Air Liquide writes its story in hydrogen… in green

Published on November 10, 2023 at 6:11 PMUpdated on November 10, 2023 at 6:55 PM

Today we move from the project, concept mode to the concrete implementation mode. », summarizes Armelle Levieux, Innovation Director at Air Liquide. In fact, this end of the year marks a very clear acceleration in the group’s strategy in the field of renewable hydrogen. For example, the joint company founded in 2022 with Siemens Energy, of which Air Liquide owns 25%, opened its gigafactory in Berlin on Wednesday, November 8 (since Elon Musk started the trend, every new factory is now called a gigafactory… ) in the presence of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Robert Habeck, his Minister of Economy, and Roland Lescure, French Minister of Industry. This unit will allow to industrialize the production of electrolysers using PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) technology: the initial production capacity will be 1 gigawatt (GW) per year at launch, before reaching 3 GW in 2025. By 2030, we will have produced at this plant twice the installed capacity that Germany has planned for this deadline and half of what the European Union plans. », explains Anne-Laure de Chammard, executive vice president of Siemens Energy.

Thanks to an industrial and technological partnership, the joint company with Siemens Energy, Air Liquide can secure its supply and is part of a global policy of cooperation with various players in a hydrogen market that is still developing and therefore uncertain, where it is therefore is essential to share and share developments and risks. For example, downstream partnerships have been signed with TotalEnergies to build refueling stations for heavy trucks, or with ADP to develop the use of hydrogen in aviation. But above all, the French group wants to establish its position as number one in the world in the production and distribution of low-carbon hydrogen. This involves either capturing CO2 when this gas is produced with the classic but highly carbon-emitting technique of steam reforming natural gas, or through direct green production from electrolysis of water powered by energy. .).

Largest European electrolyzer

An essential step will be taken in this area by the end of the year, still in Germany, with the start-up of the Oberhausen electrolyser in the Ruhr area, the most important industrial basin in Europe. Powered by wind energy through a long-term contract concluded with electrician Statkraft and equipped with modules produced by the joint company with Siemens Energy, with a capacity of 20 megawatts (MW) it will be the largest in Europe (the group has been operating a unit of the same since 2021 size in Bécancour, Canada). But this is just the beginning, as Air Liquide aims to have 3 GW in operation or under construction, or 3,000 MW, by 2030! In three years there will be a change in scale with the start-up of a 200 MW unit in Normandy, near Le Havre, while other projects of the same size in the Netherlands have been launched earlier than undoubtedly 1 GW units, the equivalent of a nuclear reactor.

Rémi Le Bailly/Investing

If we talk mainly about hydrogen in the field of mobility, where it is positioned as a credible alternative to the battery to provide electricity through the fuel cell that powers an electric motor once it is available. When it comes to heavy mobility (vans, buses, trucks, trains, boats, etc.), developments are likely to accelerate in industrial applications to reduce CO2 emissions from certain particularly emitting activities such as steel, chemicals or glass. In steel mills, for example, the use of hydrogen makes it possible to do without coke from coal.

States to help

Currently, this development of green hydrogen suffers from two handicaps: the lack of available green energy and its costs. This is currently 2 to 2.5 times higher than that of hydrogen produced from natural gas. Government intervention is essential to solve this problem. This concerns investment aid; the German state provided 11 million of the 35 million spent by Air Liquide in Oberhausen and 15 million, of a total budget of 30 million, for the Berlin electrolysis plant. But this will not be enough to make green hydrogen competitive quickly. “ In this transition phase, we need clear rules and financial support from states », explains François Jackow, CEO of Air Liquide. And in this area, the European approach, aimed at taxing polluting actors, seems less effective and more complex than that of the Americans who, within the framework of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), will pay credit taxes to companies. whose production avoids CO2 emissions, regardless of the technology used. However, all is not lost in Europe as the idea of ​​compensation (contract for difference) to green hydrogen producers is developing to make their gas competitive. But in the meantime, there are still many programs in the pipeline. “ Of the $300 billion in hydrogen projects announced worldwide, only 10% correspond to firm commitments because the others cannot find financing. We need incentives, quotas, certificates… so that the market switches to green energy and hydrogen », emphasizes Anne-Laure de Chammard.

For its part, Air Liquide, counting on a strong acceleration from 2026-2027, maintains the ambitions it has shown from 2021: from 2 billion euros in hydrogen turnover to 6 billion euros by 2035. The result is an investment of 8 billion euros.

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