Emerging hydrogen market needs low-carbon nuclear power: EU official – EURACTIV.com


As Europe rediscovers the merits of nuclear power as a low-carbon source of electricity, Brussels policymakers are now looking to take advantage of the uninterrupted production of atomic energy to increase hydrogen production low carbon emission.

Hydrogen is expected to play a key role in decarbonization process industries like steel and chemicals, which cannot fully electrify. The European Commission estimates that 24% of global energy consumption in 2050 will come from hydrogen.

“Hydrogen can also provide services such as buffering and storage in an electricity system based on renewable energy,” explained Ruud Kempener, policy officer at the European Commission’s energy directorate, who spoke at a EURACTIV event on November 15.

However, almost all of the hydrogen produced in Europe today is very polluting. 96% is based on fossil fuels and carbon-intensive, according to the European Commission, which released a strategy last year focusing on “green” hydrogen from renewable electricity.

And until renewables are deployed on a large scale, “the very nascent market needs other forms of low-carbon hydrogen to replace fossil-based hydrogen,” Kempener said, citing “Low-carbon hydrogen produced from natural gas with carbon capture and storage or the production of hydrogen from low-carbon electricity, such as nuclear power. “

Most of the hydrogen produced in Europe today comes from a process called steam methane reforming, which is based on fossil gas. When used in combination with carbon capture and storage, the resulting hydrogen is referred to as “blue” and is considered low carbon.

But the climate benchmarks of blue hydrogen have recently been called into question due to potential methane leaks from gas infrastructure.

In December, the European Commission will publish proposals to decarbonize the EU gas market, including new legislation to limit methane leakage along the supply chain and a certification system to determine the carbon footprint of gases such as hydrogen.

On the other hand, the so-called ‘purple’ or ‘pink’ hydrogen made from nuclear power has not yet been regulated at EU level, said Dutch EU lawmaker Bart Groothuis who is also voiced at the EURACTIV event.

The EU’s 2020 hydrogen strategy has also not explicitly mention nuclear electricity as a potential source of low-carbon hydrogen, an omission which was subsequently rectified by the European Commission.

“I think we need new forms of low carbon electricity to produce hydrogen,” Groothuis added, citing “low carbon hydrogen from nuclear power plants”.

“From a political point of view, it may not be perfect, but it’s better. And I don’t want perfection to be the enemy of good.

His comments in favor of nuclear hydrogen come at a time when European countries are rediscovering the merits of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source.

In October, Sweden and the Netherlands voted in favor of nuclear power at an extraordinary meeting of EU energy ministers called in response to the energy price crisis.

“Sweden believes that we will need all cost-effective fossil-free solutions, including bioenergy and nuclear, which contribute to the EU’s climate goals and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Anders Ygeman, Minister Swedish Energy.

Speaking at the same meeting, his Dutch counterpart Stef Blok spoke in favor of including nuclear energy in the bloc’s green finance rules.

Probably the biggest advantage of nuclear power is the constant and stable source of energy that it supplies to the electricity grid.

“Connecting large electrolysers to the grid” will be essential to produce enough carbon-free hydrogen to supply industries that need it, said Rasa Engstedt, energy advisor at the Swedish permanent representation in Brussels.

In August, Swedish steelmaker SSAB became the first in the world to produce carbon-free steel from hydrogen from renewable electricity.

But even though Sweden aims to reach 100% renewable energy by 2045, the country still gets 39% of its electricity from nuclear power, Engstedt remark.

“For us, the most important thing is that all non-fossil electricity can be used for the production of hydrogen from electrolysers,” said Engstedt, who also spoke at the EURACTIV event.

Competitiveness of “purple” hydrogen

The EU has yet to recognize hydrogen produced from nuclear power. The so-called “purple” hydrogen comes up against another obstacle: nuclear electricity is more expensive than renewable energies such as solar and onshore wind, which are currently the cheapest on the market.

To be competitive in terms of costs, “your electricity supply price is the most important thing”, explains Christelle Rouillé, CEO of the hydrogen subsidiary of EDF Hynamics.

In theory, this makes purple hydrogen less competitive than green hydrogen. But violet hydrogen has a distinct advantage: nuclear power provides an almost constant flow of energy, allowing electrolysers to operate around the clock when renewables are variable.

In Member States where electricity is very low in carbon, such as France and Sweden, “grid-connected electrolysers could help lower the cost of hydrogen,” said Rouillé.

“This allows electrolysers to produce hydrogen for a very high number of hours per year,” she added, noting that generating a reliable supply of hydrogen is “very important” to industrial customers. Producing hydrogen from the grid also lowers transportation costs, she noted.

And in the longer term, the so-called small modular reactors could drive down the price of nuclear electricity, Groothuis said. “I think we have not seen the end of the profitability of producing energy from nuclear power plants,” said the Dutch lawmaker.

Either way, producing hydrogen from nuclear power on a large scale is likely to require significant investments in additional nuclear reactors.

A May 2021 report from The Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (OPECST) estimated that producing hydrogen for France alone would require “the equivalent of four nuclear power plants dedicated solely to the production of electricity”.

Overall, “the path to low-carbon hydrogen from nuclear electricity would represent 400 new 1 GW nuclear reactors,” said the report’s authors.

> Watch the full recording of the EURACTIV event below:

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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