WAZ from 05.06.2023

This is what RWE’s hydrogen strategy looks like

Sopna Sury interview

WAZ: Sopna Sury, there’s a certain amount of hype around hydrogen at the moment. But hydrogen still isn’t much in evidence in Germany. Electrolysers to produce it are scarce commodities, and pipelines and power stations still haven’t been converted. Why is that?

Sopna Sury: The complete transformation of our energy supply system won’t happen overnight, but it is making progress. Even so, when it comes to developing hydrogen infrastructure, we would like to see more speed, more pragmatism in policy regulations, fast approval processes and less red tape, since it’s an area where Germany and Europe as a whole are competing internationally. To decarbonise industry, we need hydrogen – the sooner the better. Here at RWE we are in the starting blocks. We have many good projects ranging from generation to transportation to storage and putting hydrogen to practical use.

WAZ: RWE has many large power station locations, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in particular. Will you use hydrogen here in future instead of coal and gas?

Sury: Hydrogen-ready gas-fired power stations are needed to provide security of supply. They have to function as a climate-friendly reserve for times when the power coming from wind turbines and solar plants is inadequate. By 2030, we want to set up hydrogen-ready gas-fired power stations with a capacity of about three gigawatts in Germany. But the investment decisions for these plants can be made only once the policy framework has been clarified.

WAZ: Where will these plants be established?

Sury: Our existing power plant locations are the ideal options. Before we can make specific decisions in that regard, we need clarity about the future hydrogen network. Existing gas pipelines must be converted, and new pipelines will be needed in some cases. The German government has taken the important tasks of the network and of remuneration on board. This is positive, and important.

WAZ: Are you calling for subsidies for hydrogen power stations?

Sury: There has to be a system of remuneration that’s tailored to their function as back-up power stations. Ultimately, they should step in only when there is insufficient sun and wind, or when they are needed to stabilise the power grids. We want to start as quickly as possible, since the approval and construction processes will take several years. Time is therefore of the essence.

WAZ: RWE has posted billions in profits during the energy crisis. Why is the Group not assuming its own risk in connection with this investment?

Sury: We want to invest. But that will work only if there is an clear business model. No other approach is possible for a private-sector company.

WAZ: Are you also planning hydrogen power stations outside Germany?

Sury: Yes, in Eemshaven, in the Netherlands, we have acquired the Magnum gas-fired power plant. With a capacity of 1.4 gigawatts, the plant is extremely powerful. Thanks to its design, it’s already able to run on up to 30 percent hydrogen. A full conversion to hydrogen by the end of the decade is possible.

WAZ: You have to have enough hydrogen available, however, and that also applies in Germany.

Sury: We assume that Germany will have to import 70 to 80 percent of the hydrogen that will be consumed in this country. In addition to building up our own production facilities in Germany, we are therefore working with other entities such as Equinor from Norway. From 2030, Equinor will begin supplying blue hydrogen via a new pipeline to be constructed from Norway to Germany. Blue hydrogen means that the CO2 that’s created in the production process will be permanently stored in former gas fields in Norway using CCS technology. The hydrogen will continue to become greener over time, by being produced using electricity from offshore wind farms along the pipeline, for example.

WAZ: CCS, short for “carbon capture and storage”, is still not permitted in Germany. Would you also be interested in developing storage facilities for this climate-harming substance here in Germany?

Sury: The CCS technology is a key to decarbonisation, especially for energy-intensive industry. Germany should engage in the discussion about where and how it would be practical to transport and store CO2. Other countries such as the Netherlands and the UK have made more progress in this area.

WAZ: Is Germany being sidelined as a major producer of hydrogen because the production process is energy-intensive and power prices are so high here?

Sury: Power prices play an important role when it comes to hydrogen. It’s true that Germany can expect to cover only a part of its huge hydrogen needs on its own. At RWE, too, we want to build and operate electrolysers in Germany. The first pilot plant, with a capacity of 14 megawatts, will begin operations at our power station site in Lingen in autumn. We triggered the order for the first 200 megawatts of electrolyser capacity in Lingen in order to stay on schedule, even though we’re still waiting for the funding decision from Brussels. 

WAZ: One of the things hydrogen will replace in industry is natural gas. Is that also an option for generating heating for residential households in Germany?

Sury: Hydrogen is always a good option if electrification is impossible or difficult as a means of decarbonisation. That’s why industry is the key initial focus for hydrogen, as well as heavy goods vehicles, which would need massive batteries in order to run on electricity. But in the longer term I can’t rule out the possibility that hydrogen will play a part in the residential heating market.

WAZ: You would like to develop hydrogen fuel stations in collaboration with Westfalen Group from Münster. Will RWE be competing with companies such as Aral or Shell in the future?

Sury: By working with Westfalen Group, we want to set up a network of hydrogen fuel stations for heavy commercial vehicles in particular. If the basic conditions are right, up to 70 hydrogen fuel stations will be in place by 2030. RWE is taking on the task of supplying the green hydrogen. To begin with, the focus will be on North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. Our first public hydrogen fuel station will be installed in front of the grounds of RWE’s Emsland gas-fired power station in Lingen. Starting in 2024, goods vehicles, buses, refuse vehicles, small trucks and passenger vehicles will be able to refuel with green hydrogen there. We are making good progress with the project.

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