France holds all the cards

“Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be used as a fuel, that the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed, used separately or simultaneously, will be an inexhaustible source of heat and light and of an intensity that coal cannot to have , wrote Jules Verne, always a visionary, in his novel The mysterious island, in 1874. What exactly was he referring to? What is Hydrogen? Or rather, what is dihydrogen, since it is actually two hydrogen atoms (H2) that structure the dihydrogen molecule, which itself has a high energy potential. Either way, it’s the main component of the sun, and at the heart of our benevolent star, its temperature, 15 million degrees, enables fusion reactions that convert hydrogen into helium, releasing energy. Although it is the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is very rarely present in its natural state on our planet. In fact, it is odorless, colorless, non-toxic but highly flammable and combines with other atoms. It is found in water, oil, natural gas. To extract it, it is therefore necessary to apply chemical processes – pyrolysis of biomass or electrolysis of water, among others – that will separate it from the other elements with which it is associated.

And this is where the first challenges in the fight against climate change come to light. Because everything depends on the origin of the basic product. If it is fossil products – natural gas, methane – as is usually the case today, it is said to be “gray” (because the emitted CO2 goes into the atmosphere) and is used 80% as a base material in chemistry, for the production of ammonia to produce fertilizers and methanol, as well as a reagent in the context of crude oil refining, to desulphurize fuels. It is also used in the synthesis of plastic materials, for certain processes in the glass industry or in the manufacture of electronic printed circuit boards. If the CO2 is permanently captured and sequestered, the hydrogen is called “blue”. But the goal today is to obtain it thanks to the electrolysis of water, and even better, through renewable energy sources as far as the energies necessary for this process are concerned. In this case it is said to be “green”. And it is this last type of hydrogen that concentrates all hope. Indeed, it could make a partial but significant contribution to the fight against climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions.

But under what conditions and in what proportions? According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) Hydrogen Report 2022, global demand for hydrogen (all colors combined) currently reached 94 million tonnes in 2021 (up from 91 million in 2019, before the pandemic), representing about 2.5% of the total energy consumption worldwide. Suffice it to say that if we continue on this path, the contribution of hydrogen to the ecological transition could not be more moderate… In addition, to meet current demand, production in 2021 will be mainly from fossil products. , the Agency specifies. In fact, that of “low-emission” hydrogen (including blue and green) was only less than a million tons. However, if the increase of recent months is still due to traditional users – refineries and industry – then part of the total demand is: about 40,000 tons (ie in 2022 an increase of 60% compared to 2021 ) comes from what the Agency calls new applications: steel production projects using hydrogen to reduce iron, for example, but also others, aimed at supplying certain sectors, including logistics and maritime or air transport. Finally, power plants are also interested. The IEA also notes that “low-emission” hydrogen production projects are gaining momentum and at a steady pace.

Strong restrictions

Still, the bets are not closed, with certain NGOs in particular criticizing reliance on hydrogen to meet the climate challenge. It is in this context of discordant voices that the University of Paris-Saclay wanted to explore to what extent a transition to a hydrogen-based economy could be a clean alternative to fossil fuels. The researchers used various transition scenarios up to 2100, depending, among other things, on the known colors of hydrogen, and published their study entitled Climate benefit of a future hydrogen economyNovember 2022. “According to one of the latest IPCC reports, which takes into account cumulative carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial age, we have a total of only 900 billion tons of CO2 left to emit into the world by 2100 if we want to warm up. be below 2 degrees Celsius. However, an economy partly based on green hydrogen would make it possible not to reject a third of this total.” emphasizes Didier Hauglustaine, research director of the laboratory of climate and environmental sciences at the University of Paris-Saclay. Over the period 2030-2100, the use of green hydrogen would lead to a reduction of 331 billion tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. But under certain conditions. First, that there are no leaks during production, transportation, storage and use. These are in fact as many dangers, as hydrogen is released it affects other molecules, including those of greenhouse gases, whose warming potential it also increases… Another limitation: that the consumption of hydrogen, and therefore its production, increases by almost eight times between 2020 and 2050 compared to the levels observed in 2017… Which also implies that three times more renewable energy is produced (to activate electrolysis) than in the current world park, just to produce this hydrogen. “Given the climate benefits, it is worth a try, assures the researcher, especially in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, such as heavy industry, transport (trains, commercial ships, aircraft) to aim for a use equivalent to 20% of the total energy needed for the economy by 2050. » It is therefore about introducing hydrogen, preferably green, into the new energy mix, taking into account all preconditions.

French ambitions

Despite the uncertainties, if the economies want to benefit from the contribution of green hydrogen in the fight against climate change, the states must encourage the carriers of the necessary technologies and create green hydrogen production sectors. And they do, from North America to Asia to Europe. France wants to play a leading role in this landscape. In October 2021, before the National Hydrogen Council, installed in January 2021, Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty, did not hesitate to announce that ‘France must become world leader in green hydrogen’… And according to Daniel Hissel, vice president of the University of Franche-Comté and deputy director of the National Hydrogen Federation (FRH2, CNRS), it gives itself the means. “The ecosystem that is being created – based on large and small industrial companies and start-ups, across the territory – benefits from fundamental support from the state, he makes clear. While in 2018 it spent only 100 million euros on the creation of a sector, the hydrogen plan announced in 2020 brought the amount to 2030 to around 7.2 billion euros. Admittedly, Germany also intends (while importing hydrogen) to support its own sector, with more or less the same investments, and other countries, including Spain and Portugal, are also betting strongly on hydrogen, especially since these two countries rely on their photovoltaic energy capabilities to activate electrolysis. But as Daniel Hissel points out: “France holds all the cards. It can benefit from the know-how, research and development of its high-quality engineers and the innovation of its start-ups.” Further in its desire for energy independence and industrial relocation and not make the same mistake as with photovoltaic cells, which she wanted to boost but whose solar panels were made in China… “France has adopted a strategy aimed at national hydrogen production and has champions with European and even global ambitions, such as Engie, EDF, TotalEnergies, Air Liquide, McPhy…”, adds Charlotte de Lorgeril, Partner Energy, Utilities & Environment and Climate Analysis Center Global Lead, at consultancy firm SIA Partners. “France has a very extensive ecosystemconfirms Christelle Werquin, general representative of Hydrogène, France, which brings together around 460 players in the sector, including 350 industrialists, as well as highly committed local authorities, and which benefits from the supply of electricity from nuclear energy for electrolysis. The conditions are met. »

Now the cost of hydrogen production needs to be reduced to make this product truly competitive. and that’s almost it , as well as a reduction in the purchase price of certain transport vehicles, including trucks. Therefore, “We need to consolidate supply and demand; ensure that all players – producers, builders and consumers – have confidence and investment; build infrastructure, including gas stations, and, as the government is doing, increase support mechanisms,” summarize them. In short, the upscaling must be successful, so that hydrogen, which certainly cannot answer all energy questions and cannot meet all climate challenges, is indeed part of the solution.

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