Green Hydrogen for a carbon neutral transport sector

By Ismail Ertug, MEP (S&D, Germany), Member of TRAN & ITRE Committees, European Parliament

Green hydrogen is indispensable for a decarbonised economy. With the EU converging to a minimum reduction of its GHG-emissions of 55 % – and possibly more – compared to 1990 by 2030, hydrogen will play a major role in the decarbonisation of various sectors. Especially in the transport sector, green hydrogen will be pivotal in making our mobility carbon neutral by 2050.

To begin with, I would like to point out that hydrogen, in the long-term, can only be a viable substitute for fossil fuels if it is solely produced by using renewable electricity. For this, we may use renewable electricity, such as windfarms, that is genuinely build up for producing green or clean hydrogen and does not decrease the overall renewable share, or once we have a system wide surplus in our European energy system we may use it to transform the excess electricity into green hydrogen. In any case, from today’s perspective, we will additionally need hydrogen imported from countries where renewable energies, especially solar energy, are produced in an easy and cost efficient way.

Hydrogen is being used directly, i.e. in fuel cells, but it will also be the basis for many e-fuels that can be used in ordinary internal combustion engines – and, for several transport modes, this option will be the only realistic one in the medium term.

In road transport, hydrogen is still one of the most promising solutions to achieve zero emissions in the heavy-duty vehicles segment; this is especially true for long-haul transport. According to numbers from the industry, we can estimate around 5,000 – 10,000 fuel cell powered trucks on European roads by 2025. By 2030, this number could climb up to 100,000. A crucial element to support this uptake of zero-emission trucks is infrastructure, which means that we need hydrogen-refuelling stations as well as so called mega chargers for battery electric trucks. The upcoming revision of the ‘Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive’ is a key element in this regard. Back in 2013, the European Commission intended to have binding targets for public charging points for cars. The Council watered down this proposal. We are still suffering from the consequences of this shortsightedness, because it has seriously hampered the uptake of zero-emissions vehicles all over Europe. In addition, it might have made the transformation more difficult and costly. Hence, it is of crucial importance that we do not make the same mistake for heavy-duty vehicles. We need binding European-wide targets for an alternative fuel infrastructure, particularly along the core TEN-T network.

Regarding aviation, hydrogen has a twofold significance. For example, Airbus has announced its intention to develop a hydrogen-powered plane by 2035, and the Commission has shown great support for this initiative in its ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’, which was published only a couple of weeks ago. At the same time, hydrogen is the basis for synthetic kerosene.

Notwithstanding the possibilities a hydrogen-powered plane might have – in the near future, internal combustion engines will still mostly power planes, since directly electrified planes do not seem to be a viable commercial option in the next decades.

Furthermore, planes are on average 11 years old and it is common that they remain in service for 24, 25 or even 30 years. This means that the planes put into service today will still be traveling the skies in 2050 which, in turn, is the year when Europe has pledged to be the first carbon neutral continent in the world. The ‘ReFuelEU Aviation initiative’ the Commission has promised to put forward this year is therefore key to achieve a carbon-neutral aviation sector as soon as possible, and hydrogen is the hinge to achieve this.

Finally, hydrogen is also the most viable option to decarbonise the shipping industry. We still see a lot of potential to make current combustion engines work more efficiently, or use other means to increase energy efficiency for the transport of goods on the water. In the mid- to long-term future however, hydrogen should be used in fuel cells. For longer trips, we will need it as a basis for ammonia. Ammonia has a higher energy density and is thus very well suited to propel the fuel cells of future container ships. In this regard, the Commission will present a proposal for its ‘FuelEU Maritime initiative’ soon.

The future of mobility needs vast amounts of clean-hydrogen. Kick-starting the European hydrogen industry will thus be one of the most important projects in the current legislative turn. Together with the successful ramp up of the European battery-cell production, this could be a crucial change in Europe’s industrial policy approach: from a lengthy period of deindustrialisation towards reindustrialisation.