With hydrogen, the federal government wants to make Germany more independent and achieve its climate goals. A paper manufacturer in Wiesbaden has already started converting its production. However, hydrogen is anything but green as its reputation suggests.
By Jens Borchers, Oliver Günther e
The production site of one of the largest manufacturers of hygiene products in Germany is located in Mainz-Kostheim (Wiesbaden). Paper napkins and kitchen rolls roll off the assembly line in piles. Products that we all use every day and that pollute the climate. Essity operates three paper machines at the plant, which currently emit approximately 140,000 tons of CO2 annually. A paper machine emits about one percent of all emissions in the city of Wiesbaden, says plant manager Thorsten Becherer.
To produce in a more climate-friendly way, the company wants to use green hydrogen (H2) as an energy source in the future. This is because it does not emit climate-damaging CO2 during production or combustion, as long as the energy needed for production comes from renewable sources such as wind or sun.
So far, Essity has used fossil natural gas, for example for paper drying machines. The air, which is blown onto the paper by a “hair dryer”, is heated to 500 degrees. In the future, the company wants to replace gas with green hydrogen and convert machines to do so. The project started in 2018 and now needs to be implemented step by step. But it’s not that simple.
Almost no hydrogen lines
The first obstacles are the origin and transport of hydrogen For the pilot project – with a paper machine – hydrogen comes from the Mainz energy park. There, green hydrogen is produced with the help of wind energy, which is then transported by truck to Essity. It still works in the pilot phase.
If the Essity company wants to convert all three paper machines to green hydrogen, the quantity of the Mainz energy park is no longer sufficient. So the company needs access to a hydrogen pipeline network, comparable to today’s gas network, according to plant manager Thorsten Becherer.
But before 2030, according to the Hessian Ministry of Energy, Hesse will not be able to be supplied with green hydrogen, at least not on a larger scale. Because neither Hesse nor the whole of Germany has sufficient green electricity capacity to produce green H2. “We need to expand renewable energies in the long term,” says Economy Minister Tarek Al-Wazir (Verdi). “This is part of it.”
How does it work with hydrogen?
Hydrogen can store energy, which can therefore be used in different forms. Hydrogen can be burned like gas, but it can also be used to power a car’s engine or an airplane’s turbine. The big advantage: the substance can be transported and used in liquid form or as a gas over long distances.
A standard process for producing hydrogen is what is known as electrolysis which uses electricity, water, and a device called an electrolyser. A distinction is made between green hydrogen (produced with renewable energies), gray hydrogen (produced with energy from gas or coal) and neutral hydrogen (here CO2 is produced during production, which is stored or consumed elsewhere).
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Many companies are not connected to the network
“We have the advantage of being relatively close to a planned hydrogen distribution network, spanning the whole of Germany, even transnational,” says Essity’s Becherer. But this network shouldn’t be ready until 2034. “Of course it’s very late.” Other companies won’t have a network at all in the near future.
To bridge the period to 2034, Essity is planning a regional network with producers and buyers of hydrogen, possibly even local production of hydrogen on site. But the costs for this pose a challenge for Hessian companies. Because converting production to hydrogen often costs millions.
Costs that Essity has to bear largely on its own. The state of Hesse granted a subsidy of almost 1.5 million euros. But the federal government does not support the paper industry when it comes to hydrogen, but especially the steel, cement and chemical industries, says the director of the Becherer plant. These produce by far the most CO2, so from a political point of view, the funding here has the greatest effect.
“I would like the federal government to be more flexible and say we support those who are leading the way. Those who are really driving the transformation. It doesn’t matter which industry they come from,” Becherer asks.
Hydrogen trains for the Rhine-Main area
In addition to industry, hydrogen will also revolutionize the transport sector. As in the Frankfurt Industriepark Höchst. Hydrogen is already being produced here. From December it will drive the first hydrogen trains on the Taunus routes in the Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund (RMV) – and then replace the diesel trains.
However, Höchst’s hydrogen is not yet green. In the first few years gray hydrogen will be used almost exclusively, i.e. hydrogen produced from gas or coal, said the Ministry of Economy in response to a small request from the FDP.
“Hydrogen must be imported”
The hydrogen is obtained from a by-product of a chemical company, explains Joachim Kreysing, managing director of Infraserv, which manages the industrial park. A hydrogen filling station will be built in the Industry Park Höchst to refuel the trains.
But the pace of the shift to hydrogen is overall too slow, Kreysing warns. “We don’t see enough of the need to import H2 on a large scale,” he says. At least one solution had been found for the industrial park. “We have our own pipeline network.”
Al-Wazir: Hydrogen is not a solution for everything
To establish pipelines across Hesse, the state is in talks with long-distance gas network operators, says Economy Minister Tarek Al-Wazir (Verdi). In the future there will be a network similar to the way a natural gas transportation network has developed. “But we are talking about after 2030 and I think it will come from the northwest of Germany.”
However, hydrogen cannot be the panacea of our time, says the minister: “Hydrogen is perceived by many as the solution to everything. To tell the truth, it must be said: it is not”. Because there are areas of application and industries for which hydrogen is simply not suitable.
That is why the state strategy on hydrogen is limited to only a few areas: “From the point of view of Hesse, this is air transport, and then applications in freight, for example, or rail, where we are already making progress. “.
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