“To contribute significantly to decarbonising the economy and positioning Spain and the European Union industrially and technologically in this key future sector”. These are the objectives of the Hydrogen Roadmap (“Hoja de Ruta del Hidrógeno”), one of the investment and reform strands of the “España Puede” plan.
To clarify from the start: hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy vector which is produced using primary energy from another source. Hydrogen is always found combined with other elements in substances like water, gas or petrol and so it needs to be separated. If this separation is done by electrolysis of water using wind or solar energy, the result is green (or renewable) hydrogen.
This government initiative fulfils two essential functions for Spanish and European institutions: slowing global warming and at the same time favouring economic development in a booming market. Beyond the significant public investment required, institutions are only presenting the advantages. To understand the uncertainties, unknowns and risks of this initiative we must look to social and environmental organisations, which highlight its low efficiency, elevated costs, technical complexity and very limited application.
Numbers and projects
Even given all the uncertainties, the Spanish State is planning to invest at least €1.555 billion to develop this energy storage technology. We cannot discuss specific projects because none have appeared, and neither have the names of the companies involved. Information is, however, given on the steps to be taken to scale up the technology. These include the publication of the Hydrogen Roadmap and the creation of a cluster of companies in an industrial hub to build a high-capacity electrolyser and develop hydrogen storage and transport. There is also finance for pioneering projects to introduce hydrogen to other industrial hubs.
The industrial value chain of hydrogen in the Spanish State is part of the development of the sector at EU scale, linked to European projects and consortia and to participation in the Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI), which will connect the EU with North Africa and Eastern Europe.
The objectives for 2030 from the Hydrogen Roadmap are:
- 4GW installed electrolyser capacity
- 25% of hydrogen used in industry is produced by renewable means
- 5,000 – 7,000 light and heavy vehicles and 150 – 200 buses run on hydrogen
- 2 commercial, non-electrified medium- or long-distance railways use hydrogen-powered trains
- Introduction of passenger and freight transport using renewable hydrogen cells in the five busiest ports and airports
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) again appear to take centre stage in the public subsidy of this economic activity. According to the Plan, the industrial value chain will rely on “highly technological SMEs and technological centres”, which conflicts with the magnitude of the installations and the scale of the objectives it sets out. It is the large oil and gas, electricity and construction companies which are best positioned to dominate the renewable hydrogen sector. Enagás, Iberdrola, Endesa, Repsol, Petronor and ACS, amongst others. And in fact, these are the companies which have presented numerous projects with inflated budgets, such as Endesa, which wants to transform all its thermal power stations into hydrogen production plants. To these companies, the Plan seems a perfect opportunity to keep their infrastructure profitable and position themselves in a new and growing market.
A key element of the renewable energy transition?
Currently, renewable hydrogen accounts for 0.1% of Europe’s total hydrogen production, and so the planned leap in scale seems a seriously questionable initiative. To start with, its basic viability is questionable given the huge quantity of renewable energy required and the need to use technologies which are not yet easily available. In other words, the renewable hydrogen market looks more like a state-backed economic bubble than an effective instrument for the renewable energy transition. Like many other elements of the European programme, the draw is the public investment itself, which allows the sector to be capitalised on.
Hydrogen’s “green” credentials are also doubtful considering the risk of the oil and gas lobby managing to secure public support for hydrogen production using fossil fuels. The large production and transport infrastructure required and the international scale envisioned in the EU strategy also seem poorly suited to slow the ecological emergency. The water requirements and the installation of renewable energy megaprojects will intensify the exploitation of ecosystems in search of limited and declining resources.
The EU continues to take a neo-colonial perspective towards its neighbouring countries, as reflected in Hydrogen Roadmap Europe and the 2x40GW Green Hydrogen Initiative. Both documents consider the production of green hydrogen in North Africa to be imported by the EU. In this way, the risks of megaproject impacts on land and rural communities are shifted to other countries.
Renewable hydrogen is not a change of energy paradigm: it is business as usual, based on growing energy demands and supplies, global markets, public-private partnerships and large companies. If anything, as Andreu Escrivá notes, it amounts to filling the tank from a different pump. Instead of pushing expensive and untested technologies, it would be more sensible to plan to drastically reduce energy production and consumption and set out renewable hydrogen’s role in that scenario.