By Andy Marsh, Plug Power President & CEO
Since World War I transformed oil into a strategic commodity, the geopolitics of oil and gas have defined our global economy for over a century. As we now witness Russia’s war in Ukraine unfold, it has never been more evident that relying on foreign sources of fossil fuels puts countries at geopolitical risk. When European Union leaders convene to discuss ways to gain independence from Russian oil and gas, green hydrogen needs to be at the forefront of the plan.
Until now, Russia has been a key provider of energy to the European Union – supplying about 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports, about 25% of oil imports and about 45% of coal imports – posing a concern to the energy security of this bloc of nations. Germany, which anchors the EU with the world’s fourth-largest economy, is so dependent on Russia for gas that its economy would be the most vulnerable to collapsing if Russia cut off gas supplies. Despite this, within a week of the Ukraine invasion, Germany took action by halting the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline that would have carried more Russian gas to Germany, committing to the construction of terminals for liquified natural gas (LNG) from allied nations, and announcing plans for national gas reserves and coal-fired power plants to remain on standby.
Germany is not alone in its response. The International Energy Agency recently unveiled a 10-point plan to cut Russian imports by over a third within one year. This was followed closely by the European Commission’s plan to reduce EU demand for Russian gas by two-thirds before the end of the year, and the UK government’s plan to phase out Russian oil by the end of the year.
Green Hydrogen is Europe’s Future
Along with solar, wind and batteries, green hydrogen is an important piece of the renewable energy infrastructure needed to decarbonize the world’s economy, and give the European people the security they need. At Plug, we’ve been investing in green hydrogen production to help the world meet its sustainability goal of reducing carbon emissions and avoid an increase in average global temperatures by no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, a target set by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The expansion of renewable energy is no longer simply a climate change initiative but rather an immediate national security issue for both Europe and the rest of the world. Green hydrogen has an opportunity to be a part of the solution for these reasons:
- Green hydrogen can be produced from abundant resources: Electrolysis splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element. The electrolyzer can be powered by renewable energy sources that most countries already have and can’t be depleted – such as wind, solar, and nuclear. I believe the energy infrastructure of the future will consist of solar, wind, batteries and green hydrogen working together to generate renewable energy that is as reliable as fossil fuels.
- Green hydrogen fosters energy independence: For countries with limited access to conventional fossil fuel sources such as those in Europe, there is value in localizing energy. As the availability of green hydrogen expands, it will be much harder for countries to wield geopolitical influence by cutting exports. This is because countries will be able to more easily generate their own substitute products or supplies, which is not something that can be done easily in today’s energy market in which natural resources are available only in certain locations.
- Green hydrogen doesn’t involve other climate trade-offs: For the IEA to meet its goal of cutting Russian imports by over a third within one year, part of the plan will involve increasing coal-fired output and using oil in currently gas-fired power plants. That’s a setback for climate goals in the short-term. We should move just as aggressively to implement the green hydrogen infrastructure necessary to convert natural gas pipelines into hydrogen pipelines. I’ve already been having conversations with natural gas producers and gas pipeline companies in Europe about how they can transition to hydrogen more rapidly – not in some distant future, but today.
While there have been other energy security crises before – like when the OPEC oil cartel slowed the tap on oil to the U.S. in the 1970s – the energy security crisis we are seeing unfold in Europe is having transformational, long-term global consequences. It’s time for private sector innovators and public sector policymakers to work together to increase the adoption of green hydrogen to create the security the European people deserve.