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Natural gas: ready for the hydrogen economy!


Due to the multitude of options for generating, transporting, storing and using hydrogen, it is an exceptional source of energy for decarbonisation across many sectors – particularly when its production is CO2-neutral. For this reason, the German federal government launched the National Hydrogen Strategy (NWS) in June 2020, to create the framework for the economical and sustainable generation, transport and use of hydrogen.

Germany will become a leading international provider of hydrogen technologies. A significant initial step is establishing a domestic hydrogen market. The estimated demand for hydrogen in Germany in 2030 is approx. 90 to 110 TWh.1 This corresponds to about one tenth of the energy demand that is currently met with natural gas. A sufficient hydrogen supply is critical here along with CO2-neutral production. However, only a small percentage of the foreseeable demand for the next ten years can be met by domestic generation capacities from renewable energies (green hydrogen). The establishment of a purely ‘green’ hydrogen energy economy, which requires large amounts of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, is hampered by the sluggish development of those renewable sources. In addition, hydrogen electrolysis is in direct competition with alternative decarbonisation options such as the electrifi­cation of the industrial, transportation and heat sectors. So, there is a chicken-and-egg situation: The demand for CO2-neutral hydrogen is still low, which means that potential hydrogen producers lack incentive to invest in hydrogen electrolysis, for example.

Other CO2-neutral production processes such as pyrolysis, carbon capture and storage (CSS) and carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) are gaining attention as methods for meeting the great need for hydrogen during a transition period and thereby contributing to the establishment of a functioning hydrogen energy economy. Particularly promising are processes based on methane (blue and turquoise hydrogen). For example, methane pyrolysis can be used to generate hydrogen without CO2 emissions. In the process, natural gas or methane is broken down into its components without CO2 emissions. This occurs in a reactor due to heat exposure at about 800-1,200 degrees Celsius, whereby the methane molecules are split into their elementary constituents. At the end of the pyrolysis process, hydrogen and solid carbon remain. Carbon is required in the production of steel, batteries and carbon fibres and to reinforce construction materials, for example. The generated hydrogen can be used in the industry, the transportation sector and in private households (for producing electricity and heat), among other purposes.

Therefore, taking the limited production capacities for green hydrogen into account, a technological openness that also considers blue or turquoise hydrogen is crucial both for getting the market up and running quickly and for market penetration with hydrogen. Moreover, based on today’s estimates, more than half of the German end-user energy demand will still need to be met by imports in 2050, particularly with regard to CO2-neutral synthetic gases and fuels. With this in mind, technology neutrality should be implemented over the long term, with respect to producing CO2-neutral hydrogen in order to ensure economic efficiency for achieving decarbonisation targets.

The road to an efficient hydrogen energy economy bears many challenges – espe­cially in the production of hydrogen. In terms of technology, solution options are already on the table. Critical here are effective incentives to get market development started so that it can generate its own momentum. The use of blue and turquoise hydrogen generated with natural gas can provide a very important contribution to meeting the high demand and to establishing a functioning hydrogen energy econ­omy. Natural gas is H2-ready!

1 German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy: The National Hydrogen Strategy, June 2020, p. 5 and p. 3.
2 German Federal Ministry of Education and Research: Eine kleine Wasserstoff-Farbenlehre (A brief hydrogen ‘colour theory’), June 2020.