Mon.
Oct 18
2021
green hydrogen
Image: Ernesto Velázquez via Unsplash

President of France Emmanuel Macron has thrown his weight behind nuclear-generated green hydrogen as the European Union debates regulatory support on measures to cut carbon emissions.

“We must be a leader in green hydrogen by 2030,” Macron said in a speech on Oct. 12. Plans specifically include building one mini-nuclear reactor and two factories for the production of carbon-free hydrogen within that time frame, according to a Reuters report on the speech.

EU members remain split on approaches to nuclear energy in developing taxation and subsidy rules for hydrogen production. France is a large proponent of nuclear energy – which, despite its setbacks, is also carbon-free. The nation seeks regulatory benefits for hydrogen produced using nuclear power. Other member-states harboring concerns on nuclear power want exclusions from environmentally-focused regulations.

The European Commission is currently giving the industry extra time to further examine taxonomy proposals and definitions.  

Hydrogen is an abundant element that can be separated from water to be used as a fuel. Its growing popularity comes as it is able to store variable electricity generation from wind and solar into a form that can be reliably used for various consumer needs, akin to traditional gasoline. The difference, however, is that hydrogen emits only water when it ignites and its costs are on a scale higher.

Hydrogen uses are not universal. Its future is doubtful for general auto transport. Electric cars using battery storage have already all but won the race for dominance in sedan or sports car transport. Yet for heavy-duty transport and long-haul use – such as in trucks or trains or maritime transport – hydrogen has considerable cost and reliability advantages.

Theoretically, linking hydrogen to renewables makes sense as a bridge from an intermittent power source to a constant one. Yet, in practice, Europe may never build sufficient renewable-energy capacity to produce enough green hydrogen at the scale required for mobility, according to Macron. 

France isn’t alone in experimenting with the carbon-free link between nuclear power and hydrogen. The U.S. Department of Energy announced $20 million in funding for an Arizona-based project earlier this month. The DOE seeks a goal of producing hydrogen at $1/kg within the decade – an 80% reduction from current production costs.

Renewable energy used to produce hydrogen remains the superior solution. It cuts carbon emissions, it’s safe, it brings energy independence, diffuses resource nationalism, produces negligible waste and creates jobs. Its only Achilles heel is cost – and, if Macron is right, its ability to scale.

Other sources of fuel or electricity will continue to vie for their spot in the race to decarbonization. Yet nuclear appears to be the best among the rest as it is carbon-free, brings cost advantages and existing scale. The disadvantages, of course, are that in densely populated Europe, no one really wants a nuclear station in their backyard.

France’s Macron seems to have weighed the advantages and come down in favor of exploring a nuclear hydrogen link, as has the U.S. Department of Energy. And so it may be, ironically, that environmental concerns will bring momentum back to nuclear development. 

By Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is an energy markets journalist and the editor of New Economy Observer.

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