The ambitions of the European Union and China in terms of hydrogen mark the beginning of antagonisms. On the one hand, Europe wants to invest some 470 billion euros to develop infrastructure on the continent. China is also rushing to subsidize a sector that can allow it to quickly reach its carbon emissions targets while serving as a growth driver.
Swould this finally be the moment the hydrogen industry was waiting for? In just a few years, this source of energy has gone from being a curiosity to a real sector of the future. It must be said that at this moment investments in the sector are increasing at high speed all over the world – against the backdrop of the climate crisis and carbon emission targets that hydrogen could help achieve. It must be said that compared to other sources of clean energy, hydrogen has advantages. It does not gonly water vapor during combustion in air, and it is possible to produce it from renewable energies such as wind or solar.
What better use of energy production while the energy mix is diversifying on the old continent. Mostly hydrogen shares desirable characteristics with fossil fuels, in particular its ease of use: all you have to do is fill up a hydrogen car, which is faster than charging an electric car, for example. Despite this, hydrogen has long remained at the margin; it must be said that it does not come without its share of drawbacks. For a long time, hydrogen technologies, especially in the automobile industry, involved extracting impossible quantities of rare metals such as platinum – which remains essential in fuel cells.
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Hydrogen, an increasingly credible energy
But fortunately the latest technological developments now make it possible to drastically reduce the use of platinum. Finally, this allows industrial production to be considered. In addition, hydrogen remains expensive to produce, especially with clean energy. It also presents a significant explosion hazard due to its incredible energy density and the fact that it “barks at flame” in the presence of oxygen – in other words, detonates easily. But again, technological advances in recent years make it possible to consider safe storage and its use in a wide range of devices.
And for once Europe seems to be taking a step ahead. As Bloomberg reminds us, the European Union has planned a colossal budget of 470 billion euros to develop the infrastructure necessary for the sector on the continent as part of the latest stimulus plan. And in the world, projects to produce hydrogen have multiplied since 2020. “It’s country against country to secure market share”, says Gero Farrugio, manager at Rystad Energy. And to continue: “We call it ‘the hydrogen wars’ because of the way governments are racing to subsidize these projects, to be a leader”.
Rystad Energy is one of the players in this new El Dorado of hydrogen. The firm has planned a series of projects around the world totaling some 60 gigawatts – a majority of which have been announced this year. Among the great powers, Only Trump’s United States is staying away from hydrogen for the time being. The tenant of the White House has indeed rather gone against the grain of global awareness of climate in the world. By withdrawing from the Paris agreements, and by relaunching investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Europe is taking a step ahead
Europe, for its part, intends to quickly acquire a 40 gigawatt capacity to produce hydrogen from clean energy by the end of the decade. Some member states like the UK are also developing their own strategy. And the production of production equipment is in full swing with a explosion in the number of electrolysers produced. The old continent benefits from several favorable winds. Substantial renewable energy capacity, in particular offshore wind power in the north-west area. An interest of the European automotive sector which seeks to acquire hydrogen engines.
And the pressure from shareholders of fossil fuel leaders like Shell in the Netherlands – which now plans to produce hydrogen in its refineries. The big industrial players are also getting started. Airbus wants to develop an aircraft that flies on hydrogen. ArcelorMittal is developing a pilot project near Hamburg where production will use 100% hydrogen rather than fossil fuels. To this is added the voluntarism of the authorities in Europe – the sector cannot really develop at this stage without significant subsidies.
China also wants its share of a pie worth more than 600 billion euros
Gold, in front of Europe, there are the ambitions of China. Xi Jinping surprised the planet by announcing that China would become carbon neutral by 2060. To succeed, the country is building infrastructure with all its might. In particular, a gigantic fleet of wind turbines and solar panels in Inner Mongolia, to produce hydrogen. The Chinese leader in fossil fuels Sinopec also announced at the end of October its intention to become a major player in hydrogen in the world, while already being the national leader.
In addition, China is already the largest manufacturer of electrolysers, essential equipment for extracting hydrogen from water. In this regard, the country can rely on lower labor and raw material costs than in Europe. China’s ambition is to produce up to 500 megawatts of hydrogen production equipment each year as a first step. Enough to weigh in a market estimated at 600 billion euros by 2050.
A consultant David Hart quoted by Bloomberg points out: “A lot of important steps to position itself on hydrogen will take place before the end of the decade. Not moving right now puts you in a much more complicated and costly position ”. The consultant adds: “There is such inertia in so many places and applications. It is no longer a question of wondering what is a Fuel Cell or if hydrogen is a safe energy. But where we have to spend our first hundreds of millions ”, he concludes.