Pilot programs, massive investments and ambitious objectives: in Spain, projects are multiplying in the green hydrogen sector, considered essential to “decarbonize” the economy. A boon for Madrid, in the midst of a global rush for this highly coveted energy.
“Many countries are interested in green hydrogen. But in Spain, the sector has seen a particularly marked acceleration” in recent months, says Rafael Cossent, researcher at the Catholic University Pontificia Comillas in Madrid.
Numerous projects are underway
In the first quarter, 20% of the new green hydrogen production projects announced worldwide were in Spain, the second most dynamic country in this sector behind the United States (51% of new projects), according to Wood Mackenzie.
“Spain has become a very attractive country for green hydrogen,” European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said in Madrid in mid-May, hailing the rise of a “large-scale competitive” sector.
The development of the sector is in its infancy. But the war in Ukraine has given it a boost, pushing the EU to double its 2030 production targets to reduce its energy dependence on Russia and accelerate its environmental transition.
The production of “green” hydrogen is made possible by the “electrolysis of water”. This process breaks down water molecules with the help of an electric current from renewable energy sources. Unlike fossil fuels, it releases only water vapor when burned.
This gas can replace coal in heat-intensive industries, such as the steel industry. It can also be used to make fertilizer. It is seen as a future solution to power buses, trains and even airplanes.
Its cost, much higher than that of “grey” hydrogen, made from gas or oil, has long held back its production. But technological advances and soaring fuel prices have gradually made it economically competitive.
For Spain, this dynamic is a boon because it has “an already developed renewable sector” and “very significant solar and wind resources,” explains Javier Brey, president of the Spanish Hydrogen Association (AeH2).
Rafael Cossent agrees. It highlights other assets, such as the presence in Spain of a “vast gas network” and several regasification terminals. These “could be adapted” so that Spain can “export hydrogen”.
Aware of this potential, the government launched in May 2021 a support plan of 1.5 billion euros to the sector, financed by the European recovery plan. Private investment could increase this amount to $8.9 billion by 2030.
All the big Spanish energy companies have jumped on board, including Iberdrola, Repsol and Enagas, which has teamed up with steel giant ArcelorMittal and fertilizer manufacturer Fertiberia in a huge production project called HyDeal España.
Located in the Asturias region (north), this site, which will include some 15 solar farms, will be able to produce 330,000 tons of hydrogen per year by 2030. This makes it the largest project of its kind in the world today, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).
This type of initiative “shows that the sector is mature” and that “we are entering the realm of the concrete”, emphasizes Javier Brey. “2030 may seem a long way off, but in reality it’s tomorrow,” insists the head of AeH2, for whom Spain has “all the cards in hand to become an energy hub”.
However, this ambition implies the removal of several obstacles. “To impose itself, Spain will have to accelerate the deployment of solar and wind farms, as electrolysis consumes a lot of electricity. But there is an administrative bottleneck in the study of the files”, judges Rafael Cossent.
This difficulty is compounded by the lack of interconnections with the rest of Europe, which are necessary to export this hydrogen and which will “require heavy investments”, adds the specialist.
The Spanish government is taking this problem into account. In fact, it recently relaunched a pipeline project between Catalonia and France, which it wants to adapt to the transport of hydrogen. A project of great “geopolitical importance”, according to Ursula Von der Leyen… but which awaits financing.