EU readies first ideas on hydrogen fuel dream
Author: Jeremy Smith
European car and energy firms have joined forces in a group founded by the European Commission to keep the EU's hydrogen firms on track with rivals in Japan and the United States.
Both the EU and the United States have voiced ambitions to move to a "hydrogen economy" where the carbon-free gas is used in fuel cells to create electricity that one day could replace oil as the main propellant for cars.
For the European Commission, the goal is for renewable energy sources to meet 12 percent of the EU's needs by 2010, as well as contributing 22 percent of its electricity. Hydrogen, a potential source of energy, is key to hitting the target.
Most hydrogen is produced on a large scale by reforming natural gas, using steam. This is an energy-intensive process and requires temperatures of up to 900 Celsius, so nuclear power has been suggested as a source of cheap heat.
Hydrogen can also be thermochemically generated from water decomposed by nuclear heat at high temperature. In addition, the light gas is a by-product from oil refining or electrolysis
The group's draft report, which has Thursday as a deadline for comments and objections, concludes that fossil fuels are likely to be the main source for hydrogen generation in the short term. In the longer term, nuclear power could be used.
"Early on, these resources will probably be fossil fuels, with their widespread availability and low prices. Successful carbon sequestration techniques would allow fossil hydrogen to be used on a large scale with limited greenhouse gas emissions," said the draft report.
As renewable energy technologies matured and costs continued to fall, more hydrogen would come from renewable sources, it said. In the distant future, hydrogen might be produced from a wide range of resources and sent through pipelines to end-users.
"In the longer term, nuclear energy could provide large amounts of cheap hydrogen, complementing the renewable energy sources," said the report.
Environmental groups favour hydrogen as a green fuel of the future because gram for gram, it produces more energy than any other substance and produces only water and energy when burnt.
But the idea of using fossil fuels and nuclear power in order to generate it has, unsurprisingly, raised their hackles.
"It's not an efficient or cost-effective way (to use fossil fuels and nuclear power). It doesn't make sense at all," said Oliver Raps, environment and climate change officer at the World Wildlife Fund's Europe Policy unit in Brussels.
"All the investments that would have to be taken are long term. If you build the facilities for doing this, you won't build them only for 10 years and shut them down. The life-cycles in these industries are usually between 30 and 50 years.
The Commission plans to spend close to 2.1 billion euros ($2.30 billion) on hydrogen-related research over the next four years, up from about 120 million over the last four. It will hold a conference on hydrogen fuel in June, where the proposal will be presented. "This is a draft report and not final. It's true that nuclear and coal are mentioned," said a senior Commission official. "They (the group) consider coal and nuclear energy as being one possible source for hydrogen."
"The idea is that the development of hydrogen could be supported in the first stage by fossil fuels - then it would facilitate the transition to renewables in the longer term."