Hydrogen pipelines are so important to Europe’s energy system that not having them would increase overall energy system costs and increase 2050 carbon emissions by 20%, according to a new study funded by the EU-backed Clean Hydrogen Partnership.

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In fact, an absence of H2 networks would be more expensive than a failure to build out electricity transmission capacity, costing consumers many billions of euros, according to the peer-reviewed report, Impact of large-scale hydrogen electrification and retrofitting of natural gas infrastructure on the European power system, published yesterday (Wednesday) in the International Journal of Electrical Power & Energy Systems.

The report, authored by a team of Dutch and Spanish researchers, modelled a range of different build-out scenarios — no hydrogen transmission, no electrolysers, no electricity network expansion and no hydrogen storage — and compared them to a 2050 reference case in which 60-80% of existing gas capacity (including in the UK) is retrofitted to carry hydrogen.

In the scenario in which Europe had no hydrogen transmission and relied solely on power lines to transport the bloc’s electricity production, the modelling showed an increase in overall system costs of 1.2% — about €3.6bn ($3.95bn) in real terms.

Curiously, the model did not appear to show that a lack of H2 pipeline infrastructure would require a significant investment in high voltage power lines. Instead, it showed that it would simply incentivise investment in more conventional, dispatchable fossil-fired generation, which is partly why carbon emissions would actually increase by 20% in this scenario.

This is, presumably, due to the need for hydrogen to back up variable renewables, although the exact reasons are not explained in the report.

Also, carbon emissions — which are priced at €250/tonne in the modelling — would be further exacerbated in the no-H2-transmission scenario by the need to make polluting fossil gas-derived grey hydrogen in Germany.

This is because green hydrogen could not be imported and transported to where it needs to go due to the lack of pipelines, and because carbon capture and storage is under a de facto ban in the country, effectively ruling out blue hydrogen, the report argued.

By comparison, leaving the electricity network to evolve according to current forecasts would result in a system cost increase of just 0.3% (equivalent to €800m) by 2050, the research indicated.

And in this scenario, it would take just 5GW of hydrogen transmission capacity to alleviate any extra system costs.

“Our results indicate that a system with the expected [hydrogen] transmission expansion by 2050 is already very close to the optimal solution,” the report said. “Therefore, to achieve more significant cost savings and emissions reductions, we suggest policymakers should focus on facilitating transport through pipelines rather than increasing electricity transport.”

But by far the biggest system cost reductions were to be found by investing in hydrogen storage, according to the modelling. Failure to invest in H2 storage increased system costs by a massive 3.4%, or €10.3bn.

Investment in hydrogen storage and network infrastructure alleviates the need for 28GW of electrical network expansion, according to the researchers.

The report was funded by the EU-backed Clean Hydrogen Partnership, a public-private research initiative that has a cash pot of €2bn to spend on research grants — of which half is met by the EU and the other half by the partnership’s private members.