In yet another sign that Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has done nothing to slow down the clean power revolution, the leading locomotive manufacturer Alstom has just inked a deal with the company Air Products to bring zero emission hydrogen trains to the Czech Republic. Just a few years ago, that would have spelled good news for Russian gas stakeholders, but today it’s just another link in an endless chain of bad news for fossil fuels.
Cutting Ties With Russian Gas, The Hydrogen Edition
The primary source of hydrogen in the global economy is natural gas, and the Czech Republic relies primarily on natural gas imported from Russia. All else being equal, a new fleet of hydrogen trains in the Czech Republic would open up another source of demand for Russian gas.
However, all is not being equal. The hydrogen economy of the future is taking shape, and it is not going to be dominated by natural gas. Instead, the focus is on water electrolysis systems that deploy electricity from solar, wind, and other renewables to push hydrogen from plain water.
The Czech Republic is among the nations incorporating electrolysis into their decarbonization planning. In September of 2021, it issued a document titled, “Hydrogen Strategy,” which outlines the use of hydrogen to decarbonize the nation’s transportation and industrial sectors as well as services, households, and agriculture.
“In these efforts, the Czech Republic coordinates its actions not only within the European Union, but also in cooperation with other countries that are preparing or already implementing their hydrogen strategies,” the Hydrogen Strategy states.
The Hydrogen Strategy also emphasizes incremental change over a sudden shift, stating that the transition to a hydrogen economy “must be achieved through gradually transforming the industry and changing technologies in a way that does not jeopardise employment, competitiveness and the overall standard of living in the Czech Republic.”
Russia Kicks EU Decarbonization Into High Gear
The incremental strategy got a jolt late last year, when Russia curtailed gas shipments to Europe in an apparent effort to gain approval for the Nord Stream II pipeline. That didn’t quite work out. EU nations, including the Czech Republic, turned to alternate suppliers.
On February 9 of this year, Reuters reported an interview with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who indicated that diversifying his nation’s gas suppliers was a long term solution, not a stopgap response to the Russian cutback.
“I like to say (Russian President) Vladimir Putin gave Europe a great Christmas gift because he showed that we are not dependent on Russian gas,” Lipavsky said.
“This is a very good example that Russia cannot afford to use gas as some fundamental economic lever, because if Europe builds sufficient mechanisms, terminals, it will diversify its energy security,” he added, somewhat presciently.
Less than three weeks later, Russia launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The Czech Republic joined the rest of the EU in the scramble for alternate supplies.
Dim Prospects For A Quick Green H2 Makeover
The Hydrogen Strategy paints a somewhat pessimistic outlook for a quick acceleration of green hydrogen production within Czech borders, though importing green hydrogen from other nations is an option.
One potential partner is Germany, which has served as the main conduit for piping importing gas from Russia to the Czech Republic. Germany and the Czech Republic have already begun collaborating on gas security measures in light of the threat from Russia. Germany is also working on a deal to import excess green H2 from Denmark.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic also holds the seat of EU President, in which capacity it mediated a dispute last month between France and Germany over the distinction between H2 from renewable resources and “low-carbon” versions, which could include electrolysis systems powered by nuclear energy as well as fossil sources that integrate carbon capture systems.
A New Foothold For Green H2
While the dust is settling over that fight, it’s worth noting that the Czech Republic has established a reputation for holding back on renewable energy initiatives in past years. The country also has six nuclear reactors in operation that account for about one-third of its electricity generation, and it is laying plans for a “substantial increase” by 2040.
Still, the Czech Republic has an opportunity to develop a respectably-sized renewable hydrogen industry, partly on account of domestic electrolysis engineering firms like 2 JCP. The energy firm Orlen also announced plans to include the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Slovakia, in a network of green hydrogen hubs in central Europe. The partnership between Alstom and Air Products could help move things along, too.
The two companies announced a Memorandum of Understanding on December 5, formalizing a long term commitment in support of hydrogen-powered trains.
“Both parties will do everything in their power to accelerate the introduction of hydrogen in rail in the Czech Republic,” said Alstom in a press release.
“Alstom is a pioneer in hydrogen rail mobility solutions and has much to offer in this area, from expertise to the trains themselves. With Air Products, we can also supply the necessary fuelling stations and build the hydrogen infrastructure in the country,” they added.
That doesn’t necessarily mean green hydrogen. Alstom’s fuel cell trains will run on hydrogen from just about any source, and its press release refers only to “low-carbon hydrogen.” In addition, Air Products recently stated that it intends to develop carbon capture as a “core competency,” all of which indicates that water electrolysis is not part of the initial plan.
On the other hand, Air Products has been expanding its renewable H2 footprint in recent years. In July of 2020, the company signed an exclusive strategic agreement with thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers to collaborate on green hydrogen facilities in the “gigawatt size” in key locations around the world.
“The SCA with thyssenkrupp is an important element of our value chain in developing, building, owning and operating world-scale projects and supplying green hydrogen for mobility, energy and industrial applications,” said Air Products CEO Samir J. Serhan.
That’s just one example of the rapid pace of scale-up in the global green hydrogen industry. Whenever the Czech Republic decides to move in that direction, the supply chain will be ready and waiting.
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Photo: Alstom and Air Products to bring zero emission trains to Czech Republic (image courtesy of Alstom).
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