France has all the cards in hand

“Yes, my friends, I believe that one day water will be used as fuel, that its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, used separately or together, will provide an inexhaustible source of heat and light and of an intensity which the coal can not have , wrote Jules Verne, always visionary, in his novel The Mysterious Island, in 1874. What exactly was he referring to? What is Hydrogen? Or rather, what is dihydrogen, since in reality they are two hydrogen atoms (H2) which structure the dihydrogen molecule, itself endowed with a high energy potential. However it is the main component of the sun, and at the center of our benevolent star, the temperature, 15 million degrees, allows fusion reactions during which hydrogen is transformed into helium, releasing Energy. Although it is the most abundant element in the Universe, hydrogen is very rarely present in its natural state on our planet. Indeed, odorless, colorless, non-toxic but highly flammable, it combines with other atoms. It is found in water, oil, natural gas. To extract it, it is therefore necessary to apply chemical processes – biomass pyrolysis or water electrolysis -, among others, which will separate it from the other elements with which it is associated.

And it is here that the first challenges in the fight against climate change come to light. Because it all depends on the origin of the basic product. If it is fossil products – natural gas, methane – as is more often the case today, it is said to be “grey” (because the CO2 emitted is released into the atmosphere) and 80% of it is used as a base material in chemical, for the production of ammonia for the manufacture of fertilizers and methanol, as well as as a reagent in the refining of crude oil, for the desulphurization of fuels. It is also used in the synthesis of plastic materials, for some processes in the glass industry or in the manufacture of electronic printed circuits. If CO2 is captured and permanently sequestered, hydrogen is said to be “blue”. But the goal, today, is to obtain it thanks to the electrolysis of water, and better still, through renewable energy as regards the necessary for this process. In this case, it is said to be “green”. And it is precisely this last type of hydrogen that concentrates all hopes. Indeed, it could make a partial but significant contribution to the fight against climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions.

But under what conditions and in what proportions? Currently, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Hydrogen Report 2022, global hydrogen demand (all colors combined) reached 94 million tonnes in 2021 (up from 91 million in 2019, before the pandemic), which it accounts for about 2.5% of total energy consumption worldwide. Suffice it to say that if we continue on this path, the contribution of hydrogen to the ecological transition could not be more moderate… Furthermore, to satisfy current demand, production in 2021 will essentially consist of fossil products, specifies the ‘Agency. In fact, that of “low emission” hydrogen (which includes blue and green) was only less than a million tonnes. However, if the increase in recent months is still due to traditional users – refiners and industry – part of the total demand: about 40,000 tons (or, in 2022, an increase of 60% on 2021) – derives from how much L ‘Agency calls new applications: steelmaking projects that use hydrogen to reduce iron, for example, as well as others, aimed at supplying certain sectors, including logistics and maritime or air transport. Finally, it also affects power plants. The IEA also notes that “low-emission” hydrogen production projects are gaining momentum and at a rapid pace.

Strong constraints

However, bets are off and some NGOs, in particular, criticize the reliance placed on hydrogen to tackle the climate challenge. It is against this backdrop of dissonant voices that the University of Paris-Saclay wanted to test to what extent a transition to a hydrogen-based economy can be a clean alternative to fossil fuels. For this, the researchers used various transition scenarios up to 2100, depending, among others, on the famous colors of hydrogen, and published their study, entitled Climate benefits of a future hydrogen economyin November 2022. “According to one of the latest IPCC reports, which takes into account cumulative carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial age, we only have a total of 900 billion tonnes of CO2 left to emit into the world’s atmosphere by 2100 if we want the heating be less than 2 degrees Celsius. However, an economy partially based on green hydrogen would make it possible to avoid discarding a third of this total”. underlines Didier Hauglustaine, director of research at the laboratory of climatic and environmental sciences of the University of Paris-Saclay. Indeed, in the period 2030-2100, the use of green hydrogen would lead to a reduction of 331 billion tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. But under certain conditions. First, that there are no leaks during production, transportation, storage and use. These are in fact so many dangers, since when released, hydrogen affects other molecules, including those of greenhouse gases, whose heating potential also increases… Another constraint: that the consumption of hydrogen, and therefore production, increases by almost eight times between 2020 and 2050 compared to the levels observed in 2017… Which also implies a production of renewable energies (to activate electrolysis) three times higher than the current world stock, just to produce this hydrogen. “Given the climate benefits, it is worth a try, assures the researcher, particularly in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, such as heavy industry, transport (trains, commercial ships, planes) to aim for use, in 2050, which would correspond to 20% of the total energy needed by the economy. » It is therefore a question of introducing hydrogen, preferably green, into the new energy mix, managing all the constraints.

French ambitions

Despite the uncertainties, if economies want to benefit from the contribution of green hydrogen in the fight against climate change, states must stimulate the carriers of the necessary technologies and create green hydrogen production sectors. And they do, from North America to Asia to Europe. In this panorama, France intends to play a leading role. In October 2021, before the National Hydrogen Council, which took office in January 2021, Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty, did not hesitate to proclaim that “France must be the world leader in green hydrogen”… And according to Daniel Hissel, vice president of the University of Franche-Comté and deputy director of the National Hydrogen Federation (FRH2, CNRS), he is giving himself the means. “The ecosystem that is being built – made up of large and small industrial companies and start-ups, present throughout the territory – benefits from fundamental support from the State, points out. While in 2018 it dedicated only 100 million euros to the creation of a sector, the hydrogen plan, announced in 2020, brought the sum to around 7.2 billion euros until 2030. Of course, Germany also intends (by importing hydrogen) to support its sector, with more or less equal investments, and other countries, including Spain and Portugal, are also betting on hydrogen with strong support, especially as these two countries rely on the ability of photovoltaic energy to activate electrolysis. But as Daniel Hissel points out: “France has all the cards in hand. It can benefit from the know-how, research and development of its top-level engineers and the innovation of its start-ups”. Furthermore, in its desire for energy independence and industrial relocation and don’t make the same mistake of photovoltaics, which you wanted to boost but whose solar panels were manufactured in China… “France has adopted a strategy focused on domestic hydrogen production and has champions with European and even global ambitions, such as Engie, EDF, TotalEnergies, Air Liquide, McPhy…”, adds Charlotte de Lorgeril, Partner Energy, Utilities & Environment and Climate Analysis Center Global Lead, at consultancy firm SIA Partners. “France has a very complete ecosystemconfirms Christelle Werquin, General Delegate of France Hydrogène, which brings together about 460 operators in the sector, of which 350 are industrialists, as well as very committed local authorities, and benefits, for electrolysis, from the supply of electricity from nuclear power. The conditions are met. »

It now remains to lower the cost of hydrogen production for this product to become truly competitive. and it almost is as well as the reduction of the purchase price of some means of transport, including heavy goods vehicles. For what, “We have to consolidate supply and demand; ensure that all actors – producers, builders and consumers – have confidence and invest; build infrastructure, including filling stations, and increase, as the government is doing, support mechanisms,” summarizes. In short, scaling up must be successful so that hydrogen, which certainly cannot answer all energy questions nor all climate challenges, is actually part of the solution.

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