Green hydrogen is the only viable route for aviation and shipping

Given its limited supply, green hydrogen must be reserved for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation and shipping, rather than directed towards sectors that can be electrified, writes Aoife O’Leary.

Green hydrogen is being overlooked when it comes to the European Commission’s Taxonomy system. A recent legal challenge to the Taxonomy’s criteria on shipping and aviation highlights how the new rules could lead to investment in planes or ships running on fossil fuels.

Incentivising fossil-fuel funding in this way fails to promote investment in truly green solutions – namely green hydrogen – and ultimately contributes to global pollution for decades to come.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) downgrading its capacity growth forecasts for green hydrogen in Europe recently is yet another reinforcement of the point that there is not currently sufficient policy to support investment in hydrogen for those sectors that need it.

Until that is rectified, we will continually be behind on hydrogen deployment, and ultimately delaying the transition to net zero, economy wide.

Policy makers must understand the importance of recognising and prioritising the industries where green hydrogen is most critically needed. Despite being a theoretically abundant fuel, in the coming years, green hydrogen will remain limited in supply, whilst the industry is scaled.

There’s a risk that if this supply is targeted towards sectors that can be electrified or have other routes to decarbonisation, there will not be a secure supply of green hydrogen available for those sectors with no alternative to decarbonise. Not only that, but this green hydrogen will have been used inefficiently.

Producing green hydrogen is not cheap, and it is an inherently inefficient process. It’s therefore preferable to directly electrify all sectors where this is possible, such as domestic heating and road transport.

Converting electrical energy to chemical energy in green hydrogen is only about 80% efficient, but is significantly less efficient when additional inefficiencies of storage, conversion (to fuel), and transportation are factored in. This underlines the fact that where electrical energy can feasibly be used, it should.

Demand for green hydrogen and its derived fuels will be high across various industries, such as steel, chemicals, and concrete. It will be hard for supply levels to meet such high demand, even if hard-to-electrify sectors are prioritised.

As a result, and coupled with the inefficiencies and expense of producing green hydrogen, its supply should be limited to sectors with no other feasible alternative to decarbonise. The Renewable Energy Agency has also stated that “Indiscriminate use of (green) hydrogen could slow down the energy transition.”

Supply of green hydrogen should first be targeted towards those industries heavily reliant on grey hydrogen. Supply must also be ramped up quickly for sectors that have no other route to decarbonisation.

Shipping and aviation are two such sectors, with green hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels best placed to meet their high energy and long-distance fuel requirements.

Operating at sea and in the air, other energy options for shipping and aviation such as accessing grid electrification are simply not possible over long distances.

As well as being used directly, green hydrogen can be converted into green methanol, green ammonia, and e-kerosene making it easier to transport and use as a fuel.

Both aviation and shipping fuels will need to rely on pathways based on abundant feedstocks and a demonstrated ability to reduce GHG emissions on a life-cycle basis.

Hydrogen strategies must recognise that green hydrogen has a unique, long-term role to play in decarbonising hard to electrify sectors, such as shipping and aviation, that have no other routes to decarbonisation.

Hydrogen strategies should make clear that green hydrogen should only be used in these sectors that don’t have alternatives and ensure it is not taken forward for those sectors that do have alternatives, such as home heating and road transport.

By adopting a cross-departmental approach to hydrogen policy, ensuring that transport stakeholders are involved in decision making on future uses of green hydrogen (and direct air capture), we can look to create a coherent policy.

There is a clear need for policy coherence across the EU Commission on aviation decarbonisation, ensuring that transport stakeholders are involved in decision making on future uses of green hydrogen (and direct air capture).

The targets set by ReFuel EU Aviation should be revised to support green hydrogen fuels. The fuels with the greatest emission reduction potential must continue to be incentivised over others when implementing additional mechanisms to drive the supply and uptake of alternative fuels for the sector.

Likewise, for shipping, the responsible Directorate-Generals (DGs) within the European Commission – and their respective Member State counterparts – need to ensure that the policy environment allows green hydrogen innovations to be implemented and brought to the scale necessary to put shipping on a sustainable decarbonisation trajectory.

Ultimately, hydrogen strategies must recognise the importance of green hydrogen in decarbonising shipping and aviation.

Policies and investment can and must go further – with all regulations ensuring that the lowest emission fuels are incentivised over other alternatives, if we are to reach any of our collective targets.

By Aoife O’Leary

Aoife O’Leary is the Founder and CEO of Opportunity Green, a climate NGO, and the Skies and Seas Hydrogen-fuels Accelerator (SASHA) Coalition.

January 30, 2024

Originally published by Euractiv

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