Guest comment: Rapid and massive expansion of renewable energies, storage facilities and hydrogen

The coalition agreement of the new federal government should already be in the dry on St. Nicholas Day – a signal of the new beginnings that Germany now needs. The pressure to act is particularly high when converting the energy supply. The prerequisites for being climate-neutral by 2045 are good: The European Union and Germany have formulated clear goals and backed them up with strategies. Technology, money for transformation and social support are in place.

What is still missing: speed of expansion and clear right-of-way rules for a lot more renewable energies, hydrogen, storage and back-up capacities. There are solvable challenges, but they have to be tackled quickly.

The term “climate neutrality” comes off your lips, but the restructuring of the German energy supply by 2045 is tricky. Anyone who has tried in anticipation of the new electric car in an older house to meet the requirements for the installation of a domestic charging station will guess what I’m talking about.

When expanding wind power and solar systems, storage systems and power lines, there is a problem with a lack of space, complicated and lengthy approval procedures and legal proceedings that have lasted for years. In European regulations in particular, the devil is often in the details. A formulation that was actually intended as a turbo for the energy transition can quickly act like a brake block.

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The example of green hydrogen makes it clear what is important. By 2030, 40 gigawatts of electrolysis capacity for the production of green hydrogen are to be built up in the EU. This is needed so that refineries, chemical companies and steel producers who cannot fully electrify their processes with renewable electricity no longer need fossil fuels.

The industry is in the starting blocks

The production of the energy carrier is also extremely interesting from an economic point of view. Worldwide demand will develop rapidly. Experts see a requirement of seven million tons for 2030. Ten years later it will be 160 million tons. In this way, hydrogen helps to kill two birds with one stone: Production processes become climate-friendly and Germany as an industrial location is future-proof.

Large parts of the energy sector and industry are in the starting blocks. They want to invest, but cannot yet, because there are no reasonable framework conditions – for the production of green hydrogen, the financing of the network infrastructure, the start-up funding that enables the switch to hydrogen-based production processes, but also for its use and import options.

Of course, nobody expects to find a perfect set of rules overnight. But the industry will have to renew many of its systems in this decade. And before companies convert production processes, they need to be certain that sufficient hydrogen will be available when they start their new plants. There is still a long way to go before then.

The green electricity criteria, which are currently being discussed at European level, play a decisive role here. They determine which renewable electricity can be used to generate green hydrogen – and will thus either enable or hinder the development of a green hydrogen economy. It makes little sense to only allow electricity from new, unsubsidized wind power and solar systems for production.

In the beginning you need pragmatism

It will be years before such systems go online. Existing systems that have been depleted could bridge this period. One thing is clear: the expansion of renewable energies must be accelerated significantly in order to meet the additional demand.

The idea of ​​linking renewable energies and electrolysers closely to one another in terms of time also needs to be scrutinized. Sun and wind are volatile. The industry is not helped if electrolysers are doomed to pause whenever there is doldrums.

Pragmatism is therefore needed, especially at the beginning. This can mean allowing hydrogen, which is blue, turquoise or, if in doubt, also gray, during the market ramp-up. Only in this way will it be possible to provide sufficient quantities for industry in order to be able to operate hydrogen-capable production facilities right from the start – a key requirement for investments. Over time, hydrogen can and must become greener.

There are still question marks about the future hydrogen pipeline network, a classic “chicken and egg problem”: There is currently no network, and there are still no customers. This will only exist if it is clear where the feed-in and delivery points will be in the future. This gives companies the certainty that they can feed their hydrogen into the grid or purchase the energy source on day X.

Therefore, a master plan for a hydrogen network 2045 in Germany (better: in Europe) is needed – supplemented by a reliable roadmap of where and from when hydrogen lines will be operational.

Companies can then use this as a guide and invest. Many companies already have sophisticated plans for the hydrogen era in the drawer to build wind farms, electrolysis systems, gas pipelines, hydrogen storage facilities or to convert systems for the use of hydrogen.

A 100 megawatt electrolysis system

At RWE, we are active in 30 hydrogen projects together with partners in Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. We have everything that is needed in the hydrogen economy under one roof: green electricity, production know-how, storage capacities and trading expertise. We are developing our most advanced project, “GET H2”, together with partners such as BP, Evonik, OGE, Nowega, Salzgitter and Thyssengas, starting from our power plant in Lingen, Lower Saxony.

A 100 megawatt electrolysis system powered by wind power is to be built here by 2024 – one of the largest in Europe. The green hydrogen generated in this way will then flow via “converted” gas pipelines to the Ruhr area. We want to increase the electrolysis capacity in Lingen to 300 megawatts by 2026 and provide the first hydrogen storage facilities. Electrolysers and storage facilities will then be connected to gas pipelines that connect Marl, Duisburg and Salzgitter to the Dutch gas network.

Individual “Hydrogen Valleys” are growing together to form an economic area that provides hydrogen across the board. Now is the time to put the right instruments aside for the big goals and to turn the right screws. Renewable energies, storage and hydrogen are the essential cornerstones of a sustainable energy world that combines ecology and economy.

The 2020s are the crucial decade of implementation. Therefore, renewable energies, storage and hydrogen production should be expanded rapidly and massively. As far as I can tell, the partners in the possible traffic light coalition have set out to do just that. So the departure is possible. Let’s tackle it together!

The author: Sopna Sury is a member of the Executive Board of RWE Generation SE, responsible for hydrogen.

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