Carbon neutrality can’t be achieved without hydrogen

Portrait Rainer Baake, © Climate Neutrality Foundation
© Climate Neutrality Foundation

Interview with Rainer Baake, director of the Climate Neutrality Foundation

For years, Rainer Baake was seen as one of the staunchest skeptics of hydrogen and fuel cell technology. During his tenure as state secretary at the German economy and energy ministry (2014 to 2018) and the environment ministry (1998 to 2005) he acquired a reputation for blocking hydrogen schemes – with some projects getting as far as his desk but not much further. However, for the past few months he’s been sending out rather different signals, especially since his appointment as director of the Climate Neutrality Foundation in July 2020. H2-international has taken this opportunity to talk to him about the foundation’s recently published hydrogen study and about his new approach – which, he argues, isn’t really that new.

Chemours

H2-international: Mr. Baake, after more than 30 years in environmental policymaking, is it fitting to describe you as part of the bedrock of the renewable energy sector?

Baake: Bedrock sounds rather too static for my liking.

HOW

You were one of the first full-time Green Party politicians employed in environmental administration. In 2002, you helped shape the law to phase out nuclear energy and are sometimes referred to as the “manager of the energy transition.” What kept you motivated over the years?

Together with many others, I worked to remove the dangers of nuclear energy and to build a modern, climate-friendly energy industry.

In 2018, you asked to be dismissed from your position as state secretary at the economy and energy ministry. Why?

The agreements on climate protection formed by the grand coalition were not ambitious enough to meet the challenges.What does your new role at the Climate Neutrality Foundation entail?
Better climate protection requires scientifically substantiated schemes – instruments that enable us to reach specific targets – as well as a dialog among stakeholders. This is what the Climate Neutrality Foundation wants to help achieve.

How did you come to this role? Were you invited or did you actively apply for the job?

I was invited.

Up until a few years ago, you weren’t a great fan of hydrogen – to put it mildly. Some exponents of the hydrogen sector used to describe you as a stumbling block or hurdle that was difficult to overcome. For a long time, you were in favor of an all-electric world, in other words complete electrification of the energy sector, including the expansion of the power line network. Today you seem a little more open minded in relation to hydrogen. Is that a correct observation?

The observation is wrong. Carbon neutrality can’t be achieved without hydrogen. We need it in particular as a storage medium in the electricity sector and as a feedstock in industry. The dispute was and still is over whether we should also use hydrogen in areas where the direct use of electricity is significantly more efficient – for example in heating systems and cars. In a competitive economy, everyone is welcome to choose the costlier option at their own expense, but if you’re asking for state subsidies, you have to expect questions about efficiency.

What caused you to realize that the energy transition can’t be achieved entirely without gas?

Please have a read on the internet; I have held this view for many years now. And I would also like to remind you that carbon-neutral hydrogen is produced using electricity from renewable resources. In a carbon-neutral world, electricity is the all-pervading energy source.

Looking back, would you say it was a good thing that the hydrogen supporters remained so insistent?

Well, the hydrogen advocates aren’t a homogeneous group. There are some supporters who want to use hydrogen where there is no better alternative. And there are some that want to use hydrogen – or hydrogen-based synthetic fuel – to continue operating old combustion technologies. The second group wants the world to believe the fairytale that cheap hydrogen will be globally available in the near future. The government should deploy subsidies in a targeted manner, instead of broadly scattering its resources about, as it currently does.

In May 2021, your foundation published the study “Hydrogen Strategy 2.0: How to accelerate the market ramp-up. A programmatic proposal.” Please provide a brief overview of the core propositions.

As you’ve just rightly cited, we need to accelerate the process. To reach the new climate target, we foresee a hydrogen requirement of 60 terawatt-hours in 2030. We have proposed specific key points for further development of the hydrogen strategy – to ensure the necessary amounts are in actual fact produced, transported to the consumers and used in the right places. The production of carbon-neutral hydrogen will require significant government funding, at least for the foreseeable future. Leaders will have to set priorities – at present these are industry, electricity production and long-distance transport. A robust certification system is essential if we want to achieve effective greenhouse gas reductions and ensure the efficient use of public funds. And as hydrogen will be traded across borders, we need a European solution. Where possible, the existing natural gas networks should be converted to hydrogen networks. We need an initial long-distance transmission network and, in the longer term, an interlinked EU-wide long-distance network, so we can connect to favorable locations such as the Iberian Peninsula.

…Read more in the latest H2-International

Interviewer: Sven Geitmann

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