ZEIT ONLINE from 29.12.2021

‘In future, hydrogen must be as readily available as tap water’

Sopna Sury interview

Without hydrogen, the energy transition will not succeed, says Sopna Sury, RWE's  first hydrogen director. But where will all the green energy come from?

Politicians and companies are pinning great hopes on green hydrogen when it comes to the question of how Germany can become climate neutral. But breaking down water molecules components using green electricity is expensive, and production methods are in their is in its infancy. The energy transition can only succeed if hydrogen is available in large quantities, says Sopna Sury, who is responsible for the hydrogen strategy at the energy company RWE. The manager warns that, without large infrastructure projects, Germany could be left behind.

ZEIT ONLINE: Ms. Sury, for almost a year now you have been the Board member with responsibility for hydrogen at RWE and the only Board member in Germany with this brief. So the coal company RWE is focusing on the topic with a lot of publicity ...  

Sopna Sury: Oh, you say coal company, but that's no longer accurate. I came into this role because we believe in hydrogen – that's not a marketing gimmick. In the RWE Group, 250 people are  driving the issue forward. Hydrogen is not a side issue, a matter to be experimented with. It is a serious business field.

ZEIT ONLINE: But there is enormous political and economic pressure, also from the financial markets. How voluntary is RWE's commitment?

Sury: There are investors who say: We only want to put our money into companies that stand for the energy transition and transformation. This has nothing to do with political pressure, rather it  reflects the change in society. Interest in climate protection has increased enormously in recent years. RWE's investments in onshore and offshore wind farms now have a tailwind. In the meantime,  renewables are our biggest growth driver. For every euro we invest, we want to invest 90 cents in onshore and offshore wind farms, in solar power, in batteries and, in the future, in hydrogen. If you produce green electricity, the next step is to use it to produce green hydrogen, that is the logic behind our commitment. With hydrogen, we are pursuing a clear business target.

ZEIT ONLINE: This green hydrogen is described by some as the "champagne of the energy transition". Isn't it much too precious and expensive then, to be used on a large scale? 

Sury: We are at the very early stages of production. The manufacturers of electrolysers, in which water molecules are split into hydrogen and oxygen using green electricity, are starting on a very small scale – accordingly, the technology is still very expensive. But hydrogen must be as readily available as tap water in the future. Otherwise, the energy transition in Germany and Europe will not work. The last nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid at the end of 2022 and we will also be phasing out coal over the coming years. So we are losing an elementary component of energy and supply security. If green electricity is to close this gap, we need a reliable means of storing it. And that is hydrogen.

ZEIT ONLINE: But where is all the green energy for this going to come from? To produce enough green hydrogen for a steel mill, you would need several thousand wind turbines of the largest class.

Sury: The expansion of renewable energies must gain momentum. The approval procedures for wind  turbines must become faster – the new federal government's coalition agreement is also clear on this. It must become possible to connect wind farms to the grid more quickly. And there is the question of where wind turbines and solar plants may be located.

ZEIT ONLINE: RWE would actually have enough space in the recultivated areas where they used to mine coal.

Sury: It would be nice if we could build green energy plants everywhere, but unfortunately we no longer own many of these areas, many of which have already been returned to agricultural use.  
Nevertheless, we also see potential in the Rhenish mining district, and there it is especially important to develop areas for renewable energies in order to support the structural change. There are already a number of projects that we have successfully implemented in cooperation with neighbouring municipalities. We want to build on this and  expand our activities. 

"Green hydrogen will become competitive" 

ZEIT ONLINE: You have a classic chicken-and-egg problem: You want to produce and sell hydrogen on a large scale, but you don't have any customers yet. You also have steel mills that have to convert their production processes to hydrogen, but don't even know when you can deliver. How do you want to solve this?

Sury: It's true, you can't just start producing, turn around and say: Oops, who's going to take my hydrogen now? That's why we're looking at the entire value chain. We produce green electricity and hydrogen ourselves. We get the gas grid operators on board to help us deliver the hydrogen to the customers. In parallel, commercial negotiations are  
underway with the steel producers. They, too, are desperate to meet their climate targets, and that  will only work with hydrogen in sufficient quantities.  

ZEIT ONLINE: How much does demand exceed your current supply? It's still tiny.

Sury: It is not a question of producing all the hydrogen that the German industry needs in Germany.  We are already dependent on imports of gas and oil from Russia or Saudi Arabia. In the future, we will also import 70 to 80 per cent of hydrogen.

ZEIT ONLINE: But in this way we are only exchanging a fossil-fuel dependency for a green-fuel dependency.

Sury: As far as fossil fuels are concerned, we only have extremely limited reserves; we are not Saudi Arabia or Russia. And when it comes to renewables, we will utilise all the space that is available to us to our full potential, that  is important. But even that will not be enough to cover demand.

ZEIT ONLINE: From which countries will we import hydrogen then?

Sury: We should focus on Europe in particular. In addition to Spain and Portugal with plenty of sunshine and wind, Norway is also conceivable due to hydroelectric power. Great Britain and Scotland in particular have large offshore wind projects, and they are right on our doorstep. But markets in Australia, Latin America or the Middle  
East are also very competitive. 

ZEIT ONLINE: But it's a crazy waste of energy to produce green hydrogen in Australia and transport it by ship to Europe.

Sury: It depends on how available hydrogen will be. But yes, most of the hydrogen from Australia will probably stay in Asia; Japan will be one of the biggest consumers.

ZEIT ONLINE: Can Germany even keep up in the worldwide race for hydrogen?

Sury: In Europe, the countries where the hydrogen tankers can land will have an advantage, i.e. Spain, Poland and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, Germany is currently not one of them, although it  really needs a hydrogen port. The Netherlands is way ahead of us in terms of infrastructure  projects. They are currently even planning a large, state-financed hydrogen highway that can transport hydrogen from the port of Rotterdam to Germany, because there are also many customers here.

ZEIT ONLINE: If it is clear that Germany will have to import most of the hydrogen anyway, why is RWE starting domestic production at all?

Sury: The imports won't reach us in the mid-twenty-twenties; building the necessary transport infrastructure will require investment and take time. But the industry has to decide today  
whether it wants to say goodbye to fossil fuels and invest billions in the conversion. Therefore it is important that we produce quantities in Germany that are relevant for a steel company. Without hydrogen, companies will move their production abroad and no longer invest in Germany and Europe – which will have enormous consequences for jobs here. We cannot afford that, neither socially nor in terms of prosperity.

ZEIT ONLINE: It will undoubtedly be expensive for the companies and in the end also for the consumers. How expensive would green hydrogen from RWE be compared to grey hydrogen, which  is produced from fossil fuels?

Sury: Grey hydrogen costs about 1.20 euros per kilogramme. Green hydrogen would be about four times as expensive. But the price difference is not the decisive question. Nor are we asking whether we should continue to operate coal and nuclear technology. The goal is climate neutrality. Green hydrogen will become competitive. For this to happen, we will need political support during the transition and start-up financing. And to get the hydrogen economy up and running in the first place, pragmatism is needed, especially with regard to the green  electricity criteria defined by the EU, which determine which electricity can be used for hydrogen production. Using electricity produced exclusively in new renewable plants for electrolysis will not be sufficient – otherwise it will take far too long to build up capacities and Europe and Germany will lose out in international competition. Existing plants that are no longer subsidised can help to bridge the gaps. Without them, projects will be delayed by years. It is in the hands of the European Commission to set favourable framework conditions. Otherwise, there is a danger of stifling a hydrogen economy before it can even get started.

ZEIT ONLINE: Could there be a ‘hydrogen cent’ on the electricity bill soon, so that every electricity customer would help finance this development?

Sury: How the financing is to be passed on to today's consumers is a political decision. Currently, consumers also pay transport fees for natural gas, which are passed on by the grid operator. If more and more gas pipelines transport hydrogen, the natural gas networks will be increasingly reallocated, but even then consumers will pay.


Text by Lena Klimkeit and Marlies Uken, © ZEIT ONLINE GmbH. All rights reserved.

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