enabling the transportation of 2 million tons per year from Spain, thanks to its two cross-border interconnections. The first of these (H2Med-CelZa) would connect Celorico da Beira in Portugal to Zamora via land, while the second (H2Med-BarMar) would be a subsea interconnection between Barcelona and Marseille in France. Although H2Med is presented as one of the major solutions for accelerating the EU’s progress on the path to decarbonization, the project is not without criticisms, and there are many questions about its usefulness and necessity.
First and foremost, there is considerable uncertainty about future green hydrogen production forecasts. H2Med is planning to transport 2 million tons by 2030, a highly unrealistic production level given that Spain currently produces around 50 tons per year, and the national Hydrogen Roadmap anticipates a production of only 125,000 tons by 2030. While this Roadmap will likely be revised throughout 2023, its new content is still unknown. In light of current production forecasts and the lack of a prior study on the prospects for green hydrogen consumption demand, the suitability of the project is strongly questionable.
Another key aspect is the importance of prioritizing local production and consumption of green hydrogen, given the difficulties associated with its long-distance transportation from economic, technical, and energy efficiency perspectives. The development and introduction of green hydrogen should aim to replace current fossil fuel-derived hydrogen, thus prioritizing the decarbonization of sectors that traditionally consume hydrogen and already have adapted infrastructure for its use, such as the petroleum refinery and chemical industries. From this perspective, infrastructure projects for long-distance transportation of green hydrogen like H2Med would be entirely unnecessary.
Regarding potential new end uses of green hydrogen, these should only be directed towards sectors that are difficult to electrify, i.e., those where renewable electricity alone cannot replace fossil fuel energy, such as aviation, heavy road transport, or maritime transport.
Furthermore, the technical viability of H2Med-BarMar has yet to be demonstrated, as there is currently no guide of technical recommendations for the design of subsea hydrogen pipelines that ensure the efficiency and safety of the infrastructure. This raises many uncertainties about its actual cost as well.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that large-scale green hydrogen production requires significant amounts of electricity and water for use in electrolyzers. The electricity would be generated by implementing large-scale renewable energy projects – H2Med would require the installation of about 40 GW of new renewable capacity – which could not only have adverse environmental and biodiversity impacts but could also face limited social acceptance in rural areas, primarily due to the lack of prior dialogue with affected communities. As for water needs, producing green hydrogen with natural freshwater sources would exacerbate water scarcity problems, affecting local populations and ecosystems. According to a recent study by the State Meteorological Agency, the increase in temperatures and decrease in rainfall have caused arid climate zones in Spain to double since the 1950s, advancing at a rate of 1,500 km2 per year. This climate change implies reduced water resource availability, potentially leading to competition for water consumption between green hydrogen projects and agriculture in some regions of Spain during drought periods.
In summary, the fever for green hydrogen is sweeping across Europe, and Spain aims to lead European production. However, expanding its widespread use cannot be pursued without a thoughtful reflection on the context we find ourselves in.
Despite its promising future, it must be recognized that we are dealing with a technology that is still in an early stage of development, with clear immaturity in terms of large-scale production and transportation. Significant technological advancements, efficiency improvements, and cost reductions are needed, as we are far from considering it economically competitive.
Its use should be reserved as an input for certain industrial processes or to meet specific energy demands that cannot be addressed solely through electricity. Adequate planning is required, clearly defining where and which uses are viable, without sidelining other measures such as electrification, self-consumption, energy communities, and improvements in household energy efficiency, among others. Without this approach, we would further delay the much-needed and desired energy transition.
Massimiliano Patierno is an Environmental Engineer, graduated from Università La Sapienza in Rome. He has extensive experience in the Industrial Emissions Directive and the reference documents on Best Available Techniques (BREF), as well as in the Air Quality Directive and legislation regarding contaminated soils, among others.