Pipe or cable? Companies split on best way to transport European energy

Ambitious plans to build a €2.5bn hydrogen pipeline under the sea between Spain and France are exposing divisions among businesses over the best way to transport energy from southern Europe to the continent’s northern industrial heartland.

The EU and some big energy companies are betting on “green” hydrogen — produced from water using renewable energy — as a long-term solution to natural gas shortages and a way to accelerate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

But while France, Spain and Portugal are backing the long-distance export of the clean-burning fuel via undersea pipeline, some business leaders argue that it is electricity that should be exported so it can be used to make hydrogen close to where it will be used, notably German industrial hubs.

Green hydrogen’s potential is unproven as it is not yet produced on a commercially useful scale. However, advocates say it will eventually be burnt in large volumes to produce energy to run factories, trucks and ships, and will also serve as a chemical feedstock and energy store.

If they are right, the debate over transporting the gas or its derivatives around Europe will go a long way to determining which of the companies investing in hydrogen profit the most — and which lose out.

Cepsa, Spain’s second-biggest oil company by revenue, has aligned itself with the Barcelona-Marseille pipeline plans. It struck a deal with the port of Rotterdam in September to create a “green hydrogen corridor” to bring the fuel from Spain — which wants to become Europe’s solar superpower — to northern Europe.

The corridor will initially, from 2027, be a shipping route as Cepsa plans to convert green hydrogen into ammonia then transport it by boat from the Spanish port of Algeciras. But Maarten Wetselaar, Cepsa chief executive, told the Financial Times the company would “absolutely” use the undersea pipeline, which is due to be completed by 2030. “When the pipeline is there and big enough, it’s easy for us to scale up,” he said.

The green hydrogen will come from planned Cepsa plants in Campo de Gibraltar and Palos de la Frontera that will produce up to 300,000 tonnes of fuel a year. They will cost the company a total of €3bn and be powered by solar and wind power facilities on which it will spend another €2bn. Hydrogen will be carried from the plants to Barcelona by a domestic pipeline network still being planned by Enagás, Spain’s national gas grid operator. To reach Germany by pipeline, France would also need to build a network running north from Marseille.

The EU aims to produce 10mn tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2030 and match it with the same volume of imports, according to plans for REPowerEU, an energy transition fund.

Iberdrola, Spain’s biggest energy company, is also investing in hydrogen production but has taken an opposing position on the undersea pipeline.

“The most efficient way to produce hydrogen is locally, transporting the green electricity needed to make it from elsewhere, if necessary,” said Ignacio Galán, executive chair.

The argument against hydrogen pipelines is that they would cost more than natural gas pipelines and entail big engineering and safety challenges because the technology for long-distance transportation of the fuel, which is highly flammable, does not yet exist.

Iberdrola’s investments assume hydrogen will be used mainly by heavy industry near where it is made. It owns one of the few facilities in Spain that is already producing the fuel, albeit on a trial basis. The installation in Puertollano, Castile-La Mancha, includes a 100MW solar array that powers an electrolyser to separate hydrogen from water, then sends it to an adjacent plant where another company, Fertiberia, uses it to make fertiliser.

For Germany, Iberdrola’s vision dictates that the best way to secure hydrogen supplies would be to produce the fuel itself using electricity generated by renewables. This could include power sent by cable across France from Spain, which wants to capitalise on its sunny weather to produce cheap, abundant renewable power.

“This is why we need more electricity interconnections and more reinforcement of electricity grids,” said Galán, who has previously echoed widespread frustration in Spain over the country’s limited cross-border links with France, which has shown little interest in having more.

Another sceptic on long-distance hydrogen exports is Lluís Noguera, chief executive of X-Elio, one of Spain’s longest-standing solar power developers. While he believes renewable power is vital in producing hydrogen, he says not enough space to build power generation facilities for electrolysers is available next to most steel and cement plants or refineries.

Even if there were room, the climate of Europe’s industrial heartland is not conducive to solar power, although it is better for wind. He cites an X-Elio model that calculated the average cost of producing solar power at €40-50 per megawatt hour in Spain but €60-70/MWh in Belgium, which is better positioned to supply Germany.

Instead, Noguera said, electricity should be produced where the sun shines then sent via the grid to industrial sites so “the renewable power comes from where it makes sense to produce it and the hydrogen comes from where it makes sense to consume it”.

Hydrogen export advocates counter that it will be cheaper to move hydrogen than electricity. It would cost €5/MWh to transport the gas in a 1,000km pipeline versus €12/MWh to send the equivalent electricity via an overhead AC power line, according to the European Hydrogen Backbone, a group of pro-pipeline energy operators. They also say that more energy is lost in transmitting electricity than in piping hydrogen.

Cepsa’s Wetselaar said the main flaw in the argument for exporting electricity was that Europe’s grid was “undersized” and looked set to remain so. It will not have the capacity to transport a lot of power to produce hydrogen, especially once demand for electric vehicles accelerates, because it is much harder to secure environmental approval for high-voltage cables than it is for subterranean pipelines.

“It’s a bit theoretical, because governments would love to invest in the grid but they can’t get the permits,” he said.

Map by Liz Faunce

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