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Electrification and Hydrogen in the European Energy Transition

According to a recent study, a major step toward attaining climate neutrality in the European Union is a quick transition from fossil fuels to electric technology driven by renewable energy. At the same time, hydrogen created from electricity will be critical in difficult-to-electrify industries such as aviation, shipping, and chemicals.

European Union flag in front of the Berlaymont building (European commission) in Brussels, Belgium.

Image Credit: artjazz/

By 2050, electrification and hydrogen will be the primary options for achieving climate neutrality through renewable electricity. Future EU transformation scenarios modeled by scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research PIK examine the functions of electrification and hydrogen and discover that by 2050, total energy consumption will require 42-60% electricity and 9-26% hydrogen-based energy.

Previous research has shown that our power system can be transformed to renewable sources like wind and solar at low cost and low environmental impact. However, the next question is how this renewable electricity can be used to substitute fossil fuel use in the buildings, industry and transport sectors. Our analysis shows that the direct use of electricity, for example, via electric cars and heat pumps, is critical for a broad range of sectors, while the conversion of electricity to hydrogen is important only for few applications.

Felix Schreyer, Study Lead Author and Scientist, The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The study, published in One Earth, is the first to examine the interaction between electrification and hydrogen in EU climate neutrality scenarios at a more sectoral level. The research reveals higher electrification potentials and a more limited deployment range for hydrogen-based energy than previous studies.

Using the energy-economy model REMIND, PIK scientists evaluated possible combinations of both tactics in EU energy system transformation routes under various scenario assumptions.

They discovered that while hydrogen and synthetic fuels made from electricity are mainly required for transportation, aviation, the chemical industry, and electricity storage, direct electrification is the predominant strategy for passenger cars and low-temperature heating in buildings and industries across all scenarios.

Due to this, hydrogen and electrification work well together while competing for a relatively tiny portion of ultimate energy—roughly 15%. These hazy areas include truck transportation and industrial process heat at high temperatures.

Three Cornerstones for a Successful Transformation: Advancing the Expansion of Renewables, Removing Obstacles and Providing Incentives

Ramping up renewable electricity supply and switching to electric technologies wherever possible is by far the fastest and cheapest way of eliminating carbon emissions in most sectors. We therefore expect the share of electricity in final energy to increase from 20% to 42-60%.

Gunnar Luderer, Study Co-Author and Leader, Energy Systems Group, The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This is due to the fact that electric technologies are becoming more widely available and efficient at using electricity. Still, there are significant energy losses involved in the burning of synthetic fuels and the conversion of hydrogen.

Generally, depending on the quantity of hydrogen imported and the role of electrification and hydrogen in uncertain industries, the demand for energy in the EU will rise by 80–160% in 2050 across all of their scenarios. This implies that power production will need to double what it is today by then.

The authors also address the current status of EU policies concerning hydrogen and electrification, outlining three essential pillars for a successful transition: Policymakers should: 1) eliminate obstacles to the spread of renewable power expansion; 2) give priority to electrification and hydrogen, respectively, in sectors where they are favored in all scenarios; and 3) provide incentives for the extension of hydrogen supply chains.

Our study highlights that policymakers should respect the different sectoral roles of both strategies: By promoting electrification via electric applications for road transport and heating while prioritizing hydrogen and synthetic fuels for applications where they are indispensable.

Falko Ueckerdt, Study Co-Author and Scientist, The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Journal Reference:

Schreyer, F., et. al. (2024) Distinct roles of direct and indirect electrification in pathways to a renewables-dominated European energy system. One Earth. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2024.01.015


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