“Green” recovery of Ukraine: prospects for the use of hydrogen in transport

Hydrogen can be considered a universal fuel for vehicles, as it has absolute environmental friendliness, can replace gasoline, diesel fuel and fuel oil in all types of heat engines. Europe has already included hydrogen in its “green strategy” for the continent’s carbon-free future. Ukraine should also pay attention to this latest type of fuel.

Are all types of hydrogen sustainable and environmentally friendly? What are the prospects and problems of using this type of fuel in the transport sector? How can Ukraine use the country’s reconstruction period to facilitate the spread of hydrogen transport in the country?

The transition to a green hydrogen economy was enshrined in the European Hydrogen Strategy, which is part of the legal basis for the European Green Course (EPC), adopted by the European Parliament in 2020. Its overall goal is to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050, to protect biodiversity, and to green the economy. The foundations and directions of the development of EHR are laid down in the communiqué.

By synchronizing its policy with the EU, Ukraine intends to achieve climate neutrality by 2060. To support the development of the hydrogen industry and to implement the approved Hydrogen Strategy, in July 2020 the European Commission established the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance.

In Ukraine, the Hydrogen Strategy is still under development, but the National Transport Strategy, the Energy Development Strategy and the Roadmap for Widespread Hydrogen Energy Implementation in Ukraine provide a strong strategic basis for policies aimed at increasing the share of renewable energy in transport, based on biofuels, electricity and hydrogen. At the level of technical norms in Ukraine, such issues as the quality of hydrogen fuel, basic concepts on the safety of hydrogen systems and the use of hydrogen generators using water electrolysis are already regulated.

What are the types of hydrogen by climatic influence?

Renewable electricity is expected to decarbonise much of the EU’s energy by 2050, in particular through the spread of hydrogen energy. It is important to remember that the types of hydrogen are different in terms of production methods and, consequently, in terms of environmental friendliness.

Grey hydrogen is formed from fossil fuels and coal and accounts for about 95% of the hydrogen produced in the world today. Unfortunately, in the process of its production greenhouse gases are formed.

The most promising are 2 types of hydrogen: blue and green. Blue is made from fossil fuels, but in the process is carbon capture. Green is produced from renewable energy sources by dividing water into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom through the process of electrolysis. Green hydrogen is called “pure hydrogen” and it is the most promising in terms of decarbonisation of various sectors, including transport.

Yellow hydrogen obtained with the help of nuclear power plant electricity is also singled out. Proponents of nuclear energy insist that yellow hydrogen can be as environmentally friendly as green.

What are the challenges for the development of hydrogen energy?

There are currently 300 electrolysers operating within the EU, producing less than 4% of total hydrogen. Europe’s goal by 2050 is to achieve a 13% share of hydrogen energy in the union’s energy balance. There are currently several challenges to achieving this goal.

First, the need for space. Solar and wind energy, during the formation of which hydrogen is produced, is more “scattered” than fossil fuel energy, and it must be “collected” over a large area. That is why the new German government coalition, which came to power in late 2021, has reserved 2% of the country’s territory for the construction of wind turbines.

New wind and solar power plants, as well as high-voltage power lines, often lead to conflicts due to their impact on the landscape, biodiversity or health of local people. The location of wind farms at sea, in turn, provokes protests from the fishing industry.

Secondly, the need for materials. Renewable energy infrastructure, including wind turbines, solar panels and power lines, requires materials, especially metals. The spread of renewable energy sources increases the demand for iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, chromium, manganese. However, the world’s reserves of some ores, in particular copper, are already depleting. There will come a time when copper mining will require so much electricity, water, materials or land that the process will cause unacceptable environmental damage.

The EU is heavily dependent on imports of most of the metals it uses for renewable energy. Among the necessary for electrolysis are nickel, zirconium and platinum group of metals. In the platinum group, in particular, iridium is isolated, one of the rarest metals in the world, which involves such a type of electrolysis that best copes with fluctuations in the supply of renewable electricity. If it becomes the dominant form of electrolysis, the EU may need more iridium in 2030 than is currently being extracted worldwide.

In addition to metals, the formation of green hydrogen requires demineralised fresh water in the proportion of 9 litres of water to produce 1 kg of hydrogen. In sun-rich regions that are well suited for hydrogen production, fresh water is often lacking. This shortage will increase due to the effects of climate change. Under these conditions, it would be good for green hydrogen producers to establish where seawater can be used, while treating desalination waste responsibly.

The third challenge is the need for infrastructure. Estimates of how much green hydrogen the EU will need vary widely. Some scenarios indicate the production of 10 million tons of hydrogen energy – the amount that the European Commission wants to reach by 2030, and which will be enough to meet the EU demand.

Other experts predict that demand will grow much faster and reach 70 million tons by 2050. The lack of consensus complicates the work of governments and private operators to plan the necessary infrastructure for the transition to green hydrogen energy. Where should the new hydrogen pipelines be laid? What parts of the grid need to be reinforced to get enough electricity for the cells? This uncertainty is currently delaying the development of all hydrogen energy in the EU.

What are the prospects for the use of hydrogen fuel for different modes of transport?

Hydrogen vehicles can overcome the disadvantages of electric vehicles with a low range and the need for frequent charging. This requires the full use of cheap electricity to convert water into hydrogen. It is forecasted that in the next 5 years the production of fuel cell vehicles will develop on a large scale. To accomplish this task, it is necessary to optimise equipment for hydrogen production, develop new materials for storage of high-density hydrogen and optimise hydrogen fuel cells.

Currently, there are the following private cars on hydrogen fuel cells: Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo, and Honda Clarity. BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover are incorporating hydrogen into their future strategies. Water cars are attractive to the buyer because of the short refuelling time and large power reserve.

Hydrogen fuel cell bus is a very efficient public transport with zero emissions. It also effectively solves disadvantages of electric vehicles with short mileage and long charging time. It is expected to quickly replace traditional diesel and electric buses.

In Ukraine, more than half of passenger traffic is performed by buses, while the fleet of large buses has 90% exhausted its resource, and minibuses engaged in urban transportation do not meet modern environmental requirements. To distribute hydrogen buses in our country, it is necessary to develop a program for the transition of urban and interurban transport to use green hydrogen and create networks of hydrogen filling stations on major highways.

New EU emission standards for heavy road vehicles increase the need for zero-emission trucks. Companies like Renault are already starting mass production of electric trucks and say that by 2025, 10% of all trucks they sell will be electric.

However, the bet is not only on electric trucks. It is expected that a combination of modern “green” technologies will be used to decarbonise the heavy road transport sector, with green hydrogen playing a crucial role. Hydrogen trucks will be cost-effective by 2027 if hydrogen production increases rapidly. Electric vehicles are expected to play a greater role in short-haul traffic.

In general, in 2050, most heavy road transport will run on water and electricity. It is estimated that by 2050, 35% of trucks in the EU will be electric, 55% will run on hydrogen and 10% on biomethane.

Hydrogen has prospects in the railway industry, especially in its non-electrified sections. About 20% of railways in Europe are still served by diesel locomotives. It is estimated that hydrogen trains may well compete with them in terms of costs. A separate European initiative, Shift2Rail, is currently supporting the expansion of their use.

Since 2013, Alstom has been developing hydrogen-powered locomotive technology. At the end of 2018, two trains on hydrogen fuel cells of its production were launched in Germany, and the launch of 14 such trains in 2021 was also announced.

In 2019, the first HydroFlex hydrogen train was also tested in the UK. The government has decided to completely get rid of diesel locomotives by 2040, and trains running on hydrogen fuel cells could be an alternative.

Aviation is currently the second largest source of harmful transport emissions after road transport. Despite the increase in fuel efficiency of the industry, which took place from 2005 to 2017, the increase in the number of air traffic still leads to an increase in CO₂ emissions.

The use of hydrogen to decarbonise aviation is quite promising. The hydrogen engine is best suited for suburban, regional, short-range and medium-sized aircraft. Compared to conventional aircraft, operating costs increase by only $5-10 per passenger.

In September 2020, Airbus announced that hydrogen-fuelled engines would form the basis of a new generation of zero-emission commercial aircraft. The ZeroE project is the flagship of the European Union’s multibillion-dollar stimulus package aimed at greening the economy and the aviation industry. As part of it, the company has developed concepts for three aircraft with hydrogen engines, production of which may begin by 2035.

As 90% of world trade is by sea, shipping is a major factor in climate change. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) predicts that business as usual could lead to a 50% increase in harmful emissions by 2050 due to increased maritime trade.

Instead, the IMO is currently setting a target of 50% emission reductions by 2050. WEF experts have estimated the scale of investment needed to achieve the IMO target for 2050 at 1-1.4 trillion dollars. In particular, nine large multinational companies, including Amazon, Ikea, Michelin, Inditex (Zara) and Unilever, have promised to switch to sea transport only by zero-carbon ships by 2040.

The decarbonisation of the shipping industry will require significant investment in green technologies and alternative fuels. Today, shipowners are encouraged to switch to existing low-carbon fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and biofuels. However, recent research on green fuels suggests that ammonia, methanol, and hydrogen will play an important role in the future of the shipping sector.

How should the world and Ukraine stimulate the development of hydrogen transport?

Hydrogen and hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels are projected to account for 2% of total energy demand in the transport sector in 2030, 13% in 2040 and 25% in 2050. Unfortunately, the rate of increase in green hydrogen production is limited. This fuel will be in short supply for a long time to come, so green industrial policy must take this into account.

Until green hydrogen becomes commercially attractive, it is anticipated that the development of this sector will be stimulated at European and national levels. The cost of its production will decrease in the next 10 years, but the issues of its transportation and storage still remain the main “puzzle” to be solved. In particular, the development of a network of hydrogen filling stations is needed for further progress.

According to NASU experts, Ukraine has significant natural potential for renewable energy production, which also allows it to produce hydrogen. The total potential of the average annual production of green hydrogen in our country is about 505 billion cubic meters. According to forecasts, with a favourable government policy, Ukraine is able to produce 1 billion cubic meters of renewable hydrogen by 2030, and by 2040 this figure could increase to 5 billion cubic meters.

The territory of Ukraine can become a platform for hydrogen production not only for its own needs in clean energy, but also for export to the EU market. For the development of the hydrogen fuel industry in Ukraine, first of all, state support is needed in the form of legislation harmonised with European norms and transparent rules when obtaining the necessary permits.

Various steps are already being taken by the state to develop the hydrogen transportation and storage system in Ukraine. In particular, the gas transmission system operator currently sees the Ukrainian main gas pipeline Progress as promising for the transportation of a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas. Naftogaz and Ukrtransgaz, in turn, have already joined the H2EU + Store initiative. It provides for the production of green hydrogen from RES in western Ukraine with the possibility of its storage in Ukrainian gas storage facilities. It is also planned in the future to export this fuel by gas pipelines to the EU, pump it into underground storage facilities in Austria and sell it to consumers in Central Europe.

The material is published on online-portal