The Hydrogen Rush in Central Europe

Three Seas Initiative countries want to make the most of the economic opportunities opened up by the development of clean hydrogen technologies.

A concept metaphorically depicting hydrogen as an ecological energy source in the form of a pond in the middle of a virgin jungle. 3d rendering.
Photo: iStock.com / Petmal

“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity,” said Harlan Ellison, American sci-fi author and writer on the original “Star Trek” series. Nevertheless, the use of hydrogen in commercial, communication, and industrial processes has long seemed possible only in science fiction novels. But since this element is so abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be stupid not to make use of it. That is why, in recent years, there has been increasing talk of hydrogen (H2) as the fuel of the future. More countries are developing opportunities for its use as a source of clean energy. The European Commission created a dedicated strategy on hydrogen, and the countries of Central Europe have been developing their own strategies to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by its commercial use. They are treating it as a chance to reduce the use of fossil fuel by 2030 and to achieve the goals laid out in the “Fit for 55” package.

Hydrogen revolution

The European Commission adopted “The Hydrogen Strategy for a climate-neutral Europe” in July 2020. Its aim is to boost hydrogen production in Europe. This is intended to be part of an effort to achieve climate neutrality for EU countries by 2050. H2 is seen as a potential energy source to reduce CO2 production in electricity generation. Changes in this area are so important because the energy system currently accounts for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union.

But if hydrogen is so readily available and common in nature, why hasn’t it been used commercially before? Because until now, its industrial production has involved the use of fossil fuels. The quick rise of renewable energy connected with technological developments has opened up new possibilities. Nowadays, H2 produced with the use of renewable energy sources is becoming more common. Unlike previous methods of producing it, it is called “green hydrogen” (produced only from renewable energy) or “clean hydrogen” (produced from renewable or nuclear energy). And it is the development of these technologies that has been enshrined as a priority in the European Commission’s strategy.

“In the integrated energy system of the future, hydrogen will play a role alongside renewable electrification and a more efficient and circular use of resources. Large-scale deployment of clean hydrogen at a fast pace is key for the EU to achieve a higher climate ambition, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 50% and towards 55% by 2030, in a cost-effective way,” wrote the Commission in the strategy, estimating investments in clean hydrogen in Europe on EUR 180-470 billion by 2050.

CEE countries have also been looking for their chances to develop clean hydrogen technologies. Seven of the 12 states that formed the Three Seas Initiative have already adopted their own national hydrogen strategies. Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia created precise master plans on how to develop possibilities created by the rise of clean hydrogen. The other countries of the region have not gone as far, but they are also preparing the logistic, industrial, and regulatory framework, which will let them adapt to the coming hydrogen revolution.

Rising to the chance

Taking a closer look at the individual countries’ plans for the development of the hydrogen industry, it is easy to point to a common denominator: all CEE states see it as having the potential to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. But when you look at the path towards this goal that individual countries choose, you can already see their differences. The 12 Three Seas Initiative countries can be divided into two categories. The first focuses mainly on developing methods of using hydrogen for transport. The second – for industry.

Poland, the fifth largest producer of hydrogen worldwide, is the region’s biggest player in this field, producing 14% of European hydrogen. The main aim is to use these hydrogen technologies in the transport sector. According to national strategy, Poland plans to have at least 32 hydrogen-refueling stations in operation by 2025 and up to 1000 hydrogen buses in operation by 2030. Besides, the country wants to achieve 2 GW production of hydrogen capacity by 2030.

Other CEE countries that plan to focus predominantly on transport are Estonia, Czech, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, and Romania. All these countries have similar approaches to the hydrogen revolution. For instance, the Hungarian government, which announced its hydrogen strategy in May 2021, plans to reduce the CO2 emissions of the country by 130,000 tons thanks to 20 hydrogen-refueling stations, 40 refueling stations, and 4800 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Slovakia wants to possess 25 hydrogen filling stations, around 500 hydrogen-powered vehicles, and 12 hydrogen-powered trains operating by 2030. Romania has been slowly developing its hydrogen possibilities, and Bucharest expects that the development of this technology will accelerate rapidly from 2027. The Three Sea Initiative Investment Fund (3SIIF) will help with this. It is intended that the funding from this vehicle created for the Three Seas Initiative countries will help construct hydrogen transport by pipelines, an investment worth up to EUR 626 million euros.

Austria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Croatia – these countries indicate industry as the most important target for its use (although they also see the use of H2 in transport) in their plans towards the development of clean hydrogen. For example, the Lithuanian government (according to “Lithuania’s plans and goals in the hydrogen economy” written by the Ministry of Energy) wants to use hydrogen in the production of fertilizers as well as for oil refining. Bulgaria is prioritizing the development of industrial zones and parks built around possibilities created by the rise of hydrogen. The budget for that is worth EUR 212 million. Croatia expects that its first hydrogen production facility will start operating in 2025. It hopes that it will be able to decarbonize its industry by 2050.

The European Union supports the rapid development of clean hydrogen. Funding for investment in this area is made possible, for example, by money from The Recovery and Resilience Facility created by the EU after the pandemic crisis. In addition to the strategies prepared by individual countries within the framework of this mechanism, the Union is also supporting the construction of pan-European corridors, enabling the transfer of hydrogen. According to plans, the hydrogen infrastructure will have a length of almost 53,000 km by 2040, largely based on repurposed existing natural gas infrastructure. Five of these planned corridors will cross Central European states.

Clean hydrogen is not a silver bullet – a project that helps solve all European problems. It’s still rather an experiment – with no guarantee that this will create a source of cheap and clean energy that will drive the economy in EU countries. But it is certainly an opportunity, and a big enough one to be worth taking. The Three Seas Initiative countries see it, too, and are increasingly bold in developing projects related to it.

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