Green hydrogen energy could be the answer for the last mile of decarbonisation

Isabel Geppert has had one professional goal for more than a decade: to cut carbon emissions from the energy sector and the wider economy as much as possible.

“I was always interested in the diverse opportunities we have to transform our energy system and achieve sustainable livelihoods,” says Geppert, who leads an ambitious green hydrogen investment project for the German government. “I came across green hydrogen ten 10 years ago at university. Nowadays, it is becoming popular, but it was very niche a decade ago.”

Geppert is an energy transition specialist in the Paris office of GIZ, or Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, the German agency in charge of development investment worldwide. In late 2021, Germany signed an agreement with the European Investment Bank to work as a team on a Green Hydrogen Trust Fund. The EU bank and GIZ will start using the fund in 2022 to help countries around the world use green hydrogen. Germany contributed €25 million to the fund, and more donations from other countries are welcome.

“Green hydrogen is an option for the last mile of decarbonisation of sectors that are hard to abate,” Geppert says. “Green hydrogen can have positive implications, not only for climate, but also for other development goals.”

The good and the bad

 There are many different ways to make hydrogen, some good and some bad for the environment. “Green hydrogen” is created using electricity from renewable sources to split hydrogen from water. “Brown hydrogen” is made by burning coal to do the same work and accounts for more than 90% of global hydrogen production.

To achieve a carbon-neutral world by the middle of the century, as envisaged in the Paris Agreement, we must dramatically cut emissions. Green hydrogen is seen by many people as key to the achievement of these goals. The new hydrogen fund will provide technical assistance to help countries integrate green hydrogen into their national climate plans and to identify hydrogen projects.

The hydrogen fund is part of a group of funds at the European Investment Bank known as trust funds. The Bank creates these funds to increase development support outside Europe and to give individual EU countries a way to meet their global investment goals. The funds support specific sectors or themes, such as water, small businesses, climate change. The funds are run by EIB Global, the EU bank’s development branch.

GIZ is already helping Morocco and Chile develop hydrogen plans. In Morocco, GIZ is working to develop a high-volume production facility for green hydrogen that could serve many parts of Africa. It also helped the country create a roadmap for developing a green hydrogen economy. GIZ helped Chile adopt a national green hydrogen strategy and make plans potentially to produce green hydrogen for its own use and for export.

Renewable energy gaps

To reach our climate goals, we need a big increase in electricity from renewable sources. It is not possible with current technology to make enough green electricity to replace fossil fuels (in particular for the chemical and steel industries). Green hydrogen has immense potential to serve these other parts of the economy.

Many people don’t understand the challenges or the opportunities of hydrogen. There are still a lot of barriers to wide-spread hydrogen use and a big need for education in the sector. A wide variety of sectors are not prepared to use hydrogen, and green hydrogen is expensive to make. Many countries don’t have the renewable energy supply to make green hydrogen. Others lack policies to help the public and private sectors invest in hydrogen production and use.

Geppert, the GIZ official, cautions that green hydrogen is no silver bullet. It’s not easy to transport it in sustainable ways and a lot of energy is lost when hydrogen is made.

There are solutions to these challenges, but they need more research and development. Wherever possible, electricity from green sources must be the priority, she says, but when this isn’t available, green hydrogen is a good alternative.