Towards a first recognition of the role of nuclear power for hydrogen production in Europe

After a long struggle, the European Commission finally gave nuclear power its rightful place in producing low-carbon hydrogen. This is a very positive sign, as Brussels only wanted to consider the use of renewables to produce clean hydrogen.

Hydrogen has been the focus of attention in Brussels and of intense institutional negotiations for many months. The Commission, Member States, and MEPs have been debating and arguing about the best possible model to encourage the production and import of hydrogen – especially renewable hydrogen – to decarbonize sectors that are difficult to electrify, such as industry and heavy transport.

In recent days, key developments in the regulatory debates underway finally paved the way for greater recognition of the role of nuclear power in decarbonizing hydrogen production.

The long-awaited rules governing the production of renewable hydrogen were first adopted by the European Commission on February 13, after three years of intense negotiations. The principle is simple, but the technical details are less so: to produce renewable hydrogen by electrolysis, the electricity that feeds an electrolyzer – either through a physical or virtual connection (Power Purchase Agreements) – must be supplied by new hydroelectric, solar, or wind power capacity operating in the same geographical area, and in a synchronous manner. This temporal correlation will initially be monthly in a transitional phase until 2030 before moving to hourly.

These conditions are all safeguards to prevent the cannibalization of renewable resources and electro-intensive hydrogen production, which would otherwise increase production from fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of hydrogen produced in this way would be much more disastrous than that of the natural gas it would have to replace: nearly 20 kgCO2e/kgH2 for hydrogen produced with the average European electricity mix, compared to 11 kgCO2e/kgH2 for hydrogen produced by steam reforming of natural gas!

Derogation for France

However, France has obtained a derogation here that is important. To make the most of its electricity mix by combining renewables and nuclear power, France is authorized to waive the requirement for additional renewable energy capacity as long as it is below a threshold of 64.8 gCO2e/kWh. In other words, the European Commission recognizes that France has already contributed mainly to the decarbonization of its electricity mix and can use its electrons for domestic production of hydrogen by electrolysis, in particular via PPAs with existing renewable energy parks.

The European Parliament also voted on another key measure a few days earlier. With the directive on the hydrogen and gas markets, MEPs adopted a definition of low-carbon hydrogen that gives nuclear electricity its place. Its carbon content will have to be below a greenhouse gas threshold of 3.38 kgCO2e/kgH2, i.e., a reduction of at least 70% compared to grey hydrogen. By being aligned with the threshold for renewable hydrogen, this threshold makes eligible the production of electrolyzers connected directly to the French electricity grid evaluated at 2.77 kgCO2e/kgH2 on average, according to Ademe.

Renewable and low-carbon

Patience is a virtue. There is still some way to go before this regulatory framework is completely streamlined and the various support measures for renewable and low-carbon hydrogen are consistent. These harmonized definitions are an essential first step. We must now go further, which is the challenge of the current European negotiations, so that only the decarbonized character of hydrogen production is considered, as in the United States with the Inflation Reduction Act. To do this, we still need to obtain the opening of mandatory hydrogen consumption quotas in industry and transport, which are currently reserved for renewable hydrogen, to low-carbon hydrogen. These hard points are the subject of negotiations between States on the directive on renewable energy (RED III) and the directive on hydrogen and gas.

In addition, harmonizing the European frameworks for state aid, aligning the planned tax regimes, and ensuring the technological neutrality of the future European Hydrogen Bank are other projects that we must undertake to establish equal treatment for renewable and low-carbon hydrogen.

These are all demands that certain countries, led by Germany and Spain, oppose. Still, they need French cooperation to transport renewable hydrogen from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula to Germany via pipelines, as they hope.

Keeping the electrolyzers running

In its RePower EU plan to get out of Russian hydrocarbons last year, the European Commission had already admitted that nuclear power could play a role in hydrogen production by electrolysis. As a complement to renewable energies, it is particularly interesting for running electrolyzers for a large number of hours a year and satisfying a constant and continuous demand for hydrogen in the industry as a substitute for fossil fuels (hydrogen from natural gas in refineries, fertilizers, chemicals, coke in the steel industry).

With the colossal need for electrons, more than 500 TWh, to reach the ambitious objective of 10 million tons of hydrogen to be produced on European soil, Europe will have an interest in valorizing all the renewable and low-carbon resources at its disposal. With its electricity mix combining renewables and nuclear power, France has assets that it is up to its partners to refrain from restricting, at the risk of weakening the collective effort that Europe must make in this global competition with the United States and China. ■

By Maxime Sagot, EDF Regulatory Department

Photo: Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP