Dr. Wietfeld, why is hydrogen so important for the energy transition?
We cannot decarbonize the economy without hydrogen. For the energy transition, we need “green electrons” and “green molecules” – and this means it is not enough merely to expand renewable energy sources. Hydrogen is the solution for those industries that cannot be completely electrified. Just think of refineries or steelworks, for example. The new study, “ Picturing the value of underground gas storage to the European hydrogen system,” commissioned by Gas Infrastructure Europe, has shown that by 2050 we will need 2,300 terawatt-hours of hydrogen in the European Union and Britain, which is equivalent to 20–25 percent of energy consumption. About half of that is needed by industry as a raw material. However, green hydrogen will also have a part to play in mobility – I myself drive a hybrid vehicle with a fuel cell and a battery, and I think it is a great automobile.
What role do hydrogen storage facilities play in this regard?
Without hydrogen storage facilities, we will not be able to develop a functioning hydrogen market in Europe, and that is one of our goals. This is because hydrogen, in particular, has the potential to do things including making green energy storable through electrolysis. If we can provide the storage sites that this will require, we will not need to create any expensive overcapacity on the production and transportation side. This will also have a positive impact on the electricity sector, because by linking sectors together we will avoid creating a disproportionate number of power lines. This will benefit consumers, because the cost of energy will fall. Also, hydrogen storage facilities are, ultimately, a kind of insurance. They act as a backup when extreme incidents occur, such as infrastructure failure, extraordinary weather events, or unusually high demand. Many people do not know this, but even today, in cold winters, up to 60 percent of natural gas comes from storage facilities in Germany. In the future, the same could be true for hydrogen.
What storage capacity will we need in the future in Germany and Europe?
Storage requirements actually vary very widely from country to country. For Germany, the study puts the figure at 111 terawatt-hours by 2050. That is roughly twice as much as of the current hydrogen consumption in this country. In Germany’s salt cavern storage facilities alone – excluding pore storage sites, in other words – retrofitting would even today make about 33 terawatt-hours of storage volume available. At the same time, we are also seeing a substantial need to increase our hydrogen storage capacity. In Europe, German cavern storage facilities are of great importance, as about 80 percent of them are on German territory and Germany could thus assume the role of a European “hydrogen storage hub.” However, you need to allow two to six years to make the switch from natural gas to hydrogen, and this means we ought to make a start on it now.
Does Germany actually have enough potential storage sites?
Yes – because, in addition to existing salt cavern storage facilities for natural gas, we can use depleted natural-gas fields. However, such pore storage sites are not so easy to retrofit for hydrogen. Tests are currently underway to investigate this issue. Overall, however, Germany has sufficient potential. We also have one more locational advantage in this country: many possible storage sites are situated relatively close to wind power plants in the north of Germany, which means the electricity for electrolysis does not have to be transported far.
People have been thinking about hydrogen storage facilities in salt caverns for at least ten years. Why are there still no industrial-scale facilities?
So far, small, local storage facilities have been enough, because we generally produce hydrogen at the place where it is needed. This will change – demand is rising sharply in industry, namely the heating and mobility sectors, in order to have any chance of achieving the climate targets that have been agreed. For this reason, hydrogen will in future need to be obtained increasingly from further away, and this means there will also have to be interim storage facilities for it. As a result, demand for large hydrogen storage facilities will rise quickly, especially since, unfortunately, hydrogen requires a large volume because of its energy density. Technologically, there are no obstacles to those large facilities of the future, but the conditions for operators still have to be improved. For example, we need support programs to kick-start investment in retrofitting natural-gas storage facilities to work with hydrogen.
What plans do you have for hydrogen production and storage?
In Europe, Uniper aims to develop its own hydrogen production and establish a hydrogen market. We plan to have more than one gigawatt of installed capacity for the production of green or blue hydrogen by 2030. As an operator of large natural gas storage facilities, we are also conducting very specific investigations on the ground to identify potential storage sites for hydrogen. We are particularly interested in the sites at Epe and Etzel. As hydrogen pioneers from the very beginning, we have set ourselves a target to become active globally in the future along the whole value chain and to implement projects that make hydrogen usable as an essential pillar of future energy provision. This includes international supplies to customers and the global trade in hydrogen, as well as the creation of appropriate import facilities for hydrogen in Europe.