When Napoleon’s armies marched past Clos de Vougeot, in order to honour this great Burgundy wine, Napoleon wanted his soldiers to march at a walk. The European Parliament does not seem to have the same interest in things of value as Bonaparte, since it confuses discounted wine with great wine. But it is not oenology that is at stake here, but hydrogen.
The European Parliament has just decided that some gas pipelines in the EU will, until 2027, still be able to benefit from a “project of common interest” label, a label that demonstrates their strategic interest and allows them to have easier access to bank financing and to benefit from exemptions to EU competition rules. The ongoing energy price crisis shows how crucial natural gas supply is for our economy, but even more so for heating. It cannot be stressed enough that about half of the final energy we use in the EU is for heating purposes. If we do not lose this strong reality, which will remain inescapable for a long time to come, we will understand that it is not wind turbines or solar panels that will make it possible to do without natural gas. MEPs have understood this and have therefore allowed the pipelines needed to complete the gas interconnections launched by the Junkers Commission to receive the stamp of a project of common interest. However, in order to calm down the furious environmental NGOs that do not want to hear about fossil fuels at all, the parliament has assigned to this possibility the obligation to transport hydrogen mixed with methane, without specifying the percentage of hydrogen that the natural gas must contain. And this is where the comparison between a great wine and a mediocre wine will help us to understand what we are talking about.
Depleting natural gas with hydrogen
In the French edition of my book “The hydrogen illusion”, I titled the section that deals with this idea “Enriching natural gas with hydrogen”. The hydrogen molecule being so noble, I naturally chose this title without giving it much thought. It was only when I was working on the English version that I realised the mistake and titled it “Depleting natural gas with hydrogen”. Let’s see why.
The idea is not new. The European Commission’s EUR12610 report proposed it already in 1990: “In a transitional period, hydrogen could be added to natural gas and the mixture transmitted through existing pipelines. However, it should be borne in mind that the existing methane pipeline system is not optimised for blending. In fact, hydrogen has a volumetric calorific value equal to about one third that of methane. Cesare Marchetti, a brilliant European civil servant physicist, had proposed this even earlier, in 1973: “That is why, at a conference in Moscow, I made a bold proposal, namely to reform some of the methane that Russian sales to Europe along the way by using nuclear energy. By mixing hydrogen with the distributed methane, the network would distribute hydrogen throughout Europe. But he proposed to do it with the nuclear energy, the energy that the European institutions hate today despite there is a treaty still in force addressing specifically it.
Now Germany – the country that is leading us into the EnergieKatastrophe – is proposing to use hydrogen-enriched natural gas (HENG). Hydrogen would be mixed with the natural gas, in a proportion of 5 to 20% to take account of the safety standards in force, as there are objective reasons why large quantities cannot be injected (metal embrittlement). However, hydrogen in gaseous form has a calorific value one third that of methane (10.8 MJ/m³ compared to 35.8 MJ/m³). Adding 20% hydrogen to the gas network would decrease the calorific value of the mixture to 30.8 MJ/m³, a 14% loss in calorific value, while reducing its CO₂ emissions by 20%. In this context, the question that would naturally arise is how to incentivise gas suppliers and end users to use a leaner gas.
The EU imports natural gas mainly from Gazprom, the Russian gas export monopoly (~40%). They claim to be developing the pyrolysis of natural gas using a plasma torch producing hydrogen and carbon black. Of course, the torch will require large amounts of electricity. Since Russia is not a champion of renewable energy, it is certain that the energy to break down the methane into hydrogen will come from… from natural gas. The process therefore consists of:
Methane ➔ hydrogen ➔ methane
This cannot be rationally envisaged, as it would mean adding a high value-added product (produced from methane!) to cheap methane. In fact, currently almost 90% of the hydrogen produced in the world (130 million tonnes per year) comes from the reforming of natural gas. This is the simplest and cheapest method and uses seven times less energy than water electrolysis.
So they hope to produce – probably in Russia, but the European Parliament doesn’t say so – hydrogen from (Russian) natural gas and then dilute it in… natural gas.
The EU imports natural gas from Norway, which is a leader in green electricity production, not because of solar and wind power, but because of its exceptionally high hydroelectric potential. This allows Norway to export almost all of its natural gas production, with domestic use being completely electricity-based and aluminium production as well. With their drive to develop electric vehicles, it is highly unlikely that they will produce enough green electricity to have sufficient quantities to produce hydrogen for dilution in the natural gas they export.
The other major supplier of natural gas to the EU is Algeria, but Algeria produces 0.6 TWh of renewable energy, under a thousand times less than the EU. So thinking about importing green hydrogen is not even an illusion.
The Louis Vuitton handbags burning
At the end what the EU parliament is asking, it would be like adding a great wine – say Chateau Petrus or Clos de Vougeot – to discounted wine to get rid of it, which is rather surreal. Can anyone imagine that Gazprom would prefer to sell hydrogen at the price of natural gas when it would get a higher price selling it to the petrochemical industry anywhere in the world? The main use of hydrogen is the production of ammonia, which is used to produce fertiliser to feed the world’s growing population. And they are seriously thinking of burning this molecule made from methane to heat themselves? It’s like – to stay with the luxury goods analogy – burning Louis Vuitton handbags for heat.
Converting natural gas to produce hydrogen for injection into a pipeline carrying natural gas is not only chemically and economically nonsensical, but also ethically wrong because the growing population means more hydrogen production to produce fertiliser to feed the population – vegan or not.
When you lose sight of scientific principles – in this case those of industrial chemistry – you are being ideological. It is time, as I explained in my book “The Hydrogen illusion“, for the EU to abandon this dream, which the European Commission studied in all its aspects in the 1970s and 1990s.
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