The impact of hydrogen on the European Union gas network
In the academic, scientific and political fields there has been a general consensus for years regarding the need to invest in hydrogen not only as a fuel, but also as an accumulator of energy produced through renewable sources, such as wind, water or sun. The attention paid to this particular energy source is demonstrated - among other things - by the choice of the European Union to adopt a "Hydrogen Strategy for a climate neutral Europe".
In fact, the use of hydrogen guarantees a long series of advantages, and it is therefore legitimate to expect that this energy vector will play a leading role in our near future, also thanks to the possibility of being distributed through an already existing infrastructure, the gas network of the European Union, without imposing the construction of dedicated gas pipelines.
The advantages of using hydrogen
Using hydrogen to accumulate energy produced from renewable sources such as the sun or wind is particularly convenient for a long series of reasons. The use of hydrogen, in fact, is able to offer a solution to one of the main problems associated with the use of energy from renewable sources, namely the discontinuity in the availability of these sources. The quantity of solar and wind energy, in fact, is not available in a continuous and predictable way, and in any case it is not able to cope with the peaks of energy demand that must be met regardless of the external atmospheric conditions. In the past, attempts have been made to overcome this problem by investing in the development of batteries capable of storing the energy produced by renewable sources, but this solution is not without its criticalities, since batteries are complex to produce and dispose of, they are bulky and in any case have limits in terms of capacity. The use of batteries that store energy from renewable sources cannot therefore, even assuming technological progress and an improvement in the environmental impact of these products, satisfactorily meet our energy needs, and that is why the EU has turned his attention to hydrogen, which being equipped with a high energy density is able to accumulate large quantities of energy in extremely small volumes.
Furthermore, hydrogen is a greener solution than the use of traditional batteries: its production - which takes place through an elementary process, the electrolysis of water (including salt) - is in fact much simpler and less expensive from point of view of the consumption of raw materials compared to that of batteries. Furthermore, hydrogen can be used to produce electricity or directly as a fuel. If burned, the only waste that is produced is water vapor, and this is a further extremely significant element in view of the goal of drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions that the European Union has set for 2030.
Hydrogen in the European natural gas pipelines
Hydrogen may therefore be able to provide an environmentally and economically sustainable solution to the EU's energy supply problems. The hypothesis of its use on an increasingly large scale, however, is not entirely free from possible risks, the first of which is connected with its modes of transport. Hydrogen, in fact, is highly flammable, and therefore making it available to users in a widespread manner could create, theoretically, some problems.
The simplest solution to overcome the problems of hydrogen distribution is the use of the existing gas network in Europe, used until now for the transport of natural gas.
In the pipes already available, hydrogen mixed with natural gas could be conveyed, initially in percentages not exceeding 10% of the total. This limit is linked to the possible risk that hydrogen, interacting with the materials in which the pipes are made, may damage them or create problems for the infrastructure. This risk, with such reduced percentages of hydrogen, would be reduced to practically zero, and after an initial run-in phase it would be possible to think about increasing the percentage of hydrogen in the mixture, at the same time reducing that of gas, verifying over time the conditions of each individual section and intervening in case of need. In the same period of time, moreover, there would be the possibility to evaluate which types of maintenance and monitoring interventions are required by the network, and to establish protocols relating to the correct management methods of the gas distribution system "converted" to the transport of hydrogen, allowing the system to continue to guarantee the high safety standards that already characterize the European gas distribution system today. Any interventions necessary to make the network even safer could then be carried out over a few years, replacing the maintenance and modernization interventions that should still be implemented even regardless of the use of hydrogen. In this way, the economic impact of the transition from gas to hydrogen would be much less significant, and there would be the opportunity to immediately take advantage of the advantages associated with the use of this material, and then see the convenience increase over time.
All the elements at our disposal lead us to affirm that, even today, the EU natural gas transportation network would be able to support the transport and distribution of hydrogen, allowing Europe to become less dependent on foreign gas supplies and thus helping the entire continent to take a real step towards energy independence, decarbonisation and reducing emissions.
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