A group of more than 25 companies based between Germany’s Emsland and Ruhr Region are developing technologies which could see hydrogen becoming part of our daily power supply. One of the founding members of the ‘GET H2’ initiative is gas transmission system operator Nowega. CEO Frank Heunemann tells en:former why Germany needs a hydrogen infrastructure, why his company is working on becoming one of the pioneers, and what political support he considers necessary.
en:former: Mr Heunemann, hydrogen is said to play an important part in Germany’s plans for its future power supply, a notion which is backed by various politicians, not least Angela Merkel and the federal states in the Upper House of Parliament. But let’s be honest: before now, the whole thing has been more an idealistic vision than a concrete plan. What is GET H2 doing to change this mindset?
GET H2 is actually made up of a number of partner organisations which are certain that hydrogen is going to be a key driver of the energy transition. The initiative serves as an umbrella for a number of different projects. We call the main such project the ‘nucleus’, which at first glance refers to the sketch of our real-world laboratory mapping out the site in Lingen, but upon closer inspection actually goes a whole lot further and covers locations in the northern Ruhr Region, Marl and Gelsenkirchen.
So tell us – what exactly is going on at these sites?
In Lingen, RWE is planning the construction of an electrolysis plant to convert wind power into green hydrogen. The hydrogen will then be sent to the BP locations in Lingen and Gelsenkirchen, for example, or perhaps to the chemical plant in Marl. The H2 will be transported via existing Evonik Technology and Infrastructure lines, together with Grid Europe lines and our own grid lines which will all be adapted to carry hydrogen. In this way, we will actually be able to use the existing infrastructure to get the system up and running as quickly as possible. The prerequisite for this is that the relevant investments prove profitable.
Given that hydrogen is the smallest molecule in the periodic table, making the gas extremely volatile, how easy is it to use the natural gas network to transport hydrogen?
Whether or not natural gas lines are able to transport hydrogen has to be determined in each individual case. In truth, rather than escaping through the walls of the lines, small amounts of hydrogen molecules actually become diffused with the walls. This means that the hydrogen stays within the pipes, but can quickly make the material quite brittle, depending on the building materials used. We are working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Materials Research to solve these issues and are checking each line in the transmissions system which is intended for use in the nucleus project to see if it will be suitable for being repurposed to transport hydrogen. As things stand, we assume this will be the case.
Would it be possible to mix natural gas with hydrogen for the time being?
We believe that mixing pure hydrogen with the large amounts of natural gas in the lines would be a bit of a waste. If we’ve already gone to the trouble of producing it, then we should reserve it for applications which are either able to process pure hydrogen, or maybe even reserve it for systems that only run on 100% H2. In this way, we will be able to pave the road to a successful energy transition, based on electricity and hydrogen.
You see, we’re not just talking about fuel cells for cars or domestic power generation here. Industry, in particular, needs pure hydrogen for certain processes. Take steel manufacturing for example: state-of-the-art processes use hydrogen instead of coke to extract oxygen from the iron ore in the most climate-neutral way. This newer tech simply wouldn’t work with a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen.
Doesn’t this mean we will have to build an expansive dual system?
In Germany, we currently use a high-pressure gas transmission network which has a total length of approximtely 40,000 kilometres. In order to connect the most relevant locations – for example smelting works, refineries and chemical plants – via a hydrogen grid, we developed a preliminary plan earlier this year. This intended grid would require around 3,200 kilometres of lines. In the next 15 years, it would be enough to strategically convert existing lines and build missing ones.
In the northwest of Germany and the Netherlands in particular, we already operate dual infrastructures to transport H and L gas at their relative temperatures. Due to the decline of L gas production, around 25 percent of the market is being converted from L to H gas. The Dutch aren’t considering hydrogen for nothing. They also see it as a massive opportunity to integrate a green fuel within their national power supply system fairly seamlessly.
Why do we need hydrogen at all?
If we are to reduce our CO2 emissions by 95 percent before 2050 or maybe even become climate-neutral by then, we have to prioritise renewable energy sources and improve efficiency. Yet, it is still difficult for us to incorporate renewable energy directly in some areas or use it as electricity. Zero-emission chemical energy sources are indispensable in this regard – and green hydrogen is an obvious answer. Particularly in those areas where hydrogen can be handled directly – in the process industry or mobility sector for example. For areas where its energy yield is too low, it would be necessary to convert H2 into methane, methanol or other synthesised fuels, of course. However, this would reduce efficiency as it would necessitate additional energy. Hydrogen would also play an important part on days when the sun isn’t shining are there is no wind. Battery storage is not a likely solution simply based on the size such facilities would need to have. Ultimately, I don’t believe hydrogen will be the solution to all problems, but it is most definitely the foundation for storing energy chemically.
Surely it is no mean feat for a transmission system operator to finance such a project. What moved Nowega to take on this beast?
The wheels being put in motion by GET H2 are not only too big for us to turn on our own, they are also too big for any single network partner to take on without help. Ultimately, GET H2’s goal is to create a national hydrogen infrastructure, and by pooling our expertise, we are well on our way to making this goal a reality.
The German government has spoken in support of your cause. What do you believe politicians now need to do to put their money where their mouth is?
I believe that a national hydrogen strategy will lead us in the right direction. However, it will all be quite superficial, unless politicians provide us with some specifics. Industrial sources tell us they are very much open to making moves, but anyone who takes a look at the bottom line will quickly see that there needs to be some security of investment. For us grid operators this means we need a sense of security when it comes to our rights. Given that the hydrogen grid costs will be similar to those of the natural gas networks, the regulatory framework should be similar as well.
It will undoubtedly be more difficult to create incentives which make sure that investing in the energy transition is profitable. Otherwise profit-oriented businesses will never be able to invest. Deciding whether these incentives should be levies, taxes, subsidies or something else entirely, will be up to the politicians. The government will have to explain to the people that the nation as a whole will need to pay for the energy transition. Creating secure, widely supported, societal consensus is the actual challenge in this respect. The federal states took the first step in the right direction with their decision in early November.