In the Ruhr area, Germany’s industrial heartland, Air Liquide and Siemens Energy are working on the ‘Trailblazer’ lighthouse project for renewable hydrogen that will help the industry and mobility sectors’ transition towards a sustainable future.
By Moritz Gathmann
Traveling to the construction site of Air Liquide’s ‘Trailblazer’ electrolyzer project, one is starkly reminded why the Ruhr Area is called ‘the industrial heart’ of Germany. The conurbation bordering on the Netherlands is home to more than 5 million people – and has a century-old history of heavy industry. In addition to the dense network of road and railway tracks, the area is shaped by its chemical plants, steel works, refineries and power plants with their innumerable chimney stacks, pipes, and power lines. But the time for change has come, especially for the heavy industry and mobility sectors: Namely through hydrogen production from renewable energies.
Near the city of Oberhausen, in the middle of a 120-hectare chemical plant, the construction works for one of Europe’s most important production facilities for renewable hydrogen are in full swing: This is where, in the next years, the ‘Trailblazer’ project will break new ground. Based on a 24-stack electrolyzer from Siemens Energy, the 20-megawatt project will produce 335 kilograms of low-carbon hydrogen and 2680 kilograms of renewable oxygen per hour, with the potential to expand to 30 megawatt full capacity.
Production, distribution, application of renewable hydrogen all in one place
“A trailblazer is a pioneer, someone who prepares the path for the future. This fits very much with what we are doing here: We are convinced that this project is preparing the path for the future, for the transformation of the industry,” says Gilles Le Van, Vice President Large Industries and Energy Transition Central Europe at Air Liquide, a leading company in gases, technologies and services for industry and health.
What makes the ‘Trailblazer’ project unique are two factors: On the one hand, it will be integrated into an existing industrial infrastructure. On the other hand, the partnership with Siemens Energy will help both sides to learn lessons for future projects.
“We are two partners from France and Germany, and together we can unite our competencies to develop a partnership that aims at decarbonizing industry and mobility.”Gilles Le Van, Vice President Large Industries and Energy Transition Central Europe at Air Liquide
“Here, the production, distribution and the application of renewable hydrogen all come together in one place, and we will be able to test all three parts at the same time,” says Gilles Le Van. The site is already connected to chemical and steel plants in the region through 200 kilometers of hydrogen and oxygen pipelines. This way, the gas can be directly transported to the point of use of Air Liquide’s customers.
The partnership with Siemens Energy is based on a common vision: “We are two partners from France and Germany, and together we can unite our competencies to develop a partnership that aims at decarbonizing industry and mobility,” says Gilles Le Van. “It is key to create partnerships because the task is a very large and challenging one.” Indeed, the two companies are seeing eye to eye when it comes to fostering research as well as expertise to ultimately scale up the technology of hydrogen production from renewables. In the end, better efficiency will help to decrease overall costs.
Is renewable hydrogen competitive?
One big challenge is where to source the electricity needed for the water electrolysis technology used in the “Trailblazer” project, because only a hydrogen production powered by renewable energy will eventually result in a reduction of carbon emissions for the customer. In this case, the electricity for the 20-megawatt plant will be a mix between mostly wind and potentially solar power.
The other challenge lies in the competitiveness of renewable hydrogen: Currently, renewable H2 is more expensive than hydrogen, produced by steam methane reforming using natural gas. Realizing the imperative of decarbonizing its industry sector, the German government, however, idevelop instruments to help bridge the costs for the upcoming years, as Le Van explains: “These operating expense (OpEx) subsidies should compensate the higher production cost of renewable hydrogen compared to conventional hydrogen.”
On the other hand, projects promoting the transformation process are supported by the EU and national governments on the investment part. One important EU program, “Important Projects of Common European Interest” (IPCEI), supports large hydrogen production projects that contribute – as the program’s name suggests – substantially to the interests of the EU industry and economy.
The European Commission has set itself ambitious goals: With the 2030 Climate Target Plan, the Commission aims to raise the EU’s ambition on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. By 2050, the European Union wants to be climate-neutral.
Ecosystem for the hydrogen economy
Yet most regions of the world share the same challenge: The Paris Agreement, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, set the goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Their shared ultimate goal is to drastically reduce the carbon emissions of transport and industry, in order to reach a climate neutral world by the middle of the century.
It is therefore no coincidence that the project in Oberhausen is called ‘Trailblazer’: Air Liquide and Siemens Energy are proving that the transformation is possible. “What we are creating here is what we call an ecosystem,” says Gilles Le Van. “As we produce hydrogen, we will be able to distribute it to the industry. In addition, we will also be able to supply the filling stations to contribute to the reduction of CO2 for the mobility sector. You see, renewable hydrogen is the common base to support decarbonization in different sectors.”
Berlin-based journalist Moritz Gathmann has been reporting since 2004 for media such as DER SPIEGEL magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and others.
Combined picture and video credits: Frank Peterschröder