Hydrogen: infrastructure is the main challenge. Development needs technology neutrality

  EXHIBITION, Oil&nonOil 2021 Verona

Infrastructure and technological neutrality were the central themes of “The Italian hydrogen challenge” conference held today on the first day of the Oil&nonOil event as Veronafiere

Overall, various standpoints and critical aspects emerged over the possibility that this precious resource could play an important role in the energy transition.

The sessions began with an introduction by Maria Alessandra Gallone, Secretary and member of the Senate Committee on the Environment, Territory and Environmental Heritage (Forza Italia). Hydrogen, within the ecological transition plan, plays a central role among renewable energy sources and the focus is mainly on green hydrogen. However, “the infrastructure system is far from ideal”, the Senator said. “We are well aware that hydrogen produced from renewable sources can help the transition and we are well on the way in this direction,” Gallone added. As regards action to be taken, “construction of plant needs investment”. The current plan is in a forecasting stage: “infrastructures are being planned”, “districts are being planned” and “there is no doubt that it would be a marvellous opportunity for local areas,” Gallone concluded.

A completely different position was taken by Giuseppe Chiazzese, member of the Parliamentary Transport, Post and Communications Commission (5 Stelle), who feels that the possible scenario “is to use hydrogen where nothing else can be done”. In other words, the idea is to use it for air and sea transport and for heavy duty mobility but not for light mobility and home heating. Chiazzese, who based his reasoning on green hydrogen, defined the goal of the National Hydrogen Strategy of five gigawatts in capacity by 2030 as very ambitious: it would mean accomplishing something like “500 facilities the size of 26 football fields,” he commented. “I’d be wary of saying that hydrogen can be used anywhere and easily” since using it at home or for cars “is an absolutely inefficient process,” summarized Chiazzese.

The remarks by the two representatives of the world of production and research insisted firmly on technological neutrality. Franco Del Manso, head of international, environmental and technical relations of Unione Energie per la Mobility (Unem), spoke not only about green hydrogen but also grey and blue. He defined carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as “key technology” and focused on low carbon content liquid fuels (Lclf), which “could be used throughout the vehicle fleet” and therefore immediately make a contribution towards decarbonization. “These technologies are already available and competitive on the markets,” Del Manso explained, while acknowledging that there are “technical problems” for petrol stations. The future is the transformation of service stations into “points of sale of energy for mobility”, including hydrogen, although “we need technological neutrality to achieve decarbonization”. On the contrary, “the regulatory framework is not neutral”, said the Unem representative, because it only considers exhaust emissions. “We are convinced that this is absolutely wrong in that it forces us to move towards electric technology (…) If such legislation remained, what investments could we make?” asked Del Manso, warning that without a perspective for roads it will be impossible to invest in air and maritime sectors.

Gianpiero Ruggiero, head technologist of the National Research Council (CNR), it is proper for politics to set long-term objectives but not so for the technologies to be used. “Research must not have its hands tied. Carbon neutrality is an essential objective but technological neutrality is also vital,” Ruggiero highlighted. The CNR expert also expressed a number of reservations over the terms of the current debate, which should place more emphasis on topics such as implementation timing, infrastructural limits, the needs of consumers and the complex administrative framework. In his opinion, “digital innovation must also enter the climate game” and “we need to overcome schemes and turn our cities into laboratories”. Above all, Ruggiero called for a “supply chain logic”. Currently, the situation is patchy and hydrogen still only represents 2% of the energy mix in the European Union and 1% in Italy. Ruggiero warned that the expected time horizon “could turn out to be far too close at hand” to allow the mobilization needed to develop this precious yet very energy-consuming resource. By 2030, the contribution of green hydrogen may well be “virtually zero”.