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Carte Blanche: About crises, climate change, time constants & hydrogen

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Published on Friday, 24 July 2020

Europe mobilises billions of Euros these days to fight against the virus crisis. But what is the difference to the climate crisis? It is the so-called time constant, the time between an action and the system’s reaction, to say the least. The time constant of the virus crisis is a matter of days – we can remember our actions quite well – while it amounts to months and year of the climate crisis, making it difficult to link action and reaction. Our perception is governed by the limbic system of the brain that recognises fast changes only and moves us to react quickly.

Which of the two mentioned crises is more severe? Nobody can give a correct answer today, as the climate and virus crises are ongoing. Only once both are over, historians may judge comprehensively a-posteriori.

The bad news for the climate are the decades of worldwide increasing CO2 emissions. Even in Europe, which does not deny the crisis, CO2 emissions have not decreased since 30 years despite all political promises. Cutbacks in the industry, mainly by delocalisation, were stifled by increased traffic emissions, while the building sector’s primary energy use stayed more or less constant. Any sensitive observer can see and perceive increasing temperatures and dryness even without complex instrumentation. But we postpone necessary actions out of convenience and due to “more urgent” daily problems. And finally, there is the fear that a progressing country or government will be punished by delocalisation of industry and loss of jobs in a globalised world in the short term. Reversely, the long time constant means that the first results will only show in some years even if we stop or reduce CO2 emissions today, which is hard to explain to our limbic system.

But now the good news: the price for wind and sun power decreased dramatically and it is only 10% of its initial price two decades ago. Today in Europe, a kilowatt-hour costs to produce 5 cents, while in sun- or wind-heavy regions, prices are even lower and will probably decrease further. They are competitive today, even without adding the coming cost of climate change to conventional fuels, like coal, gas and crude oil. These external costs will be doubtlessly high, but we have to pay them in the future, not today, due to the long time constant of the climate crisis. If we finally agree to add external cost to the actual energy price by CO2 taxation or emission trading and once the residual term of old power plants is over, even conservative industries will definitely step into renewable energies, as the price gap is gone and the benefits are evident. In the short term, Europe could protect its industries with a tax policy from dumping prices of countries that deny climate change and sell out their last fossil reserves. We should speed up the transition process now due to the long time constant of this climate crisis.

However, as wind and sun power are highly fluctuating and not always available to serve our quick requests, we need energy storage on a large scale. Besides batteries and pumped storage hydro-power stations like in Vianden, hydrogen is emerging: in times of excess electrical energy, water is dissociated into oxygen and hydrogen. The latter can be stored in large natural caverns and later used in fuel-cells or simply burned in engines or heaters. Finally, it can be re-combined with CO2 from chimneys, compost and waste into methane or synthetic fuels for a circular process. Hydrogen plus all derived products (H2+) are fully circular and sustainable and promising enough to be brought now from laboratory to industrial scale for worldwide use.

Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries have already presented their national hydrogen strategy in the last months and Luxembourg should define its own one as well.

In Luxembourg, companies and institutions are launching first activities and projects to make H2+ a reality. Paul Wurth, for instance, is working to replace coke (the major CO2 source) in steelmaking by hydrogen and therefore holds parts of Sunfire in Dresden, a start-up with interesting technology for gas-electrolysis and synthetic fuels. Rotarex is supplying high pressure valves for hydrogen tanks in trucks and cars and Encevo launched Mosel SAar HYdrogen Conversion project, where an existing transnational pipeline is refurbished for hydrogen transport. The Ministry of Energy is working on Luxembourg’s National Strategy and the Department of Engineering at the University started with an “open H2-think-tank”, a forum for discussion and exchange of all national stakeholders. As a known energy supplier in the Greater Region, Luxembourg can act now and place a European impact. There is still a lot to be done and room for creativity in finance and industry to defend or better reorient Luxembourg’s position as competitive fuel supplier into renewables.

Let’s join forces with the government, European institutions in Luxembourg, industry, economy, finance, research and education to make it happen, to find our niche in this exploding market, whose time has come now.


Stefan Maas, professor for applied mechanics and energy efficiency at the University of Luxembourg