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While Russia and Ukraine are still at war, the European Union is going through a crisis of energy independence. After China, the biggest importers of Russian oil are Germany and the Netherlands, while countries like Poland, Slovakia, Finland and Lithuania obtain more than 50% of their total oil imports from Russiaaccording to the International Energy Agency.
Last week the EU announced a plan to phase out russian fossil fuels. In some ways, the strategy bears an uncanny resemblance to what’s happening in California right now, especially when it comes to hydrogen, which is rapidly emerging as a clean energy option.
“We simply cannot rely so heavily on a supplier that explicitly threatens us,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. a speech in the European Parliament. “In the long term, it’s our move to renewables and hydrogen that will make us truly independent.”
The plan, called REPowerEUoutlines short and long-term solutions to achieving energy independence and states that “ending [Europe’s] Russia’s dangerous overreliance on fossil fuels may be reached well before 2030.” The strategy focuses on using hydrogen as a means to decarbonize industry, specifically calling for a “hydrogen accelerator” to build infrastructure and replace Russian gas demand with up to 15 million tonnes of renewable H2. According to Hydrogen Europe— an organization of more than 300 companies committed to expanding the role of gas in the path to carbon neutrality — the accelerator program is expected to focus on identifying existing pipelines that can be repurposed to transport hydrogen .
In California, the situation is both different and similar in many ways. The United States is mainly energy independent at this point and Russian oil imports are now officially banned, but the complexities of the global oil market often make it cheaper to export our oil and import oil from other countries. The United States does just about everything when it comes to oil: we produce it, we export it, and we import it. It must be a real trip to be on a tanker in the middle of the ocean and come across another tanker going back where you came from. (You would think that a phone call would save a lot of trouble.)
But the global economy aside, the challenge of transitioning to a fossil fuel-free future remains urgent — and hydrogen, particularly in California, has been rapidly gaining momentum. SoCalGas unveiled Angeles Link, an ambitious project to deliver hydrogen via its existing pipeline architecture. The utility also builds a prototype of a house that runs on a hydrogen micro-grid. A host of waste-to-hydrogen companies are springing up, offering ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into hydrogen. And companies like Universal Hydrogen are trying to decarbonize the most stubborn sectors of the economy with gas.
Hydrogen-powered electricity may never become as cheap or efficient as that powered by solar or wind, but the gas has advantages that make it attractive to California and Europe, in particular. when matters are urgent, such as the urgent need to cut funding. to an adversary’s war effort or an impending climatic apocalypse.
On the one hand, hydrogen is already storable and transportable, and with the right infrastructure, it can serve as one piece of the intermittency puzzle – supplying electricity to the grid when demand is high, and wind sources and solar may be weaker than usual. Electrolysers – the machines that produce hydrogen – can also run on accessible fuel stocks such as nutshells, manure, dead trees and solid waste. Converting waste to hydrogen currently accounts for only a small fraction of the world’s total hydrogen production, but converting these materials to hydrogen effectively removes carbon from the environmental cycle and, in some cases, creates a material called char which can be used as a substitute for coal. (Obviously, if you burn that material again, you’re just breaking even in the carbon cycle, but for industries like steel and chemical manufacturing, breaking even would be a huge improvement. )
For better or for worse, desperation often breeds innovation. Suddenly, small pieces of the puzzle begin to have value. A few more tons of hydrogen here means a few less barrels of Russian oil there. A few more chlorinators means fewer homes depending on natural gas when the grid is called upon. The total calculation of carbon neutrality is, as always, built on a thousand small improvements. In the case of Europe, it’s just a shame that it took something like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to spur such initiatives. — David Shultz
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