Hydrogen, an energy carrier potentially able to help us bridge our efforts to establish clean energy systems and economies, has been attracting broad attention for already quite some time. Around the world, various hydrogen-related projects are well underway, with several countries being close or already having adopted their national hydrogen strategies. The latter is the case of the EU as well, of which the Hydrogen strategy was released in mid-2020. Despite clearly emphasizing renewable or green hydrogen produced by the process of water electrolysis powered by renewable electricity, the document does not reflect a unanimous agreement on establishing the European hydrogen economy based solely on green hydrogen. Within the overall “European hydrogen eco-system,” it considers the role of other low-carbon types of hydrogen, e.g. blue hydrogen, as well. This duality of approaches on developing the European hydrogen economy is mirrored by the opposing “camps” consisting of European states who point to the respective advantages and disadvantages or threats related to pursuing either way of hydrogen economy development. Considering this face-off, what are its implications for possible hydrogen exporters like Turkey?
Let us firstly zoom in on the respective arguments. On one side, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain propose hydrogen to be produced solely by renewables-powered electrolysis. As we are witnessing falling costs of renewable energy technologies and electrolyzers, nearly zero-carbon green hydrogen is said to have a growing potential to help us decarbonize our economies effectively. By contributing to the decarbonization of sectors that are considered to be challenging to electrify effectively, such as steel production or aviation, green hydrogen is being perceived as the potential “missing link” enabling us to reach our clean economy goals. Regarding the blue hydrogen produced by the process of steam methane reforming coupled with CCS, proponents of the solely green hydrogen pathway point to the problem of the unavailability of sufficiently effective and relatively affordable CCS solutions. Additionally, by allowing ourselves to pursue the technology-neutral road towards a hydrogen economy, we are said to run the risk of locking in our dependence on natural gas with “not-100%” CCS technologies.
The opposite camp, comprised of Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania, does not necessarily refute the possible benefits of or the emphasis on green hydrogen as the end game. However, as they support a broader, “low-carbon” definition of hydrogen, these countries stress the importance of blue hydrogen as a potentially necessary stepping-stone for the establishment of the European hydrogen eco-system. They highlight that the great decarbonization potential of green hydrogen is said to be viable if the price of the electricity is low enough. Further, it requires such “an end market for hydrogen that can sustain high electrolyzer utilization rates.”
This debate is reflected at the state level as well. For instance, the importance of blue hydrogen has been articulated by the representatives of heavy industry in Germany, for in the medium-term-available quantities of green hydrogen might not be sufficient for them “to survive global competition in a low-carbon future.” According to the analysis of Lambert (OIES) and Schulte (EWI), however, Germany sees “little if any role for blue hydrogen.”
The European Commission doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision regarding the two discussed positions yet. The limits defining the maximum amount of CO2 emitted by producing hydrogen in order for it to be considered “clean hydrogen” are yet to be decided upon, possibly by the end of 2021. As Cicculli et al. explain, “the higher the authorized level of emissions is, the more likely [it] is that blue hydrogen will become part of the [E]uropean strategy,” thus receiving strategic support. Regarding the national plans, they will most likely represent a compromise between various domestic companies.
What does it mean for Turkey as a possible hydrogen exporter? The country currently uses hydrogen produced mainly from fossil fuels in fertilizer, petrochemical, and other industries. Yet it plans to increase the production and use of this energy carrier, as well as to become one of Europe’s main hydrogen suppliers, particularly given its “strategic position on the Southern Gas Corridor.”
The main emphasis seems to be on the blue hydrogen produced from the domestic coal coupled with CCS, as it might contribute to the decarbonization of the Turkish economy and help the country reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels, thus reducing its trade deficit. In the light of the European “blue-vs-green-hydrogen debate,” however, Turkey might not be able to further reduce its trade deficit by exporting its blue hydrogen to EU member states.
Yet Turkey is also said to have a good potential to produce green hydrogen, given the untapped renewable energy potential it has. As the EU support for green hydrogen compared to other low-carbon types of the discussed energy carrier seems to be clear, it is the export of green hydrogen that Turkey can possibly engage in. We shall see how the country will further define its hydrogen-related export ambitions in its upcoming national hydrogen strategy.