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Article hydrogen dossier UN Forum

Hydrogen can become an important link in the energy supply of the future. Which infrastructure will be needed to achieve this? René Schutte (programme manager hydrogen at Gasunie) was asked by UN Forum about Gasunie's vision. This article was published in the hydrogen dossier, compiled by guest editor Ad van Wijk (Professor of Future Energy Systems at TU Delft).

Read the article below.

Can hydrogen be distributed using our natural gas pipelines?

Hydrogen can become an important element in the future energy supply. It is both a sustainable feedstock and a sustainable energy carrier. Furthermore, the infrastructure required to transport and store it is already largely available in the Netherlands. René Schutte, Program Manager Hydrogen at Gasunie, answers the most important questions about the role of hydrogen and the associated infrastructure.

Before we look at the infrastructure, how do you see the energy system of the future?
“Let’s start with the objective of the energy transition; it’s all about reducing CO2. Those emissions must be lowered. More solar and wind power, moving away from fossil energy, using hydrogen…these are all means to achieving that end. But taken separately, they are not goals in themselves. We need all forms of sustainable energy and must concentrate above all on finding the optimum mix. So the energy system as a whole is the main focus. In addition to being sustainable, that system must also be reliable and affordable, both in the short term and the long term.
The share of electricity in the energy mix is growing. It is expected to double from 20% today to around 40% in 2050. That electricity obviously needs to be generated in a completely sustainable manner by solar and wind power systems, with hydrogen as a back-up. Hydrogen will assume the role of coal and natural gas.”

Where will the other 60% come from?
“Energy is stored in electrons in the case of electricity, and in molecules in the case of gases and heat. So the other 60% will come from molecules. Since our aim is to create a carbon-neutral energy system, we need to find sustainable sources for these molecules, just as we have for electricity. Green gas, heat and hydrogen are possible sources.”

What role will hydrogen play here?
“Hydrogen will be used in a number of ways. As is currently the case, it will be used as a feedstock by industry. It will also be used much more as a fuel and will play a role in balancing the entire energy system and making it more flexible. At present, we can generate electricity when we need it. This is because you can increase and decrease the output from a power plant. As we increasingly switch to renewable solar and wind power, our energy supply will be weather-dependent and therefore variable. The ability to store energy will therefore become more important, so that it can be used at a different time of the day, or even to balance seasonal peaks. This is where hydrogen can play a significant role. Hydrogen is produced by means of electrolysis and subsequently stored for times and seasonal periods when demand outstrips supply. This means that it can take over the flexible role that natural gas currently has. Used in this way, hydrogen can guarantee the security of supply of energy.”

Isn’t an all-electric energy system an option?
“That would be extremely complex and very expensive. You would have to set up an electricity system with enough capacity to match demand at all peak times, such as on cold, dark winter days. That would require enormous investments. And a great deal of space: after all, where would you accommodate all those wind turbines, solar farms and the associated electricity infrastructure? Gas consumption varies far more than electricity consumption. The peaks in gas consumption are as much as 6 to 10 times higher than those in electricity consumption. The current gas grid can handle these peaks efficiently. Our electricity grid has not been built to cope with peaks of this type. So choosing an energy system where you combine the best of both worlds, where green electrons and green molecules work together, is a much smarter approach. Hydrogen is one of the gases that could be used as a source of green molecules.”

So energy storage is crucial. What locations do you have in mind?
“The north of the Netherlands with its salt caverns is one possibility. Some of these caverns are already used to store natural gas. Those caverns and further caverns can also be used to store hydrogen. They are huge - the Eiffel Tower would fit inside them - and could potentially store a volume equivalent to 240 gigawatt hours. Just a comparison to illustrate the scale; Tesla’s largest home battery can store 10 kilowatt hours. So you would need 24 million of them to store the same amount of energy as in the salt cavern. In addition, the costs of storing electricity in a battery are one thousand times higher. That would lead to a socially unacceptable burden. Gasunie is currently preparing a hydrogen storage test, starting with a small cavern.”

We have only talked about storage so far. What about transporting hydrogen?
“Hydrogen can be transported across considerable distances via pipelines. Like other gases, it has several advantages compared to electricity. For example, transport is more efficient and far more cost-effective in high volumes. By way of comparison; the amount required for connecting all the Dutch industrial clusters via a hydrogen grid would only be enough to lay an electricity cable of the same capacity from Rotterdam to Tiel. In other words, a gas pipeline is significantly cheaper than an electricity cable designed to carry the same amount of energy. So if you have the pipelines available, you should use them.
But it would be a mistake to think that the electrons and molecules are in competition with each other. The whole point is to reduce our carbon emissions in the most efficient way. Here again, we need to come up with a smart system where electricity and gas work together. Precisely that collaboration allows you to combine the best of both worlds and create the optimum system.”

Many people wonder whether transporting hydrogen through natural gas pipelines is even possible?
“This is already up and running! It is no longer just an idea on paper. A 12-kilometre long hydrogen pipeline is already in operation between Dow Chemical and Yara, two chemical companies in the province of Zeeland. This former natural gas pipeline has been used exclusively for hydrogen since 2018. So we have already proved that it is technically possible. Obviously, more needs to be done to create a hydrogen grid on a larger scale. For example, the existing natural gas pipelines need to be cleaned and renovated, and valves will probably need to be adapted. Different compressors will also be required. But the research has been done and it is possible: gas grids are suitable for transporting hydrogen.”

Is this the start of a more extensive hydrogen infrastructure?
“We think so, yes. As I said, we want to create a hydrogen backbone that connects the large industrial clusters with one another and with the storage facilities. Such as industry in the ports of Groningen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Zeeland and the chemical park in Limburg. And areas across the border as well, such as the Ruhr area, Hamburg and Antwerp. A hydrogen backbone of this type would connect different regions to allow them to make use of the facilities offered by the other regions. For example, hydrogen produced from electricity generated by wind turbines in the North Sea could be transported to southern Limburg in the Netherlands and the Ruhr area. And all the industrial clusters could benefit from the natural features offering large-scale storage capacity in the north of the Netherlands. The gas infrastructure in the Netherlands is ideally suited to transporting hydrogen, because it extends nationwide and is well maintained. Several pipes lie next to each other in many places. Due to the decline in natural gas transport, we can make part of that infrastructure exclusively available for hydrogen. Import and export connections will also be needed in the future. As is the case at present, we will not be self-sufficient when it comes to energy. Hydrogen that is produced abroad can be shipped to the ports and then transported further into Europe via international connections.”

How will the demand for hydrogen develop?
“There is already a certain level of demand for hydrogen as a feedstock for industrial use. And we foresee a considerable increase in the years up to 2030. Hydrogen is a good alternative to natural gas for high-temperature industrial processes. It can also be used to provide heat in the built environment and as a way of making cars and trucks, shipping and aviation more sustainable. For example, we already run several cars on hydrogen at Gasunie.”

How are we going to make sure that all that hydrogen is available?
“Together with our partners, Gasunie is already actively increasing supply. By facilitating electrolysis, for example, so that market parties can produce hydrogen in an emission-free process. In 2019, King Willem-Alexander opened HyStock, our first 1 megawatt conversion plant. Compared to a conventional power plant, that is still peanuts, but it is a resolute first step in the right direction. Because until then, the concept only existed on paper: the complete cycle of conversion followed by transport to the end user on this scale. Now it is actually up and running. But that is not our final goal, we must carry on.
So we are applying a wide-ranging programme approach to facilitate the hydrogen market. Our collaboration with Nouryon in a 20 megawatt electrolysis plant is one example. And there are many other serious plans for increasing electrolysis capacity in the Netherlands. We and our partners recently announced the development of 3 to 4 gigawatt wind farms that will feed a huge hydrogen plant in 2030, the NortH2 project. Our goal is to increase capacity to 10GW in 2040.”

2040 seems a long way off…
“Completing large infrastructure projects like this takes several years. We have to act now in order to be ready for the next step in CO2 reduction in 2030. Investing in a hydrogen market now means new business opportunities and new jobs. That is also a good investment. Now is the time to start developing the hydrogen supply chain. A great deal has to be done, ranging from training people to developing standards. That is why you need a programmatic approach.”

What other stumbling blocks do you see?
“If we want to switch successfully from fossil fuels to green gas molecules in the Netherlands and Europe, more flexibility will be needed. Today’s legislation and regulations only apply to the use of hydrogen at industrial sites and transporting hydrogen to those sites. Furthermore, hydrogen has not yet been identified as an energy carrier in legislation and regulations. However, because we are still in a development phase, we should avoid finalising regulation too soon. It must be possible for companies to invest, innovate and develop so that we can move towards a mature and open hydrogen market. The investments that need to be made are of course very significant. Collaboration with many partners and support from the government are crucial if we are to successfully progress through the start-up phase.”

Where do we expect to be in 2030?
“Our proposal is clear. Use the existing infrastructure to keep our energy system affordable and reliable. In the Netherlands, we have a unique opportunity for creating a dedicated backbone for hydrogen. That backbone could potentially be ready as early as 2027. In that sense, our plans in the Netherlands are already at an advanced stage. And Europe is looking closely at how we are proceeding here. It is for good reason that Brussels has identified the north of the Netherlands as the first European Hydrogen Valley and made appropriate funding available. We are one of the leaders in developing hydrogen.”

Related articles:
Hydrogen - food for thought. All facts, views and scenarios at a glance in this long read: www.theworldofhydrogen

Profile of René Schutte, Program Manager Hydrogen at Gasunie
René Schutte joined Gasunie in 2006. He has worked in several commercial roles in energy procurement and shipping and grid connections for Gasunie Transport Services. In his previous role, René was responsible for industrial customers with a direct connection to the GTS grid and for implementing new legislative and regulatory requirements. René was appointed to the position of Program Manager Hydrogen at Gasunie in July 2018. In his current role, he is responsible for developing and implementing a hydrogen program as a key element of Gasunie’s strategy for the energy transition and future business. He is also a Board Member of Hydrogen Europe and a Governing Board Member of FCH JU.