Cornelia Ernst, MdEP: The Future of Clean Energy – Hydrogen and the future of Europe’s energy system

In summer 2020 the European Commission presented an EU strategy for the integration of the energy system (COM(2020) 299 final) and a closely related hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe (COM(2020) 301 final) presenting plans with which the energy system should contribute to the EU’s climate neutrality by 2050. Primarily through energy efficiency and the electrification of transport and heating. However, substantial expansion of the hydrogen economy is also part of the strategy. The European Left GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament organized an international webinar in cooperation with transform! europe on November 17, 2020, to discuss important social and ecological questions about hydrogen and the future of European energy systems. The central question of the webinar, moderated by Roland Kulke (transform! europe), was: To whom does the energy of tomorrow belong?

As early as 1874, science fiction author Jules Vernes described a utopian society driven by hydrogen in his book “The Mysterious Island”. The Commission is currently pinning similar hopes on hydrogen technology as Jules Verne did in his time and already sees the EU as the center of a global hydrogen market. Manuel Bompard (La France Insoumise, LFI) does indeed see great potential in hydrogen, however, at the same time he dispels the hope that hydrogen could become something like the “oil of the 21st century”.

Bompard explained that hydrogen is not an energy source per se, but only an energy carrier, i.e. it acts like a storage medium. In contrast to oil, however, there are no hydrogen sources on earth. The production of hydrogen requires large amounts of energy – this is the big difference in availability compared to oil! Hydrogen has to be produced at great expense by gasification processes of fossil fuels (grey or blue hydrogen) or by electrolysis. Hydrogen is only really clean if it is also produced from renewable electricity (so-called “green hydrogen”) and not from natural gas or coal as is currently the case with over 90% of hydrogen production. It would be similarly negligent to produce hydrogen from nuclear power. A switch to renewable hydrogen would, at current production levels, already take up 80% of the capacities of wind and solar plants in Europe. So hydrogen is not a miracle cure for climate change. Bompard sees hydrogen primarily as a storage medium for the surplus production of wind and solar plants by converting excess electricity to hydrogen. There must be democratic governance to decide on which areas to prioritize. The very energy-intensive industrial processes of steel and cement production for instance will probably not be able to manage without hydrogen in the future. Bompard talked about two concrete projects that are currently failing in France due to the neoliberal policies of the government and the capital interests of large multinational companies. A hydrogen hub would have been perfectly feasible on the site of a former oil refinery that TOTAL closed down in 2010. Personnel, wind, land and steelworks are already in place, only the political will is missing. A trade union initiative in Belfort in Eastern France also has a hydrogen based alternative industrial vision in mind, where General Electric is shutting down a plant. Here, too, there would be good opportunities for the creation of local and green jobs in the high-tech sector – if there were political will to do so.

Jean-Claude Simon (transform! europe) spoke about the modalities for a prudently planned hydrogen strategy, emphasizing the importance of worker participation and self-governance and the role of public investment in capital-intensive hydrogen production. Simon expects enormous upheavals in industry and the energy sector and, in view of the current social and environmental challenges, advocates a fundamental restructuring and democratization of the economy. One basis of the new thinking must be the decommodification of labor, i.e. the end of the central fact for capitalism that labor is perceived as an economic good. According to Simon, the International Labor Organization (ILO) made it clear in its groundbreaking Philadelphia Declaration of 1944 in the first article: “Labor is not a commodity”.  Simon assumes that within the market system we are unable to raise the huge social resources needed for socio-ecological change. A democratization of the economy must strengthen local autonomy as well as regional, national and European democracy. In an interconnected global society, there are also economic processes that should be subject to public and democratic planning.

Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke) initiated the second round of the webinar, now everything revolved around the question: “Who owns the energy system?” Ernst explained that the so-called “energy system integration” will change the future of energy, transport, housing and social life in the long term. By energy system integration, we mean a holistic view and planning of the energy system, its infrastructure, the various energy sources and carriers in order to use all resources efficiently and to reduce energy demand. Ernst recalls that regions, municipalities and citizens have hardly been taken into account by the Commission so far. Social issues are also prominently absent in the Commission’s current proposals for energy system reform. Ernst wants to change this, because the transition to a new energy system offers not only challenges but also great opportunities for a better future. A novel integrated energy system based on renewable energies and digitalization is particularly suitable for decentralized energy production and use. This in turn can benefit so-called energy communities, cooperatives, co-operatives, producers of their own energy (prosumers), tenant flows or processes of re-municipalisation. Ernst makes it clear that talking about the bridging technology natural gas is ideologically motivated; there is simply no such thing as a bridging technology. Once built, infrastructures last a lifetime. She also sees the temptation to boost the hydrogen economy with fossil (grey and blue) hydrogen as a trap we must avoid at all cost. Ernst maintains that we can only think about a hydrogen economy if we massively expand renewable energies at the same time. Ernst also believes that a targeted industrial policy is necessary to create the necessary capacities for the production of solar and wind power plants and good industrial jobs.

Molly Walsh (Friends of the Earth Europe, FoEE) also points out that the hydrogen strategy is driven by the natural gas lobby and therefore doubts the sustainability of a comprehensive hydrogen economy. As a long-time activist for energy communities, she was able to report on various initiatives that contribute to a social-ecological transformation in the energy sector. FoEE has been one of the leading European NGOs in the field of “energy democracy” for many years and can draw on extensive knowledge in this field. There are many different modes of social and environmentally sustainable energy production. However, Walsh concluded that the cooperation of urban public bodies and energy cooperatives has proven to be the best mode for the sustainable socially and environmentally sustainable production, distribution and consumption of energy. In late autumn 2020, FoEE has published Community Energy: A practical guide to reclaiming power. To put it in a nutshell, we can combine the best of both worlds: the environmental motivation of citizens with the social support options available to the public sector. Good cooperation strengthens democracy in both entities: within the cooperative and within the city. From Scotland, Walsh reported on a cooperative that, in collaboration with the City of Edinburgh, installed solar panels on public buildings and used the profits to renovate the public library and finance educational projects. In Spain, a large decentralized cooperative Som Energia with a strong feminist focus is fighting against disconnections of households suffering from energy poverty, and in the municipality of Eeklo in Flanders, energy-poor households were able to become part of an energy cooperative with the support of the city, thereby reducing their electricity costs.

The presentations of the speakers were followed by a lively discussion with the audience, which came to the conclusion that a sustainable system based on renewable energies can favor small-scale, decentralized and democratized energy production, enabling citizens and communities to achieve social and ecological goals. However, the discussion also highlighted that hydrogen, unlike photovoltaic and wind energy, is a technology that is entering our energy systems without any “built-in tendency” towards democratization. While the prices for renewable energies are decreasing and can be purchased and operated with little capital expenditure, the electrolysis plants for hydrogen production are expensive, technically sophisticated and relatively large devices that are only rarely suitable for initiatives supported by citizens. Hydrogen is therefore a capital-intensive technology that favors large companies, so the operational involvement of unions and employees plays an even greater role here than when we discuss photovoltaics and wind energy. An important area of debate will therefore be the legislative level of regulation as well as the representation of interests at the company level. There is no clear answer to the question of who owns the energy system of the future, but rather a multitude of alternatives that also give citizens and employees the opportunity to act in their respective environments. We have good prerequisites for a democratization of the energy system. As the many positive examples show, we can make a positive difference in our communities and work places, if we take action. We cordially invite you to watch the video recordings of the webinar to get inspired.

Brussels, 17th November 2020


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