By Frédéric Simon
(EurActiv) — Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have issued a joint letter calling on the European Union to clearly prioritise renewable energies under an EU-led project aiming to accelerate hydrogen deployment, research and infrastructure.
The European Union launched on Thursday (17 December) a hydrogen “important project of common European interest”, or IPCEI, with 23 European countries signing a manifesto paving the way for a cleaner hydrogen value chain.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier chaired Thursday’s launch event, which saw Norway and 22 other European countries signing a declaration of intent, or manifesto, in support of the initiative.
However, the five EU countries see the move with scepticism, warning the initiative must not be used as a backdoor to finance fossil gas infrastructure.
“Spain bets exclusively on renewable hydrogen, and considers that EU funds and regulatory support to renewable hydrogen should be prioritised before low-carbon hydrogen, produced with natural gas (blue hydrogen) or nuclear,” an EU source told EURACTIV.
The European Commission sees hydrogen as “a vital missing piece of the puzzle” to achieve deeper decarbonisation in industries like steelmaking and chemicals, which cannot be electrified entirely.
“Clean hydrogen will help our European industries decarbonise, be resilient and stay globally competitive,” said Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market Commissioner, who was present at the launch event.
Hydrogen: “renewable” or “low-carbon”?
EU member states have squabbled over the past weeks about which type of hydrogen to support, with two opposing camps facing off: those backing green hydrogen produced exclusively from renewable electricity, and those in favour of a broader “low-carbon” definition, which also includes nuclear power and decarbonised gases.
Supporters of “blue” hydrogen say natural gas will be needed in the short term to ramp up production volumes and grow the EU’s hydrogen market, which is currently tiny.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, sought to clarify the Commission’s approach, saying regulatory support will be targeted only for projects that can make a significant contribution to the EU’s long-term climate goals.
“Developing technologies for low-carbon and, in particular, green hydrogen, and building the necessary infrastructure for its deployment, will take us one step closer to making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050,” she said in a speech at the launch event.
IPCEIs were set up in 2014 and allow EU member states to subsidise high-risk cross-border research and innovation, as well as infrastructure projects, without having to observe the EU’s normally strict state aid rules.
“No member state or business can do this alone,” Vestager stressed. “That’s why it makes sense for European governments to come together to support such important projects of common European interest, if the market alone would not take the risk. And it is why we have put special state aid rules in place to smooth the way.”
But the five EU countries are worried that the new hydrogen IPCEI will be used to support “low-carbon” hydrogen made from natural gas or nuclear power.
They say they signed up to the manifesto – but only “with the understanding that this initiative should exclusively refer to hydrogen from renewable energy sources since we consider this technology as the only long-term sustainable solution to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.”
“Projects within an IPCEI must respect the principle of the phasing out of environmental harmful subsidies,” the signatories of the letter wrote. “Therefore, an IPCEI on hydrogen must only be eligible when produced from renewable sources, where a clear market gap is identified,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by the environment ministers of Austria (Leonore Gewessler), Denmark (Dan Jørgensen), Luxembourg (Claude Turmes), Portugal (João Pedro Matos Fernandes) and Spain (Teresa Ribera Rodríguez).
They were supported in their move by environmental groups, which have expressed doubts about the EU’s hydrogen manifesto.
“This initiative must not become a cover to throw public money into fossil fuels,” said Rita Tedesco from ECOS, a pressure group specialised in green standards.
“Any public support must only be directed to hydrogen produced 100% from renewable sources. The Commission needs to watch this closely, making sure that the renewable origin of publicly-backed hydrogen is certified through a credible certification system.”
“All other types of hydrogen must be excluded from public support, including so-called ‘low-carbon hydrogen’, which increases the risk of greenwashing and would only bring fossil fuels through the backdoor’,” Tedesco said.