Hydrogen: the technological challenge for a sustainable energy mix

Decarbonisation and net zero by 2050: as is now widely known, these are the two fundamental objectives upon which the ambitious policy set out by the European Union in its Green Deal is based.

This represents a complex journey, which is increasingly highlighting the compelling need to radically transform the European energy system in order to meet these targets, through investment in a wide range of technologies and alternative energy sources.

In this scenario, clean hydrogen is taking an increasingly central role in the strategic investment choices of Europe and its governments, who view this technology as an important ally both in the industrial and residential sectors, in order to accelerate the process of transition and implement the long-awaited revolution that we hope will save the planet.

Accordingly, experiments have begun, new hydrogen-ready technologies are being developed and resources are being set aside for the implementation of special projects, round-table discussions and alliances: but where do we stand with regard to hydrogen today, both from a regulatory and technological point of view and in terms of its impact on the entire distribution chain? What challenges and the opportunities exist?

We seek to provide a comprehensive overview of these, through an interview with Federica Sabbati, Secretary-General of the EHI, European Heating Industry - the European association that unites the leading industries and heating companies - and coordinator of the round table entitled “Clean hydrogen for buildings”, the sixth pillar of the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance.

1. Dr Sabbati, what signs of change do you expect to emerge in European legislation in the coming years in response to climate change?

“The signs from the European Community are very clear: the European economy must cut CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve so-called ‘net zero’ by 2050. Sectors such as industry, energy production and mobility, which have been the subject of European legislation for a number of years now, are now being called upon to provide an active contribution to achieving these objectives. Recently, the building sector too - which is responsible for nearly half of total energy consumption in Europe, and around 36% of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere - has drawn the attention of legislators, who, as we can see, have recognised the key role that this industry will play in enabling us to reach the climate goals we have set.

Finally, there are several tools that the EU is developing and fine-tuning, including more stringent legislation on the subject of energy efficiency and CO2 emissions from heating systems through the Ecodesign tool. In addition, a downgrading of natural gas and diesel plants on the Energy Label is envisaged: a recent proposal from the European Commission that would switch condensing boilers from Class A to F.

2. Does the goal of achieving decarbonisation in the residential heating sector by 2050 necessitate a conversion from fossil fuel-based heat generators to those that use electricity? If so, will the electricity grids be able to support this transition?

“Our sector maintains that the best approach in order to achieve effective, efficient decarbonisation, and that also makes the end user an active part of the transition, must be channelled through multiple technological solutions: Today, electricity-based systems are among the best performing on the market and as such, must be expanded, above all in buildings with high levels of thermal insulation (we must also remember that the production of electrical energy in Europe is still a long way off being ‘green’).
We carried out a recent analysis of the obstacles that are preventing heat pumps from being used more widely, which indicated that this is linked to the challenges of managing the seasonal and daily energy demand peaks that are typical of heating activity. Both the transition and the stabilisation of demand for electrical energy from the building sector, therefore, represent challenges that must be managed.
Conversely, a wider mix of energies, and thus of technologies (electric, ‘green’ gas - hydrogen, biofuels, biomass, solar etc.) can respond better to the configuration requirements of our future system and to the variety of technologies used in the different building types that exist across Europe.”

3. What role does hydrogen play in this scenario and what opportunities can it offer for both residential and industrial applications?

"Hydrogen plays a complementary role to electricity: at system level, it compensates for the difficulty of storing renewable electricity, and at individual building level, it enables reduced investment in the adaptation of infrastructures. It is interesting to see how projects concerning hydrogen use are multiplying across Europe, due to the fact that this element offers a range of advantages for the end user: from reduced costs to higher levels of comfort. In addition, hydrogen is already in use in heating systems, and so it is a tried and tested technology.”

4. In your view, will energy providers develop other 'green' fuels? Are there signs of progress in this sector?

"Yes, biomethane and synthetic methane are available, and are already compatible with the most efficient heating systems. Furthermore, these types of gas are already considered as a priority in some markets, including in France. Indeed, France has set itselfthegoalofhitting 10% biomethane in its gas networks by 2030.

There are also a number of interesting developments with regard to diesel: In 2019-20, a series of field tests were initiated in several European countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria for the use of green fuel oils such as FAME (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester) and hydrotreated oils (e.g. from waste, such as used cooking oil). The tests completed so far have revealed that these green fuels are totally compatible with systems such as condensing boilers.”

5. Will generators and energy distribution networks become interconnected? What advantages could this bring?

“The energy valuechain, or in other words, production, transmission, distribution and sectors of use, is necessarily interconnected. In recent years, the collaboration between these sectors has increased.
This can be explained by the realisation that, in order to achieve the energy transition, we need to work together on planning for the future, on ensuring compatibility between generators and new types of gas and fuel oil, and on roadmaps that are coordinated in order to prevent us from getting stuck on one of the key questions of tomorrow: what comes first,the chicken or the egg – that is, which will be ready first? The network, or heating technologies?”

6. What impact will the radical changes you have described have on the distribution chain at installer/maintenance technician/end user level? Is the EU providing suitable instruments in order to support the technological and cultural changes that are set to take place in the coming years, and what role will the industries in this sector play in this scenario?

“The role of the installer/maintenance technician is fundamental in the energy transition of buildings. A recently study we carried out,on the role of energy labelling in guiding consumer choice when selecting a new heating system , indicated that it is the installer who drives the decision of the type of technology that we purchase, much more than the label itself.

The European Commission is aware of this, but given that the theme of training/education is anational issue, it maintains that as things currently stand, it is more appropriate for the manufacturing industry and public administration bodies – at both local and national level – to take a central role in implementing programmes for upskilling installers, maintenances workers and technicians in this sector. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity for growth in a supply chain that is very local by nature.”