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Today, more than ever, hydrogen is in the spotlight. This recent interest is certainly a consequence of the increased attention on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of adverse climate change.
In order to meet the European targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a deep decarbonisation of energy systems and a large-scale switch from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy is required in Belgium.
Belgian authorities encourage the development of hydrogen projects through subsidies and other legislative initiatives. For example, many Belgian cities have introduced low-emission zones aimed at keeping the most polluting vehicles out of cities and promoting the use of low-carbon alternative solutions.
Since 2009, demonstration projects have been developed within the framework of the Interreg project Hydrogen Region Flanders-South Netherlands, with Belgium and the Netherlands working closely together in a cross-border collaboration.
This project resulted in the first hydrogen stations using electrolysis in Flanders and the Netherlands, and the development, construction and demonstration of innovative hydrogen-based transport. Most of the hydrogen projects in Belgium focus on hydrogen in transport: including the development of hydrogen refuelling stations, hydrogen-fuelled cars, buses, and (garbage) trucks.
The use of hydrogen as a large scale renewable energy storage solution has also been proven to have technical and economic viability in Belgium.
2. MARKET PROSPECTS FOR HYDROGEN
There are significant prospects for growth over the coming years in Belgium. The total technical potential for green hydrogen in Flanders is estimated to be around 954 kt by 2050.
Concrete applications for the use of hydrogen, however, remain limited in the coming decades. There are two potential interesting applications.
Firstly, for a large number of industrial processes (fertilisers, plastics, oil and steel) hydrogen is indispensable as a raw material.
Carbon emissions from heavy and long-distance transport (such as aviation and shipping) could also be greatly reduced by the use of liquid fuels produced on the basis of hydrogen.
There has been little M&A activity in the sector and relatedly, little by way of private financing to date. This is expected to change once the Belgian government clarifies the legal framework for hydrogen projects.
3. CHALLENGES FACING HYDROGEN PROJECTS IN BELGIUM
Reducing the cost and securing demand
As with many emerging technologies, the production and processing of low carbon hydrogen is more expensive than current processes for producing “grey” hydrogen. Accordingly, the development of hydrogen at scale is seen as a key requirement for reducing overall costs.
Given that the production of hydrogen in Belgium at present is entirely based on natural gas or coal, the greenhouse gases released when producing hydrogen are higher than the emissions avoided by using the hydrogen. It will therefore be a challenge to gradually start producing green hydrogen over the next few years through electrolysis using renewable energy.
Belgium will have to ensure that it has sufficient green electricity for this process.
Overcoming the current price uncertainties and lack of forecasted demand is key for developing successful hydrogen projects in Belgium. The certainty of long-term contracts is seen as critical for minimising some of the perceived risks.
In common with many other jurisdictions, Belgium does not have a well-defined legislative framework for hydrogen projects across various sectors. This creates a number of gaps and uncertainties which need to be addressed before the hydrogen economy can flourish.
4. REGULATION OF HYDROGEN
There are different laws that specifically relate to hydrogen. These laws mostly regulate health and safety aspects of using hydrogen or the transport of it (please see more detail below).
In addition to these laws, there are other laws that do not specifically relate to hydrogen but should be taken into account. Some new legislative initiatives govern low-emission zones across the country (and, for example, specify that hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are allowed to enter the relevant area).
Lastly, some hydrogen projects will require a permit. This may be the case when the project includes any of. the following activities:
the storage of gases (and therefore hydrogen);
the physical treatment (compressing or relaxing) of gases;
the filling of gases into movable containers.
Besides, one will have to take the Royal Decree of 14 May 2002 on the transport permit for gaseous products and others by pipeline into account.
Urban planning regulations have been regionalised. When developing a hydrogen project that requires a building/environmental license, the applicable laws will differ in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
Injection into the gas grid – blending hydrogen into the existing gas networks
At present, hydrogen is not interchangeable with natural gas in the Belgian networks. The possibilities of replacing gas with hydrogen in the natural gas distribution network in Belgium requires further research.
For the time being, research assumes that higher concentrations of hydrogen in the natural gas network require thorough renewal or modification of existing storage, transport and distribution infrastructure, as well as current consumption devices. To date, the competent authorities have not yet received any applications for the injection of hydrogen into the natural gas network.
However, the injection of a percentage of hydrogen into the natural gas grid and making the natural gas grid suitable for the transport of pure hydrogen are at the top of the Belgian hydrogen agenda.
Health and Safety
Hydrogen, like other gasses, is heavily regulated from a health and safety perspective, particularly due to its physical qualities. Hydrogen has a wide ignition range of 4 to 76%, has a low ignition energy (0.019 mJ) and burns quickly.
The following directives and royal decrees are the most important initiatives in terms of health and safety measures related to hydrogen:
The Pressure Equipment Directive (PED) (2014/68/EU) applies to the design, manufacture and conformity assessment of stationary pressure equipment with a maximum allowable pressure greater than 0,5 bar. The directive entered into force on 20 July 2016 and is implemented in Belgian law via the royal decree of 11 July 2016.
The ATEX Directive (2014/34) (implemented in Belgium via the royal decree of 16 April 2016) covers equipment and protective systems intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres. The directive defines the essential health and safety requirements and conformity assessment procedures, to be applied before products are placed on the EU market.
The royal decree of 19 March 2017 includes the safety measures relating to the establishment and operation of installations for the transport of gaseous products and others by pipeline. This royal decree implements the law of 12 April 1965 on the transport of gaseous products and replaces all older royal decrees.
The royal decree of 13 April 2019 regulates the standards that alternative fuels must meet (hydrogen used for road applications must for example conform with NBN EN 17124).
Transport of hydrogen
The transport of hydrogen is also governed by the previous mentioned royal decree of 19 March 2017 and a royal decree of 14 May 2002 on the transport licence for gaseous products and others by pipeline.
5. REGULATORY BODIES
There is no specific regulatory body which is responsible for the regulation of hydrogen projects. Instead a number of regulators would have responsibilities depending on the activity in question.
Local Authority / Town and Country Planning Authority
Regulates the use of land
Undertakes environmental impact assessment
Minister for Energy
Delivers a permit to build and operate pipelines for the transport of gaseous products
Transports natural gas from the gas terminals to the distribution system operators and large industrial consumers
CREG (federal regulator)
Supervises transparency and competition on the electricity and natural gas markets
Approves the transmission tariffs of Fluxys
Watches over consumer interests
Monitors whether the market situation is in the general interest and in line with general energy policy
Advises the authorities
The VREG (Flemish Regulator of the Electricity and Gas Market), the CWaPE (Commission Wallonne pour l'Energie) and BRUGEL (the Brussels energy regulator) (The regional regulators)
The regional regulators are responsible for the organisation and functioning of the regional electricity and natural gas markets
They advise the regional authorities and monitor the application of the law
6. UPCOMING DEVELOPMENTS
There have been a number of hydrogen projects in Belgium to date. WaterstofNet (a non-profit association) is one of the most active organisations in terms of hydrogen projects. WatersofNet develops sustainable hydrogen projects and is active in international networks. Some of the projects in which they were recently involved are:
HyFLOW/Green Octopus: a collaboration between large-scale green hydrogen producers, ports, gas companies and large-scale hydrogen customers.
Within the EPOC project (2018-2022) fourteen Belgian research partners joined forces to create energy models. The aim of the EPOC 2030-2050 project is to find out the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases and guarantee the reliability of the energy supply.
Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland (European funded project – active since 2009 and still running as Waterregio 2.0):
In the field of hydrogen infrastructure:
Development and deployment of a mobile hydrogen filling station to facilitate demonstrations at various locations in the region.
Expansion of the existing hydrogen filling station on the Automotive Campus in Helmond to serve more demonstration applications.
Development and construction of two unique hydrogen filling stations, where hydrogen will be produced on site from green electricity: in Wilrijk the filling station will be linked to an incinerator, in Breda the filling station will be linked to solar energy.
In the field of zero emission applications:
Demonstration of Europe's largest fleet of 75 forklift trucks, using 'indoor' hydrogen refuelling.
Development and demonstration of Europe's first large (40 tonne) hydrogen-powered truck.
The demonstration programme for garbage trucks, started in the previous Interreg project, will be continued in this Flanders and Southern Netherlands project.