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Ukrainian hydrogen for Europe: an image of the future or a soap bubble?

Ukraine / Digest

Gas pipeline operators, which may soon lose transit of Russian gas, are hatching plans to transport hydrogen. What are the real chances for Ukraine to become a major exporter of hydrogen and where will it get it?

Ukrainian hydrogen for Europe: an image of the future or a soap bubble?

While politicians argue whether Germany needs the newly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, German gas network operators are already preparing for the end of the gas era. By 2040, according to a strategy presented this year by a merger of 23 of Europe's leading energy infrastructure companies, a network of hydrogen pipelines is expected to appear on the continent. Ukraine is also a part of these plans.

Central Hydrogen Corridor

On September 23, the Ukrainian Gas Transportation System Operator (OGTSU), as well as gas transporters from Germany (OGE), Czech Republic (NET4GAS) and Slovakia (EUSTREAM) announced plans to create a Central Hydrogen Corridor that will connect Ukraine and southern Germany. According to expert forecasts, Germany will become the main market for "green" hydrogen in Europe in several decades. This is an environmentally friendly fuel obtained by electrolysis of water using electricity produced from renewable sources. Domestic production of "green" hydrogen in Germany will be able to cover only a third of demand in 2045, predicts, in particular, the Berlin Foundation for Climate Neutrality (Stiftung Klimaneutralität). The rest will have to be imported. The members of the newly created pipeline consortium hope that Ukraine will become one of the main suppliers of hydrogen.

The transition to “green” hydrogen is necessary to fulfill the European Union's strategy of completely phasing out fossil fuels by 2050. “To switch to hydrogen by 2040 or 2050, we need to start preparing the infrastructure today,” said Richard Unterseer, director of the Bavarian gas network operator Bayernets GmbH, in an interview with DW. His company has joined a consortium to ensure, after the end of the natural gas era, the supply of Ukrainian hydrogen to former industrial centers in southeastern Bavaria.

The consortium has set itself the goal of supplying up to 120 gigawatts of hydrogen per day from Ukraine to Germany and other Central European countries starting from 2030. And the fuel should be supplied by pipelines, which may soon turn out to be partially or completely unnecessary due to the reduction in the transit of Russian gas through the territory of Ukraine and Slovakia.

Are existing gas pipelines suitable for pumping hydrogen?

Until recently, there were doubts in expert circles that it would be possible to use steel pipes of gas main pipelines for hydrogen transportation. Richard Unterseer does not share this skepticism. All conventional steel pipes in European gas pipelines can be used to transport hydrogen, he said.

According to Unterseeer, re-equipping existing networks, however, will not be cheap. We will have to re-equip pumping stations, build new compressor stations and partially replace pipeline valves.

The start of hydrogen modernization is not far off

Bayernets plans to transfer the first section of its gas pipeline network from natural gas to hydrogen in 3-4 years. The start will be modest: first, 14 kilometers of the pipeline will be converted from more than 1600 kilometers, which are managed by the Bavarian company. This is a line that will connect a hydrogen production plant and an industrial cluster near the city of Burghausen.

A Bayernets representative explains that in order to ensure uninterrupted supply of consumers to hydrogen, separate sections will be transferred in stages - first, one line of the existing pipelines. There are usually from two to three such threads on the main highways, laid in parallel. However, how quickly it will be possible to rebuild the pipelines for hydrogen is a big question.

In the end, the first results of scientific research on the suitability of steel gas pipes for hydrogen, which Unterseer refers to, are only preliminary. They, as noted on the page of the German Professional Association for Gas and Hydrogen (DVGW), were carried out in static laboratory conditions, and for more accurate results, practical tests are needed. The first practical research project has only recently been approved by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. As DW was told in the department, the results of practical tests are expected in four years.

How much will hydrogen cost and where to get the required volumes?

A kilogram of hydrogen in Germany now costs 4-6 euros per kilogram. This is two to three times more expensive than the current cost of gas in terms of energy content per cubic meter, calculated Richard Unterseer. And to this should be added 21 cents per kilogram per thousand kilometers of transportation costs, as the authors of the current expert report Extending the European Hydrogen Backbone have calculated.

Hopes for the profitability of the hydrogen trade are based on the optimistic forecasts of the representatives of the hydrogen

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