Can Germany Become a Hydrogen Superpower?

Can Germany Become a Hydrogen Superpower?

Europe is pivoting away from Russian natural gas to hydrogen. Germany’s role will be key.

In Ancient Rome, roads converged on Italy. In 21st-century Europe, new hydrogen pipelines to ensure European energy security will lead to Germany.

The corridors represent a grand endeavor designed to facilitate the production, importation, and transportation across Europe of hydrogen. They will form the backbone of a revolutionary pivot away from dependence on Russian gas. Hydrogen can complement intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar power, providing a reliable energy supply.

The goal is ambitious: to enable the transportation of a total of 20 million tons of this gas per year by 2030. Six supply corridors that would be directly or indirectly connected to Germany. These corridors consist of pipelines, production and storage facilities, port terminals, and shipping lanes across seas, rivers, and land. Initially, the corridors will connect local supply and demand in different parts of Europe, before expanding and connecting Europe with neighboring regions. One of them, the Central European Hydrogen Corridor (CEHC), would pump this gas from Ukraine.

Germany needs an alternative to gas, given its large energy-intensive industries and its plans to phase out coal and lignite plants. H2 MOBILITY Germany is building a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations. Gasunie and Thyssengas are setting up this gas’s transportation infrastructure connecting Germany’s North Sea coast with the industrial Ruhr Valley. This “hydrogen core network” aims to repurpose existing gas infrastructure and is meant to be completed by 2032.

Despite this progress, Germany’s ambitious energy plans still must overcome serious obstacles. Hydrogen can cause embrittlement in certain materials such as steel and cast iron out of which natural gas pipelines are typically made, leading to safety risks and pipeline degradation. Careful selection of pipeline materials, coatings, and design are required to mitigate this risk.

Another challenge is building out Europe’s hydrogen production capacity – while avoiding being undercut by China. Electrolyzers use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Europe has traditionally held a strong position in the electrolyzer manufacturing industry, home to six out of the ten largest electrolyzer manufacturers. But Europe also used to be the world’s leader in solar power manufacturing, until cheap Chinese panels swept the market. Europe’s hydrogen strategy aims to maintain the region’s competitive strengths in electrolyzer manufacturing.

Investment and innovation also are required to boost hydrogen storage. New solutions such as underground caverns or innovative hydrogen carriers are needed.

If these challenges are met, demand for hydrogen will skyrocket. Germany alone will need to import around 50% – 70% of the energy it needs, forecast at 95 – 130 TWh in 2030. Denmark is eyeing production of 6GW, with most of the production exported to Germany via a hydrogen pipeline that will be operational in 2028. The UK’s leading electrolyzer manufacturer ITM Power, has set up a production site in Germany to bypass post-Brexit regulatory hurdles. Other countries might follow suit. Germany’s growing demand for hydrogen could incentivize hydrogen producers and exporters in my homeland, Poland.

Germany’s ambitious hopes could suck in imports from friendlier countries such as Namibia, Oman, or Kazakhstan, for which some of Europe’s hydrogen corridors are designed. By leading the way in hydrogen innovation and deployment, Germany can influence international standards and regulations.

Hydrogen is destined to play a pivotal role in Europe’s green transition. If Germany dominates, Berlin will gain great sway over the continent’s energy policy, worrying some neighbors But Germany’s central location makes it fit to serve as a hydrogen hub. It has the political will and economic strength to drive a European hydrogen revolution. Success will foster an interconnected, resilient European energy system, free of Russian influence.

Maciej Filip Bukowski is a 2022 CEPA James S. Denton fellow, a 2023 International Republican Institute Transatlantic Security Initiative fellow, and currently a senior international analysis expert at BGK, a Polish development bank. A graduate of Sorbonne and Cornell law schools, he is completing a Ph.D. thesis at the Jagiellonian University on the geopolitics of climate change.

Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

By Maciej Bukowski, March 12, 2024