Russia’s invasion supercharges push to make a new green fuel

Europe’s push to wean itself off Russian natural gas is sparking billions of dollars in new commitments toward building a market for low-carbon hydrogen.

A nearly 450 per cent jump in European gas prices the past year made the green fuel of the future cost-competitive about a decade ahead of schedule, according to BloombergNEF. Now, investment funds are joining governments and utilities in ambitious plans to make hydrogen a viable substitute for fossil fuels in manufacturing, transportation, and heating.

“It’s kind of a tipping point,” said Phil Caldwell, chief executive officer at Ceres Power Holdings Plc, a U.K.-based hydrogen technology company. “You’re going to see that capital coming in on a big scale now. There’s no turning back.”

Russia is ostracized on the world stage for invading Ukraine, but some of the harshest critics still need its oil and gas to keep their economies running. Europe is quickening efforts to break that addiction, with Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. planning a $50 billion project for the hydrogen supply chain with German energy giant E.On SE; Norway’s Scatec ASA building a $5 billion production plant; and investment fund Hy24 earmarking $1.6 billion for infrastructure.

The case for hydrogen already was growing, primarily because of its climate benefits, but the war broadened investor interest by highlighting the need for energy security, Fortescue’s billionaire founder, Andrew Forrest, said in an interview.

“It has accelerated money flows,” Forrest said in London. “After the tanks rolled across the border, there’s none of that conscience at work in people’s minds. It is a physical, fiscal necessity.”

About 93 per cent of hydrogen producers, users and investors attending a BNEF roundtable last month said they expected the war to boost development of the green-hydrogen industry. Support for domestic production and imports from trustworthy sources will be key, the participants said.

Green hydrogen has long been more expensive to produce than the traditional kind, which is made from natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

That’s starting to change. BNEF analysts found that green hydrogen, made by machines called electrolyzers that are powered by the wind and sun, would be cost-competitive today with the fossil fuel-based product.

“No doubt the case for renewable hydrogen has significantly improved,” said Martin Neubert, chief commercial officer for Orsted A/S, which plans to produce green hydrogen for shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S. Orsted is the largest developer of offshore wind farms.

Previously, that cost parity wasn’t expected until around 2030 through a combination of cheaper electrolyzers and massive growth in the deployment of turbines and solar panels, thus making production cheaper.

But surging gas prices shifted the calculus, meaning green hydrogen’s costs don’t need to fall as much to be competitive. Just replacing current hydrogen demand with the green kind in industries like oil refining and fertilizer production could reduce the European Union’s gas demand by 12 per cent, according to BNEF.

At the same time, the bloc’s carbon price has nearly doubled in the past year, making the emissions-free gas more attractive.

“The economics are moving in favor of green hydrogen,” said Ivan Pavlovic, executive director at French bank Natixis CIB, which is working on financing for fuel production. “The projects we’re seeing look more bankable from a finance perspective now.”

Costs only go part of the way, though. Gas prices could decline, bringing the economics back to where they were before. However, the war bolstered the political support essential for scaling up the industry.

The European Union doubled its goal for green-hydrogen capacity to 80 gigawatts by 2030, compared with less than 1 gigawatt today. The U.K. just set a target to produce at least 5 gigawatts of hydrogen from electrolyzers by 2030, the first time it was so specific.

In the U.S., the Biden administration said the infrastructure needed to increase natural-gas shipments to Europe will be ready-made for conversion to handle hydrogen.

These projects will take years to be realized and require an enormous increase in renewable sources, but the government support still gives private money the confidence to move in. Hy24 is a joint venture between Ardian SAS, one of Europe’s largest private investment houses with $125 billion under management, and FiveT Hydrogen, the world’s first investor to focus exclusively on clean hydrogen.

“It’s a growth topic, it’s an ESG topic, and it’s renewables-at-scale in countries that need it,” Hy24 Chief Executive Officer Pierre-Etienne Franc said. “Because of that, and higher certainty about the future, people are happy to make commitments.”

Danish fund manager Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners K/S initially raised 800 million euros ($880 million) for its first Energy Transition Fund, with plans to increase that to 2.3 billion euros. It recently took a stake in German electrolyzer maker Sunfire GmbH and agreed to buy 640 megawatts of machines from the company for its own green hydrogen projects.

The London-listed L&G Hydrogen Economy UCITS ETF has exposure to companies with a minimum market capitalization of $200 million, including electrolyzer manufacturers and hydrogen producers.

HH2E is seeking 2.7 billion euros to build 4 gigawatts of green hydrogen and green heat-production capacity by 2030. Co-founder Andreas Schierenbeck, former chief executive officer of German utility Uniper, said he is in talks with three financial investors to raise funds.

“There is so much money in the market,” Schierenbeck said. “Private-equity firms want to invest now with the first companies that are starting.”

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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