“Green” hydrogen fuels Franco-German nuclear tensions

In Europe, the nuclear issue continues to crystallize tensions. Some thought that the decision made a few months ago to include the atom in taxonomy, this European classification of activities labeled as “sustainable”, had shut down the debates for a while. This was despite persistent opposition from several Member States. Because for a few days the European Union has focused on the role that this low-carbon technology will play in the production of hydrogen (H2), an energy vector considered crucial for the decarbonisation of industry and mobility. Two visions collide: while France asks that its nuclear contribution be recognized, Berlin wants to put it together with hydrocarbons despite its low impact on the climate. And so he refuses to label hydrogen generated from electrons of nuclear origin as “green.”

In fact, on the other side of the Rhine, public authorities decided more than ten years ago to phase out the atom, following the Fukushima disaster. They now promise to reach 100% renewable energy in their electricity mix by 2030, up from around 40% today.

For France, only the carbon content of hydrogen counts

But for its part, France wants to take advantage of the already low-carbon mix offered by its nuclear reactors to develop its “green” H2 molecules. Thus, in a letter sent a few days ago to the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, the French Minister for the Energy Transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, asks to put hydro, wind, photovoltaic and uranium fission.

“The texts currently under negotiation […] do not allow low-carbon hydrogen and renewable hydrogen to be used in the same way, even if they are identical when it comes to Europe’s energy independence. […] Only the carbon content of the produced hydrogen counts, and not the production vector,” he writes in particular.

With its 56 nuclear reactors, France could well ” produce hydrogen much more massively “, way to ” build sovereignty country’s energy, Emmanuel Macron himself had specified at the end of last year. ” We will never have enough renewable energy [sur notre territoire] to produce green hydrogen“, he had insisted.

The origin of electricity determines sustainability

To understand this, you have to look at how hydrogen is produced. Today, almost 96% of what is generated in Europe comes directly from fossil fuels, via steam reforming of the methane molecule (CH4) present in the gas, which emits 9 to 10 kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen.

Therefore, to create a “sustainable” version, it is necessary to do it in another way: to break a molecule of water (H2O) through a process called electrolysis, that is, to separate the O atom from the two H atoms using a current electrical.

What will determine whether the operation can be labeled “clean” or not will therefore be the origin of the electron used. If it comes from coal or gas power plants, the hydrogen will be “gray.” But if it comes from wind, solar or hydro installations, it will be “green”. Therefore, the question of the resulting nuclear fission current remains to be decided, which the French government is pressing to include in the list.

Wind and solar energy would not be enough to power the electrolysers

It must be said that the atom has many advantages. Because the key point to make the low-carbon hydrogen sector profitable against its “grey” (or foreign-produced) counterpart, is to use very abundant and stable electricity, according to the industry. In fact, the production of hydrogen is less expensive when the electricity supply is continuous (minimum threshold of 5,000 hours per year, and optimal up to 8,000 hours/year). However, the nuclear load factor, i.e. the time during which the installation feeds the grid, amounts to an average of 75% in France, compared to 15% for solar, 22% for onshore wind and 38% of offshore wind. .

That is why, even in Germany, intermittent renewable energies will not be enough to generate enough hydrogen at all times, while the goal is to reach ten million tons per year by 2030. Aware of this shortcoming, MEPs also voted in mid of September for the H2 produced from electricity of fossil origin to be considered as ” renewable ‘…as long as a wind turbine or solar panel has produced an equivalent amount of current somewhere in Europe in the last three months. A legislative sleight of hand that allows the “grey” to become “green”, by exonerating itself from physical realities.

Massive imports VS local production

Above all, several countries that have decided to leave the atom, Belgium and Germany in the lead, intend to rely heavily on massive low-cost imports of hydrogen instead of using nuclear power. At the end of 2021, the governments of Belgium and Namibia notably signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between the two countries in the field of production and import into Europe of “green” hydrogen. As far as Germany is concerned, the national H2 production target renewable » Currently it amounts to only 14 TWh, for an estimated consumption of around 100 TWh in 2030! To receive hydrogen by cargo, Berlin has already put two billion euros of public funds on the table to forge partnerships with Morocco, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even South Africa.

However, for Agnès Pannier-Runacher, such a strategy ” presents substantial risks of leakage of technologies produced in Europe to the detriment of European projects, of competition against these projects, of misappropriation of efforts to decarbonise the electricity mixes of exporting countries, or of importing hydrogen with carbon content, while economic benefit is not acquired and there are several technological blockages “, as the ” compression, conversion or liquefaction of hydrogen for transport, reducing the overall efficiency of the chain “, he underlines in his letter to Kadri Simson. Not to mention that several of the states that would be exporters are in a situation of water stress, despite the fact that electrolysis requires large amounts of water.

European vote this winter

On the subject, the positions seem irreconcilable. Testimony of the MidCat file, this gas pipeline project requested by Madrid and Berlin, which would cross the Pyrenees from Spain to France to allow the Iberian Peninsula to send gas to Germany. Although, according to the German government, this infrastructure should see the light of day to be used for the future import of hydrogen, the argument does not convince the French public authorities.

All the experts tell me that it is a mistake to say that tomorrow a gas pipeline will be able to transport hydrogen. […] They explain to me that it is absurd to transport hydrogen from Spain to France, and that it would rather be necessary to transport low-carbon electricity to carry out the electrolysis directly at the production sites. “, Opposed Emmanuel Macron at the beginning of September.

A firm position that strongly displeases the German Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, president of the European hydrogen lobby Hydrogen Europe and member of the FDP (Liberal Democrat). A few days ago, he accused France of ” don’t make your country free for the flow of hydrogen and therefore not be credible ” for now.

In the face of the energy crisis that is shaking Europe, the lines could change however: in an amendment voted on July 13 in the European Parliament, the German conservative Markus Pieper calls for a revision of the gas directive to define whether nuclear energy could contribute to the production of “green” hydrogen in Europe. The text must be debated during the winter.