News+Stories: When your neighbour asks you: Can I drive or run my heating system with hydrogen now? What do you say?
Thomas Klatzer: I would say, yes, it works and both technologies basically already exist. But I would also say that hydrogen is not yet so established and that there are more efficient methods for some things, such as heat pumps for heating.
Sonja Wogrin: The fact that you can drive a car with hydrogen is not new. But the hydrogen has to be produced somehow. Green hydrogen is produced from electrical energy, such as wind or PV, but with losses, as with any energy conversion. And then the question arises, why don’t we drive cars directly with this electrical energy? That’s the crux. The technology, yes, it exists. But the crucial question is: where does the hydrogen come from?
What do you personally like about hydrogen?
Klatzer: Its versatility. It basically has a storage feature, it is transportable. It can also be used in various processes, not only energetically to burn like gas, but also as a basic material in the chemical industry and in the iron and steel industry. There is great potential for decarbonization with hydrogen.
I personally believe that industry is therefore more proactive about hydrogen than some people think.
Wogrin: What I like about hydrogen is that it provides an opportunity for decarbonization where it is really difficult. For example, in industrial blast furnaces. Voestalpine has an annual energy consumption of 27 TWh and it is very difficult for them to replace fossil fuels. As a single person in the household, I have an alternative of putting on an extra jacket, or installing a heat pump, but industry just doesn’t have those options. I personally believe that industry is therefore more proactive about hydrogen than some people think. In some cases, there were already plans to switch to hydrogen before the Ukraine war. The gas shortage might accelerate these plans.
This interview is part of the dossier "Green hydrogen - hype or hope?", in which experts from hydrogen and energy industry research at TU Graz answer the big, burning questions about the future of (green) hydrogen.
What are the misconceptions surrounding hydrogen?
Wogrin: It is seen as a bit of a panacea, especially regarding the topic of climate neutrality. Everything that is now gas then becomes hydrogen – problem solved. Theoretically, yes. But in practical terms the situation is quite different. To produce green hydrogen in sufficient quantities, we need an enormous number of electrolysers, and to operate them we need an enormous amount of energy from renewables. In Austria, according to the Renewable Energy Expansion Act (EAG), an additional 27 TWh are to be produced annually from renewables for consumption in the electricity sector by 2030. That alone is voestalpine’s annual consumption. These are enormous quantities of hydrogen and that is where we come up against limitations. We need 10,000 football fields full of photovoltaics just for the implementation of the Renewable Energy Expansion Act and then basically as much again just for voestalpine’s consumption. We need wind turbines, which are not yet really accepted by society. Just because it is theoretically possible, this implementation and transformation path is a big question mark.
Speaking of wind turbines – they’re not greatly loved, are they?
Wogrin: For me, a wind turbine is like a Breitling watch. It’s a marvel of engineering where you can generate energy from wind. I think that’s something beautiful. In Spain, where I have now lived for the last 10 years, there are luxury hotels that look out onto wind farms. There, the population is also a bit more on board.
Klatzer: I think the main problem with wind turbines is their appearance. Bird protection issues keep cropping up. But if you paint one of the wind turbine blades black, for example, birds can see them more easily and avoid them. However, the plants have to be large enough to be efficient, so that fewer of them have to be built and the investments are profitable.
Communities should directly benefited from a wind farm being locally built. And get the energy for free, for example.
Wogrin: Unlike the sun, wind is available day and night, summer and winter. That is why we need not only PV plants, but absolutely also wind power. The expansion of wind power could also go much faster if the communities directly benefited from a wind farm being locally built. For instance, if the community gets the energy for free. Then you can also start talking to people sooner. Otherwise you encounter the not-in-my-backyard reflex.
Where else could green hydrogen come from?
Wogrin: We could also produce it outside the EU, but then we have the infrastructure issue again. If the hydrogen comes from South America or Africa, it will be brought here by ship. Then it has to be fed into a pipeline. At the moment there are no dedicated hydrogen pipelines, so do we use our current gas pipelines and mix that in or do we build a hydrogen pipeline infrastructure in parallel? Should we build it here? How much do we build and where? The question is: what would be the most cost-effective solution for Austria to actually achieve climate neutrality and what would the transition be like?
Klatzer: Exactly, in the optimization and modelling of sector-coupled energy systems, i.e. electricity and gas, hydrogen appears quite prominently. It’s all a matter of what we should do first. Do I first cover the electricity demand without hydrogen from renewables and then put the hydrogen on top?
Wogrin: The importance of this energy infrastructure has been painfully demonstrated by the current political events in Ukraine. What do we do when we run out of gas? That is a question that then applies just as much to hydrogen.
Where does the use of green hydrogen really make sense?
Wogrin: As a feedstock, in other words in industry as a basic material wherever a lot of heat is needed, in heavy traffic, in air traffic. And in the storage of energy when there is no more efficient alternative. In the electricity system, especially in Austria, we have this summer-winter discrepancy because we consume more energy in the cold winter. There are, of course, energy storage options such as hydro storage power plants, where you can use surplus renewable energy to pump water from a lower reservoir level to a higher one, and store the energy in terms of water that you can allow to flow down again when needed, thus generating electricity via turbines. Austria is lucky to have these hydropower reservoirs at all, but of course they are not as large as in Brazil, for example. There they can store quantities of energy in the form of water for years; in Austria we do not have these volumes. We are talking about weeks, maybe months. You could use hydrogen for energy storage.
What alternatives to gas do we have in Austria at the moment?
Wogrin: Very few. The expansion of power line infrastructure would be one possibility. If there is an extreme surplus of energy from wind in northern Germany, we could bring it to us. But if you actually look at the transmission capacities of the lines, they could be bigger. Then you quickly get into political discussions. And even if we had enough hydrogen, you don’t convert a gas-fired power station to hydrogen from one day to the next. 80 per cent of the gas in Austria came from Russia before the Ukraine war. If all that had gone in one fell swoop and we hadn’t received any supplies from neighbouring countries, we would indeed have had to turn off the lights. The gas storage facilities are filled very well for the coming winter. But this may be different next winter or the one after. We are a bit at the mercy of what actually comes through the pipelines. We would be in a better situation now if gas purchases on the world market had been more diversified. But these what-if questions are of no use to us now.
What is it that green hydrogen cannot yet do, but should be able to do in order to be widely used?
Wogrin: What is definitely missing is, firstly, a large demand for hydrogen, because at the moment the industry is running on gas and not on hydrogen. Secondly, it has absolutely not been clarified how the infrastructure is to function. We are talking about a system where everything is supposed to work with hydrogen, but nothing of this system is present yet. We need to completely re-plan our energy system. But what will that be like then?
What is missing for green hydrogen to make a breakthrough?
Wogrin: Austria needs a coherent infrastructure plan for what our energy system should be like in 2040. This requires a plan for the expansion of renewables, an power line expansion and proposals on how these plans can also be implemented. Big investments are also needed. In the free market, investments only happen if they are somehow profitable. If I invest in an electrolyser and a hydrogen storage system, then I have to see a return on investment. That an investment is economical is just as much a part of it as that the technology works. It is actually a very exciting time to be working in the energy sector. You really feel that you are contributing to and creating a better world.
Klatzer: Incredible investments are needed in the energy sector – hundreds of billions of euros. Planning errors are very costly and can be decisive for whether we really achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
What place can hydrogen take in the energy mix?
Klatzer: There are ambitions until 2030, that is at least a foundation stone, and then it will be decided how the infrastructure is to be planned and what it allows, to what extent hydrogen can penetrate the market. At a certain point, processes such as steel production will certainly work to a large extent on hydrogen and it will also be used in transport. But again, it all depends on the system planning.
Can hydrogen offer solutions in the current energy shortage?
Wogrin: I’ll go out on a limb here and say no. This is a sad truth that must be communicated. In the short term, we are in a situation where there are few alternatives in terms of energy policy. But we have to work on finding good solutions in the medium and long term. As a technologist, I see it that way without any judgement. There are a few technological options – nuclear power, massive expansion of renewables, massive line expansion, massive efficiency increase, or all of the above. But none of these options will save us from having to change our way of life.
This research project is anchored in the Field of Expertise "Sustainable Systems", one of five strategic focus areas of TU Graz. Monthly updates from the world of science at TU Graz are available via the research newsletter TU Graz research monthly.