Interview: Geopolitics of Hydrogen Energy, Prospects and Challenges

March 2024

Eric Cezne

Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Utrecht University.

It is a great pleasure welcome, Dr.Eric Cezne (University of Utrecht). Eric Cezne holds a PhD degree in International Relations from the University of Groningen and is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning, Utrecht University. With expertise located at the intersections of International Relations and Development Studies, he is interested in the geopolitical and socio-spatial implications of energy, extractive, and transport infrastructures in the Global South, particularly in contexts of South-South investment and sustainability transitions. Eric has conducted field research in countries like Mozambique, Brazil, and Haiti, with experience in vulnerable and conflict affected situations and critical global biomes such as the Amazon rainforest. While his regional focus lies primarily on Latin America and Southern Africa, he is committed to fostering meaningful dialogue and collaborations between Central Asia and the Global South more broadly, connecting academics, policymakers, and industry.

In today’s discussion, we delve into the complex world of hydrogen energy and its pivotal role in the ongoing energy transition. Thanks again for joining us today.

Question 1: Can you explain to our listeners as concise terms as possible, what hydrogen energy actually is and how it could contribute to the energy transition?

Thanks, Julia. Thanks again for having me. So, hydrogen is a very hotly debated topic at the moment, and as most of you know, hydrogen is a chemical element usually available in the form of gas under normal temperature and pressure conditions. The beauty or hype around it is precisely because it can act as an energy carrier and has a high energy density per mass. Therefore, 1 kg of hydrogen carries more energy than, let’s say, 1 kg of natural gas.
And what is an energy carrier? Just like electricity, hydrogen is not actually a primary source of energy because it stores energy that has already been processed. Despite being one of the most abundant elements on Earth and in the whole universe, hydrogen as such is rarely found in its isolated form in nature and is generally combined with other elements. The most classical example is water, which is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is also found in different hydrocarbons. Therefore, obtaining hydrogen is a manufactured process. It needs to be extracted from and produced from something, requiring energy. That brings us to the so-called hydrogen rainbow.
Probably, many of our readers have heard about grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen, green hydrogen. Depending on how that hydrogen is produced, it gets a specific colour. The most common form of hydrogen today is the so-called grey hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas or fossil fuels. When it comes to the low-carbon versions of hydrogen, the clean versions, that’s where much of the talk is centered. We have blue hydrogen, which is basically the same thing as grey hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, but with so-called carbon capture and storage. Rather than the carbon being released into the atmosphere, there are mechanisms to capture and store it. Green hydrogen is essentially the production of hydrogen by using electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or hydropower. That’s precisely the attraction of hydrogen in the energy transition. If it can be produced by a low-carbon or clean mechanism, then you obtain hydrogen in a sustainable format, and when you use hydrogen, it only emits water as a by product. So, you have a clean solution from production to final use.

Question 2: Considering the increasing popularity of hydrogen energy, I’m wondering which regions or countries are currently at the leading stage of hydrogen technology and development. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Well, that’s a question that depends a lot on what kind of hydrogen you’re talking about. For instance, hydrogen is already being produced and applied in various industrial applications. For example, hydrogen obtained from fossil fuels is used in oil refining, fertilizer production, and the food industry. Currently, one of the main producers and consumers of hydrogen is China, due to its industrial needs. Fossil fuel companies, especially those involved in natural gas or oil refining, are among the main producers of hydrogen. However, it’s important to note that hydrogen production mainly supports the fossil fuel economy at present.

When it comes to green hydrogen, discussing actual numbers is challenging because it’s a relatively new concept. Currently, globally, about 100 million tons of hydrogen are produced per year, with only 0.01% being classified as green or clean hydrogen. Despite this small percentage, there is considerable enthusiasm due to its promising characteristics. Policymakers are announcing financial schemes to support hydrogen economies and develop hydrogen sectors to facilitate energy transitions.
To produce clean hydrogen, a significant amount of renewable energy such as solar and wind is required. Countries with abundant access to these resources are considered frontrunners in the development of green hydrogen. Currently, Australia leads in green hydrogen production, although the quantities produced are not yet substantial. Additionally, countries in regions like the Global South, with favorable weather conditions, are also well-positioned to become producers and potentially exporters of green hydrogen.

It needs to be extracted from and produced from something, requiring energy. That brings us to the so-called hydrogen rainbow.

Question 3: As I understand, you just mentioned the concept of green hydrogen and how that’s kind of a rare occurrence compared to other forms of hydrogen that are being tested out across the world. Do you think that hydrogen, or this form of green hydrogen, could potentially reshape how energy is traded across regions and also contribute to the trend of regionalizing energy? It sounds like there’s already sort of a tendency from what you just said, but could you elaborate a little bit on that, please?

It is a great question. So, a lot of the promises are in the future. As I said, there’s very little yet, but then again, there’s a lot of attraction, there’s a lot of enthusiasm, not least due to the potentials of green hydrogen. It can be used to decarbonize hard-to-electrify sectors. So, for instance, heavy Industries. It is also versatile. Green hydrogen is called the “Swiss Army Knife” of the energy transition because it has many applications. So, as I said, it can be used in heavy Industries. It can be used for mobility. It can be used for heating, it can be used for the production of fertilizers and it is a way of storing energy. It’s a way of “shipping the sunshine” . For a place that has a lot of sunshine, solar energy, it’s a way to capture and store that energy and ship it elsewhere.
And this brings us to the trade questions. Given these opportunities, there are also tremendous potentials for trade, but there are also many unknowns as well, like one of the main hurdles is when it comes to the transportation of hydrogen, specifically over long distances. There are essentially three main ways of transporting hydrogen, or three main ways that are being considered. The most efficient will be through pipelines. The industry is talking about repurposing natural gas pipelines because that’s essentially the best way to transport hydrogen. Ifyou have a pipeline, hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas and then it can be added to the pipeline in its gas format. However, the constraint is that you can only use that in places that are connected by pipelines, and that’s where some say that actually it leads to a more regionalized market because the trade would occur within regions that are connected by pipelines.
But what about faraway places from Europe? Or from major importers? Let’s say Brazil, South Africa, Namibia, who are talking about exporting hydrogen, so from those places hydrogen would need to be exported through seaborne shipping, which has a lot of difficulties. As I said, hydrogen carries a lot of energy per mass, but it occupies a large volume and shipping is volume constrained. So, an approach there is to liquify hydrogen, like it happens with LNG (liquefied natural gas). To compress it and then to be able to carry it. But it’s a process that is technically difficult and expensive. Green hydrogen already produced in Europe and consumed in Europe is expensive. So, if you add logistical costs, there are many obstacles, technically and financially speaking. And finally the third way is as ammonia. Hydrogen can be converted into ammonia, which is an input for fertilizers. And it’s a way also to transport it because there is already an established infrastructure for ammonia, there are already markets for ammonia, andshipping options for transporting ammonia. That’s most likely how countriesfar away would export hydrogen.

Question 4: Does it mean that countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan in the Caspian Sea region could also be potential hydrogen export countries? Recently, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are exploring the potentials of producing hydrogen and exporting it to the European Union. As you said, since it’s expensive to produce and consume in Europe, Europe is also looking to import hydrogen energy from regions. So, what do you think about these kinds of approaches?

For Europe, which is said to be one of the major importers of hydrogen, if you read policy strategies, if you read discourses by politicians, there is this question: OK, we are doing an energy transition. We might have more hydrogen, but will that lead to dependency? So, rather than dependency on natural resources like gas and oil, then we might have a dependency on importing hydrogen from somewhere else. This precisely speaks to your question, in a sense that Europe and other importers are looking for different exporters, different producers, and I think that’s also for many an attraction of the hydrogen economy because, with green hydrogen, as I said, you need wind, you need solar, you need renewable energy, so you have greater availability of that in different corners of the world. Unlike the fossil fuel economy, which is constricted to a few producers and has choke points like the Suez Canal, for example. With hydrogen, you may have a larger market and a greater ability to diversify where your imports come from.
That’s why Europe is looking at different actors. Central Asia can definitely play a role, as a fossil fuel-rich region, as a natural gas producer, and as a region that exports natural gas. And as I said, one of the clean versions or low-carbon versions of hydrogen is the so-called blue hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas with carbon capture and storage. I’m not familiar with the Central Asian case, but I would assume that, if there will be a role for those countries or the region in the hydrogen economy, it would primarily be based on blue hydrogen. Perhaps solar as well, because some countries have high potential for solar. And there is also the availability of infrastructures like pipelines which could be used to ship hydrogen to Europe.


one of the clean versions or low-carbon versions of hydrogen is the so-called blue hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas with carbon capture and storage.


Question 5: Do you think that the adoption of hydrogen energy by developed countries may also be perceived as another form of energy exploitation in developing countries, or do you think this is more of an opportunity for these countries to establish themselves as key players in the industry?
You have actually touched upon one of the criticisms towards the emergence of a green hydrogen economy, which also speaks to broader critiques of the so-called energy transition. Indeed, when we look at the players who are promoting the hydrogen economy and who are heavily invested in it, we see a lot of fossil fuel companies. Players like those in the Hydrogen Council, the association of main corporations involved in the hydrogen economy andincluding names like Shell and British Ptroleum (BP), among other familiar faces. This understandably raises the question: Do these corporations, with their long track record of energy extractivism in different places without considering the needs of local communities, represent a sustainable shift in energy resources, or are we simply transitioning from one form of energy exploitation to another? These are key themes to keep in mind for academics like myself, as well as for policymakers and those involved in the dialogue. These are very important dimensions to consider.
It’s a great pleasure to have you with us today, and I want to thank you for this very specific and comprehensive explanation.


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