The government’s hydrogen strategy is a long time coming

The stipulation from the coalition agreement is clear: “The hydrogen strategy will be updated in 2022,” it says. The fact that nothing happened last year was partly due to the Ukraine war and its consequences. Securing the energy supply had priority. But there is another reason: The positions of the ministries involved are far apart, so it could take until March before a new version of the hydrogen strategy can be approved by the cabinet.

Many companies are therefore eagerly awaiting the new edition. “It is crucial that we make rapid progress with the development of the hydrogen value chain,” said Katherina Reiche, Chairwoman of the National Hydrogen Council (NWR) set up by the previous government and CEO of Westenergie AG in her main job, the Handelsblatt.

Reich is convinced that the new strategy must also contain an answer to the Americans’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA, the US anti-inflation law, provides for billions in investments in climate protection.

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Reiche refers to announcements by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel, who recently made it clear that they are seeking a similarly pragmatic and quickly effective solution as the Americans in order to make progress with investments in green technology. “The fascination of the IRA lies in its connectivity. Companies and authorities can use the tools immediately. That speeds up the processes,” she said. EU state aid law urgently needs to be adjusted. “The corresponding considerations should be reflected in the update of the National Hydrogen Strategy,” Reiche demanded.

Habeck focuses on the steel industry

But at the moment there is nothing to suggest that the ministries can find a quick solution. Rather, they are arguing about the question of whether hydrogen should be reserved for certain areas of application or whether it should be available for all applications regardless of the technology.

The Federal Ministry of Economics, led by Robert Habeck (Greens), wants to focus on using hydrogen where there are no alternatives.
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The company initially focused on the steel industry. In second place are the back-up power plants, which will always be used in the future when renewable energies are not supplying enough electricity. In a few years, sufficient hydrogen instead of natural gas should be available for these power plants. All other possible uses have no priority from the point of view of the economic department.

The Federal Ministry for the Environment, led by the Green politician Steffi Lemke, supports the course of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. For example, Lemke’s house has long resisted counting the use of climate-neutral hydrogen in the refinery process against the greenhouse gas reduction quota for fuels. According to the hydrogen economy, the house is systematically trying to prevent the use of hydrogen through quotas and credit factors.

The Liberal-led Ministries of Transport and Research, on the other hand, have a broader approach. As recently as Monday, Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) said with regard to synthetic fuels that are produced on a hydrogen basis and are called e-fuels in technical jargon: “We also need openness to technology here. We pretend to be carbon neutral, but the engineers are developing the plan and the e-fuels are a way to save CO2 and become carbon neutral. That’s why we have to be brave and adapt the regulation.”

The FDP relies on e-fuels and a broader use of hydrogen

Stark-Watzinger wants to use e-fuels to reduce the CO2 emissions of the around 45 million vehicles with combustion engines in Germany. Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) also believes in the future of hydrogen as an energy source for mobility and is particularly committed to fuel cells, which use hydrogen to operate. The house has been promoting research and application since the 1990s and, with NOW GmbH, maintains a company for the national innovation program for hydrogen and fuel cell technology.

In the meantime, a nationwide network of gas stations has emerged, and Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) only recently opened a gas station that the federal government funded with 1.3 million euros.

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In this respect, the officials in the transport department were unpleasantly surprised when they read something about “prioritisation” in the most recent draft of the hydrogen strategy. The economics department wrote in the draft that hydrogen should only be used in areas “that cannot be decarbonized otherwise”.

This refers to industrial sectors such as steel or cement, which have no alternative to using hydrogen for decarbonization. In the last round of voting at state secretary level, the transport department protested.

Gas boiler that can be operated with hydrogen

There is a debate within the federal government about the possible uses of hydrogen.

(Photo: obs)

Now the technically responsible Ministry of Economic Affairs has to revise the new version of the strategy again. In the economics department, it is said that the departmental coordination is still ongoing, the hydrogen strategy should be “presented quickly”. However, an exact date cannot yet be given.

A conflict of direction is smoldering between the ministries

Behind the problems comes a fundamental dispute that has been smoldering for years. While the Greens regard hydrogen as a scarce commodity and therefore want to limit its use to a few fields, the FDP is banking on a liquid global market developing within a few years.

In order to support this development, the liberals want to send out a clear signal: The industrial nation of Germany wants to buy hydrogen produced in a climate-neutral manner – also in the automotive sector. The signal is intended to motivate other countries – for example in Africa – to invest in the production of hydrogen. Then a market emerges in which only the price decides on the use, not the state.

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The option of running not only trucks but also cars with hydrogen in the future should remain an option. It also represents a possible solution for certain applications of heat generation – for example in metal processing, in the zinc, glass, ceramics or food industry.

NWR boss Reiche therefore advocates a broad approach: “It takes a holistic view of all sectors – industry, mobility, heat and energy. Above all, openness to technology is the key,” said Reiche. “In the transport sector, it’s like the heat transition: the solution space must be fully exploited,” she added. Every single production and energy process that requires gas in any form must be thought through and adjusted in terms of regulation.

In the transport sector, hydrogen is often being tested as an energy of the future, even if it has a significantly worse energy balance than electricity used directly, for example in electric cars: be it in shipping, aviation, heavy commercial vehicles or trains. “Different technologies will be used for the various areas of application – local, regional and long-distance transport,” says Dirk Engelhardt, CEO of the German Association of Road Haulage, Logistics and Disposal (BGL). “For shorter distances, it will be the e-truck. In long-distance transport, we tend to see an advantage in hydrogen trucks, if only because of the high battery weight.”

Manufacturers don’t want to do without hydrogen either. “In order to achieve climate neutrality in traffic, we have to exploit the potential of all available technologies,” warns Hildegard Müller, President of the Association of Automobile Manufacturers. “Especially for emission-free heavy goods traffic, the fuel cell drive is increasingly becoming a game changer.” It is therefore “a serious mistake to politically exclude a technology in advance”.
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