France’s Parliamentary Office for evaluation of scientific and technological options (OPECST – L'Office parlementaire d'évaluation des choix scientifiques et technologiques), comprising representatives of both the National Assembly (lower house) and the Senate, on 15 April adopted scientific note No 25 on "Methods of producing hydrogen". The paper was released on 18 May. While hydrogen production currently relies mainly on fossil fuels (natural gas, oil and coal) which produces significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it can become a relevant carbon-free energy vector either by carbon capture when fossil fuels are used, or electrolysis of water using electricity of nuclear or renewable origin, the paper says.

After listing the various methods of hydrogen production using fossil fuels, the paper looks at “The challenge of low carbon hydrogen production by electrolysis of water”. Noting that, if the electricity used for this process is produced by fossil fuels it may have an even worse carbon footprint than the direct separation of hydrogen present in natural gas or coal, it says it is necessary to use green electricity (from renewable energies) or yellow electricity from nuclear power.

The report says the European objective of installing 6GW of electrolysers for the production of 1m tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2024 and then 40GW for 10m tonnes by 2030 must be considered in the context of the number of wind turbines and solar panels that this represents: at least 15,000 and 150,000 wind turbines or 800,000/ 8m hectares of solar photovoltaics. Supplying the current needs of industry worldwide (70 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen or 420 GW) would lead to the commissioning of over 1m new wind turbines or 56m hectares of photovoltaic panels. The alternative path of low-carbon hydrogen from nuclear electricity would represent 400 new nuclear reactors of 1GW each, “which is an unreal prospect, especially at a time when several countries including ours are reducing the share of nuclear power in their energy mix”.

After looking at the costs of electrolysis and the technologies available OPECST recommends the following for low carbon hydrogen production:

  • use carbon capture (CCS) for technologies involving fossil fuels and ensure that the electricity used for electrolysis of water is either of nuclear or renewable origin, which will require rigorous traceability mechanisms;
  • develop hydrogen production technologies based on water electrolysis without abandoning other production methods such as the pyrolysis of methane and the production of hydrogen from biomass;
  • think about using the price per tonne of CO2 to internalise the cost of GHG emissions and make competitive production with less carbon. Setting this price at €250/t would allow green or yellow hydrogen to compete with gray hydrogen from the conversion of hydrocarbons. A price of €100-200/t would encourage CCS in order to switch from gray to blue hydrogen;
  • support research on hydrogen production, especially on the question of materials, and improve knowledge of natural hydrogen.

OPECST said a significant increase in the production capacity for low-carbon electricity can lead to relaunching the nuclear sector and the future of hydrogen will depend on a coherent, realistic and responsible energy supply. “This ambition cannot be just a slogan, otherwise hydrogen, which has long been a technology of the future, will remain so.”

OPECST First Vice-President Gérard Longuet said hydrogen production represents 2% of French anthropogenic production of CO2, noting that traditional form of hydrogen production is “insupportable”, Euractiv reported on 19 May.

Longuet, along with Ecology Democracy Solidarity MP and mathematician Cédric Villani, believe France will not be able to do without nuclear energy to develop its production of hydrogen and limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Both are confident France will have to supplement this with other forms of electricity, such as that from renewable energy sources.

But “renewable energy alone will not be able to take over the entirety of the hydrogen production conditions today, which are not satisfactory”, Longuet added. In 2020, nuclear represented 78% of electricity production in France. The share of renewables in total energy consumption in France stood at 19.1%, well below the country’s 23% target, which was set at EU level in 2009.

According to Longuet and Villani, those benefitting from nuclear electricity “should be treated like [those benefiting] from decarbonisation in terms of taxation. The EU should not penalise nuclear electricity.”