The 11,200 km plan for Germany’s new ‘hydrogen highways’

A group of gas grid operators presented plans on Wednesday (12 July) to complete the construction of Germany’s main hydrogen transport network by 2032, although the government has shown little interest in funding it.

German industry consumes 55 Terawatt-hours (TWh) of hydrogen per year – most of it produced using carbon-intensive processes that contribute to global warming.

By 2030, the government estimates that demand for hydrogen in steel production and chemical processes will double to nearly 110 TWh.

But where will that hydrogen come from, and how will it be transported?

According to the plan put forward by German gas grid operators, much of it could be imported from the Netherlands and Norway, while the renewables-heavy North of Germany will provide domestic sourcing.

“A Germany-wide core network is the desired signal of departure for all actors along the value chain,” said Thomas Gößmann, chairman of the board of the gas transport company association (FNB) on Wednesday (12 July).

“The first stage is the planning of a hydrogen core network – the ‘hydrogen highways’,” the ministry of economy and climate action said in a statement.

The new plan paints a picture of ever-increasing ambition among Germany’s nascent hydrogen industry. In 2020, the industry envisioned a hydrogen grid of 6,000 kilometres in length, consisting of 90% repurposed gas infrastructure.

Today, the length of that network has stretched to almost double the initial vision – featuring hydrogen pipelines that would span half of Germany, although the operators estimate the final length will be shortened due to optimisation. A total of 309 projects were included.

Berlin would rather not foot the bill, though. “The German government is pursuing the goal of a private-sector development of the hydrogen core network, which is to be financed through network fees,” the ministry added.

Instead, country-wide “grid tariffs” should be used to finance the infrastructure, the details of which are subject to discussions between the finance ministry and the Chancellor’s office.

“The legal anchoring of a financing model is a central prerequisite,” stresses Gößmann.


East-West divide
Like most German charts, the hydrogen highway map shows a stark divide between Western and Eastern Germany.

While the industrial heartlands around Bremen and Düsseldorf are expected to host a veritable super-cluster of hydrogen pipelines, the East may have to rely in part on newly built pipelines – which are far from guaranteed – and some repurposed infrastructure that once transported Russian fossil gas.

“One pipe of the OPAL/EUGAL pipeline is to be upgraded from gas to hydrogen,” said Michael Kellner, a state secretary for the ministry. The pipeline that once connected Nord Stream 1 would ferry “green energy” into Central and Southern Germany, Kellner explained.

“Good for the East: Schwedt, Leuna and the East German coal regions are connected,” he added.

Others, like Saxony, are much less happy with the outcome of the planning process.

“Chemnitz, Dresden and Lusatia, with important energy-intensive companies and future hydrogen-capable power plants, are still missing from the plans,” said Wolfram Günther, Saxony’s energy minister.

Next steps
The hydrogen highways are far from set in stone – aside from the financing, a two-week consultation procedure has been opened before the gas grid operators carry the work forward into the autumn.

Meanwhile, the would-be hydrogen industry anxiously awaits the revamp of Germany’s hydrogen strategy, expected by mid-July.

Aside from doubling Germany’s electrolyser capacity target from 5 GW to 10 GW, the revamped strategy will likely target a hydrogen pipeline grid of 1,800 kilometres by 2028, according to a leaked government document seen by Handelsblatt.

One key problem remains unsolved in either document: how to transition from fossil gas to hydrogen. The industry is quick to point out that it has invested hundreds of billions of euros into the existing network and has been quick to protest any push for decommissioning plans.

Help may come from Brussels, where late-stage negotiations on the new gas markets directive may create a framework for decommissioning of gas grids, depending on the outcome of the negotiations.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald and Frédéric Simon]



By Nikolaus J. Kurmayer

July 5, 2023


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