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Photo: Tomas Bergman
Richard Gebart, Professor in Energy Engineering at Luleå University of Technology. Photo: Tomas Bergman View original picture , opens in new tab/window

The role of hydrogen for gas self-sufficiency in Europe

Published: 5 September 2023

Rikard Gebart, Professor in Energy Engineering at Luleå University of Technology, has participated in the work on a new EU advisory report, ”The future of gas”, as representative of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It was drafted under the direction of the European Academies Science Advisory Council, EASAC, that brings together the National Academies of Science of the EU Member States. The report highlights the challenges and possibilities to achieve/create an energy system where hydrogen can play an important role.

“The report was well received in Brussels and hopefully it can help policymakers to better understand the contribution that European Hydrogen can give in the struggle to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in EU, and by 2045 in Sweden.  My contribution has foremost been to give information about renewable energy technologies that are under investigation in Sweden, but also about the impact on the greenhouse gas balance from hydrogen, in the event of large gas leaks. I have also been fact checking some parts of the report”, Rikard Gebart says.

Reduceing reliance on Russian Natural gas

As work started on the EASAC report in the autumn of 2021, the plan was to investigate what role gaseous fuels could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. The interest was particularly in hydrogen, as both the EU and the Swedish Energy Agency have concluded that hydrogen will play a crucial role in achieving current climate goals. Last February, as everything came to a head with Russia's attack on Ukraine, Europe's subsequent energy war with Russia and the Nordstream 2 explosion, the focus of the study shifted.

“When this happened, we shifted focus and focused primarily on what can be done in the short term to reduce reliance on Russian Natural gas, but also on what can be done for the climate in the longer term. Our main goal has been to report what science can say, and to leave political decisions to the political system.

In 2021, the EU imported 83% of its natural gas. In 2021, the 27 countries of the European Union consumed 412 bcm of gas. Gas is mainly used for power generation, household heating and industrial processes. Over 30% of households in the EU use gas to heat their homes (from the the official website of the Council of the EU and the European Council,

One of the most important conclusions in the report, is the observation that natural gas is no better than other fossil fuels when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of reducing the greenhouse gas effects, the inevitable leaks that occur along the whole natural gas supply chain, will nullify the benefits of lower CO2-emissions per energy unit compared to oil and coal.

Due to the earlier belief that natural gas is the least harmful fossil fuel, large gas-fired power plants have been built in Europe for a long time to replace coal fired power plants. In addition, around 65 million European households have installed small scale gas fired boilers for heating. To convert all of these households to better alternatives is a very big challenge. However, there are solutions to this problem in the report:

The report recommends heat pumps and district heating as ready-to-use and climate-friendly alternatives to gas boilers. 

“In the report, we show that heat pumps are a very efficient and climate friendly alternative to gas fired boilers when they are run on fossil-free electricity. Another alternative to gas-fired boilers is district heating, adapted to local conditions. The beauty of these options is that the technology is already proven and robust. Moreover, we also show that for small-scale heating, hydrogen is not an option. The role of hydrogen lies in other areas, for example as a feedstock to industrial processes”, Rikard Gebart says.

About large-scale use of hydrogen

The environmental impact of large-scale use of hydrogen, was also examined in the report. The most important conclusion is that we must carefully monitor possible leaks of hydrogen gas, because hydrogen gas has a strong indirect influence on the greenhouse effect. Hydrogen is very reactive and reacts particularly well with hydroxide in the atmosphere. This may not sound so bad, but it causes methane to decompose more slowly in the atmosphere, and since methane is a very strong greenhouse gas, the greenhouse effect caused by methane will increase significantly.

“Small hydrogen leaks have a small impact. But if more than ten percent or so of the future hydrogen production would leak out, there is a danger that the positive effects of replacing natural gas with hydrogen will be eaten up, by the indirect greenhouse effect.”

Finding new methods to reduce emissions

At Luleå University of Technology, researchers are already working in close collaboration with industry on most of the hydrogen-related issues discussed in the report, but the role of hydrogen as an indirect greenhouse gas is a relatively new question even for leaders in the field.

“In our research, we will pay increased attention to this problem, especially by finding new methods to reduce emissions and effective ways to monitor the leaks that still occur. Otherwise, our hydrogen research already coincides with the report's conclusions, as it is mainly motivated by the need for hydrogen as a feedstock to the metallurgical industry,” Rikard Gebart says.

The European Science Advisory Council brings together the National Academies of Science of the EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and United Kingdom to provide independent science-based advice on important challenges for Europe.

Rikard Gebart

Rikard Gebart, Professor Emeritus, Professor Emeritus

Organisation: Energy Engineering, Energy Science, Department of Engineering Sciences and Mathematics