If Europe’s objective is the full decarbonisation of the energy system by 2050, energy vectors will be key to integrating vast capacities of renewable energy. In this context, hydrogen is a necessary solution for the reduction of emissions in sectors that are very difficult to decarbonize but have a strong impact on climate.
These include transport, freight logistics, industrial heating, and industry feedstock. Moreover, hydrogen can play an important role in the decarbonisation of the gas grid and power production, maximizing the use of renewable energy sources.
The European framework envisaged by the Green Deal puts hydrogen at the centre in the fight for clean, secure and affordable energy, and underlines priority areas such as “clean hydrogen, fuel cells and other alternative fuels, energy storage and carbon capture, storage and use”.
To achieve these goals, hydrogen production is required on a large scale. The Hydrogen Roadmap Europe shows that to meet the objectives Europe needs to generate approximately 2,250 terawatt hours (TWh) of hydrogen in 2050, representing roughly 24% of total energy demand.
A McKinsey study in Italy showed similar results; hydrogen could supply as much as 23% the total energy consumption by 2050, with very high potential in transport, building construction and industrial applications.
There are still challenges, however. Firstly, costs are currently too high to provide the same technological performance as traditional applications. To date, more than 90% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuel sources, which are the cheapest form of production.
Lowering costs is one of the most important objectives in fully exploiting hydrogen’s potential. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) report “The future of Hydrogen” states that the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity could be lowered by one third by scaling up production and with a lower cost of renewables.
The future is not far off though; producing green hydrogen from renewable sources in suitable sites with excess energy production and a proximity to the end users could soon become cheaper than traditional production.
In Italy, where there is good availability of renewable energy, green hydrogen may soon arrive at break-even point using grey hydrogen from natural gas. This means Italy is a suitable place to start the deployment and scale-up of electrolysis for industrial use.
Integration of renewables will also not be possible without large-scale storage solutions which can function for large quantities and for long periods of time. In this regard, hydrogen is a high energy density storage medium, suitable for seasonal storage. It allows the connection of energy networks, such as gas electricity grids through power to gas solutions, and other forms of conversion that enable the use of extra production from renewable energy in many areas such as transport, industry and buildings.
Italy’s national gas transmission network is also a strategic asset, and could offer large-scale seasonal storage capable of receiving quantities of energy for long periods.
Hydrogen produced from renewable sources and blended with methane, and potentially transported in its pure form in dedicated pipelines, would not only allow decarbonisation of various sectors such as industry and residential, but would transform the gas network into a buffer to store energy excess.
The lack of a clear regulatory and legislation framework, however, is also a barrier to development, and is hindering the path to commercial application. The role of certification bodies such as RINA will be crucial. For the hydrogen sector to develop, it will be necessary to build a regulatory-legislative-technical framework of reference, enabling investments and validating applications.
H2IT, the Italian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association created in 2005, is committed to gathering stakeholders from the entire value chain from production to end use, and our members are playing an important role in opening the market for hydrogen applications.
Italy’s whole industrial sector is exploring opportunities. At the Hydrogen Table launched by the Ministry of Economic Development in June 2019, more than 30 Italian hydrogen projects for 2020 were presented.
Industry is supported by internationally renowned research centres, whose strength is demonstrated by the strong Italian presence in European projects financed by the FCH JU (Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking). In 13 years of the program, Italy has been involved in 140 projects with €98 million of funding.
Thus, Italy can be considered a leader in several reference sectors of the hydrogen supply chain: production, logistics and transport, end use in transport, industry and residential.