By Anke Henrich
Hydrogen, produced through electrolysis with electricity and water, is not a miracle cure. But without its increased use, it will not be possible to reduce global CO2 emissions to the level that is necessary for the environment and desired by policymakers. Yet in the view of mechanical engineering companies, it is exactly those policymakers who are dragging their feet. They have a simple demand: "Global climate protection is not possible without hydrogen and the chemical energy sources produced from it. Hydrogen technology is ready to break out of the laboratory and enter everyday practice. The Federal Government therefore needs to update its strategy quickly with specific measures for launching this technology on the market." These are the words of VDMA Deputy Executive Director Hartmut Rauen. After all, it is not just the infrastructure for the new supply chains that is lacking.
The advantages of hydrogen are obvious. Power-to-X technologies, which convert electricity into gas or liquid fuels, enable renewable energies to be used on a large scale in the heat, mobility and industrial sectors. Hydrogen can decrease CO2 emissions in steel production, just as synthetic, climate-neutral fuels can reduce the CO2 footprint of cars, trucks, ships and airplanes. Anja Karliczek, Germany's Federal Minister of Education and Research, calls it "the crude oil of tomorrow."
Hydrogen represents an enormous opportunity for the European mechanical engineering industry
Although the technology is still more expensive than conventional fuels and a significant amount of energy is lost during its conversion, it already represents an enormous opportunity for the European mechanical engineering industry. International developments in battery-powered engines have acted as a warning for many German mechanical engineering companies, who were forced to watch as other countries streaked ahead.
Medium-sized companies in particular now have an opportunity to make their mark internationally as providers and exporters, especially of the process technology required. They have long been developing the necessary heat storage facilities, storage technologies for gas, LNG and oil, systems for hydrogen and methanol, and electrolysis and methanation systems. The German portfolio includes everything from gas treatment systems and the required gas station technology to components such as heat exchangers, pumps, valves and filtration systems.
All this technology will be in high demand worldwide over the next few years.
Governments from China, Japan and Korea have all announced extensive work to set the course for hydrogen use over the next two years. Hydrogen will also become important for emerging nations which are only now establishing their energy supply systems. At the same time, supplying hydrogen secures jobs. In addition, significantly more countries have the wind or solar power required than have crude oil. And in the medium term, hydrogen could also become important for the states in the Middle East which currently still export crude oil, as demand for their black gold will sink. The World Energy Council has already given its forecast of where the hydrogen of the future might come from: Norway, Saudi Arabia, Chile and Australia.
Their investment in machinery and systems is expected to bring reliable pay-offs. Even high-tech countries like Germany will not be able to avoid importing hydrogen as, in the long term too, they consume more energy than they can produce themselves from renewable sources.
"Global climate protection is not possible without hydrogen"
VDMA expert Rauen sees the increasing global demand for hydrogen as an existential question: "Global climate protection is not possible without hydrogen and the chemical energy sources produced from it."
At the moment, Europe is still leading the way in the required technology. But the market is still in its infancy. According to figures from the consultancy firm E4tech, 74,000 fuel cell systems were delivered worldwide in 2018. That corresponds to only around 800 megawatts of electrical power.
"We need political incentives to make the use of hydrogen technology better value," says Dr. Carola Kantz, Deputy Managing Director of the Power-to-X for Applications working group at VDMA. It is not just a question of technical progress, she says, but also applies when compared to the costs of fossil fuels: "We do not mean larger subsidies. We believe in the product and its potential on an industrial scale." To achieve this, VDMA is calling for a level playing field when it comes to the regulatory framework. The technology must not be at a disadvantage in terms of taxes and contributions compared to other climate protection options.
In order to enable more effective market entry, it would also be useful to implement the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) in national law quickly. Alongside many other German industrial associations, VDMA is calling for RED II to specify a 20 percent share of renewable energy in transport by 2030. Kantz also regrets that there is currently no Europe-wide certification system for hydrogen and the e-fuels and e-gas produced from it. Yet the committed hydrogen advocate is still pleased with developments over 2019: "There has been a great deal of development throughout Europe. Even actors who have been hesitant in the past are now getting on board."