The future of clean energy. Hydrogen and Europe’s energy system

Whom does the energy of tomorrow belong to? To give an answer to this crucial question was the focus of the webinar organised by The Left in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL, in collaboration with transform! europe.

In summer 2020, the European Commission presented its EU strategy for Energy System Integration (COM(2020) 299 final) and the closely related Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate-Neutral Europe (COM(2020) 301 final), in which it introduced plans for the energy system to contribute to EU climate neutrality by 2050. Energy efficiency and the electrification of transport and heating are to be the primary contributing factors. However, the plan also includes significant expansion of the hydrogen economy. On 17 November 2020, The Left in the European Parliament and transform! europe organised a webinar on the issue, with the aim of discussing important social and environmental questions around hydrogen and the future of the European energy system. The webinar was moderated by Roland Kulke (transform! europe).

Back in 1874, in his book ‘The Mysterious Island’, science fiction writer Jules Verne described a utopian society powered by hydrogen. Just as Verne did, the Commission currently has similarly high hopes for hydrogen technology and already views the EU as the centre of a global hydrogen market. Manuel Bompard (La France Insoumise, LFI) certainly sees great potential in hydrogen. At the same time, he questions the hope that hydrogen could play a similar role to “oil in the 21st century”. Bompard explained that hydrogen does not represent an energy source per se, but is only an energy store, i.e. it works like a storage unit. In contrast to oil, however, there are no sources of hydrogen on Earth. The production of hydrogen requires large amounts of energy – this is the big difference compared to the availability of oil. Hydrogen must be obtained via complex gasification processes using fossil fuels (grey or blue hydrogen) or through electrolysis. It is only truly clean, therefore, when it is obtained using renewable power (known as ‘green hydrogen’), rather than via the use of natural gas or coal, which currently account for over 90% of hydrogen production. It would be just as negligent to manufacture hydrogen from nuclear power. At current levels of production, transitioning to renewable energies would even now require 80% of the capacity of wind and solar farms in Europe. Hydrogen is by no means a panacea against climate change, therefore. Bompard views hydrogen first and foremost as a storage mechanism for surplus production from wind and solar farms that needs to be used sparingly and systematically on account of its limited availability. There will need to be a social dialogue around where this should take place. In future, it will probably not be possible to achieve the highly energy intensive industrial processes involved in manufacturing steel and cement without the use of hydrogen. Bompard also talked about two specific projects in France that are currently failing due to the government’s neoliberal policies and the capital interests of large, multinational companies: firstly, the CGT is campaigning in Dunkirk for a local steelworks to be supplied with locally produced hydrogen. All this would be carried out seamlessly on an oil refinery that TOTAL decommissioned in 2010. Workforce, wind, premises and steelworks are all already in place; it is only the political will that is lacking. The trade union has a similar project in mind in Belfort, in eastern France, where General Electric has closed down a plant. Here, too, there would be good opportunities for creating local and green jobs in the high-tech sector – should the political will be present.

Jean-Claude Simon (transform! europe) spoke about the modalities of a judiciously planned hydrogen strategy and, in particular, highlighted the importance of corporate co-determination and self-administration by workers, as well as the role of public investment in capital-intensive hydrogen production. Simon anticipates major upheavals in the industry and energy sector and advocates for fundamental restructuring and democratisation of the economy in view of the current social and environmental challenges. The decommodification of work, that is, the end of the aspect central to capitalism, whereby work is perceived as an economic good, must, he says, be a cornerstone of the new way of thinking. Simon refers to the fact that, as far back as 1944, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) made it clear within the first item of its trailblazing Philadelphia Declaration that: “labour is not a commodity”. Simon proceeds from the assumption that we cannot raise the huge social resources necessary for socioecological change within the market. Democratisation of the economy must strengthen both local autonomy and regional, national and European democracy. In a differentiated, global society there are also economic processes that should be subject to public and democratic planning.

The second part of the webinar was introduced by Cornelia Ernst (DIE LINKE). Ernst explains that the ‘energy system integration’ will change the future of energy, transport, housing and community life forever. By energy system integration we mean an holistic view and plan of the energy system, its infrastructure and the various energy sources and fuels, with the aim of using all resources efficiently and reducing energy requirements. Ernst makes clear that the Commission has taken very little consideration of regions, municipalities and citizens up to this point. According to Ernst, there is also no focus on social issues in the current Commission proposals on reforming the energy system – something that needs to be changed, says Ernst, since the transition to a new energy system entails not just challenges but also significant opportunities for a better future. A new type of integrated energy system based on renewable energies and digitisation is especially well matched to decentralised power generation and use. This in turn can favour energy communities, associations, cooperatives, prosumers (producer-consumers), leased energy and remunicipalisation processes. Ernst makes it clear that talk about natural gas as the bridging technology is purely a matter of ideology; in simple terms, there is no bridging technology. Once constructed, the infrastructures will last a lifetime. In addition, it is very tempting to boost the hydrogen economy with the aid of fossil (grey and blue) hydrogen; she sees a trap here that we must not fall into. Ernst is adamant that we can only talk of a hydrogen economy when we also expand renewable energies simultaneously – and in a big way. She also considers it essential to have targeted industrial policy in order to create the requisite capacities for producing solar panels, wind turbines and good industrial jobs.

Molly Walsh (Friends of the Earth Europe, FoEE) also cautions that the hydrogen strategy is being driven by the natural gas lobby, and she therefore has doubts regarding the sustainability of an extensive hydrogen economy. As a long-time activist for energy communities, she has reported on various initiatives that contribute to a socioecological transformation in the energy sector. For years, FoEE has been among the leading European NGOs in the field of ‘energy democracy’ and can draw on extensive knowledge in this area. There are many types of socioecological energy production. Drawing on her considerable FoEE expertise, however, Molly Walsh came to the conclusion that collaboration between municipal public structures and energy cooperatives has proven to be the best form of socioecological production, distribution and consumption of energy. FoEE brought out its major publication on the topic late in the autumn of 2020: Community Energy: A practical guide to reclaiming power. To condense it somewhat, the best of both worlds can be combined here: citizens’ environmental drive with the social support options of the public sector. Effective collaboration strengthens democracy within both structures: the cooperative and the city. Molly Walsh knew of a cooperative in Scotland that had mounted solar panels on public buildings in a collaborative venture together with the City of Edinburgh. The subsequent profits were used to upgrade the public library’s energy profile and fund educational projects. In Spain, a feminist movement is campaigning against power cuts for households suffering from energy poverty. In the Eeklo municipality of Flanders, meanwhile, the municipality helped households experiencing energy poverty to become part of an energy cooperative and thereby reduce their energy costs.

The speakers’ presentations were followed by a lively discussion with the public, which resulted in the conclusion that a sustainable system based on renewable energy favours small-scale, decentralised and democratised energy production, which then enables citizens and communities to achieve social and environmental objectives.

Unlike with photovoltaic and wind energy, hydrogen represents a technology finding its way into our energy systems that shows no ‘inbuilt tendency’ towards democratisation. While the prices of renewable energies are decreasing and can already be purchased and operated at a low capital outlay, electrolysis plants for the production of hydrogen involve expensive, technologically complex, comparatively large machinery that is only rarely suitable for initiatives driven by citizens. Hydrogen is thus a capital-intensive technology that favours large companies. The involvement of trade unions and employees within the company plays an even greater role here, therefore, than when we talk about photovoltaic technology and wind energy. An important area of the disputes will therefore be the legislative level of regulation and workforce representation. There is, consequently, no unequivocal answer to the question of whom the energy system of the future belongs to; rather, there is a multitude of alternatives that enable citizens and employees to take action in their respective setting. We have good prerequisites for a democratisation of the energy system. As the many positive examples show, it can be worth fighting for. We invite you to watch the video recording of the webinar for further inspiration.


Originally published at the website of DIE LINKE. im Europaparlament (German)