‘Politics have to make this as easy and as desirable for us as possible to facilitate the transition to green energy and a green economy.’
– Kathrin Goldammer
Geoffrey Holland: More and more, it appears the global human economy is destined to be powered by green electricity and green hydrogen. How is that a reflection of nature’s grand design?
Kathrin Goldammer: The shift towards green energy is inevitable. Green electricity taps into abundant resources – sunshine and wind – and it will eventually make access to clean energy cheap and easy for everyone. Ending the fossil age means less energy scarcity (and less scarcity scares), less unequal access to energy, and less unequal distribution of resources. To me, equality for everyone on earth is a reflection of nature’s grand design. Also sustainability – the fact that nature renews itself and life on earth should be based on renewable resources as well.
GH: Can you summarize the differences between the world we currently know that is powered mostly by dirty fossil fuels and nuclear energy and the clean renewable energy future that is rapidly emerging?
KG: The world we currently know exploits fossil resources with devastating consequences. These are consequences both for the region where they are being extracted as well as humanity as a whole. Here is an example: When I was younger I lived in the Rhein-area in Western Germany. This was one of the three lignite mining regions in Germany. The effects of lignite mining on the landscape are massive. Whole villages were torn down to make space for more mining. Then lignite was transported to nearby power plants where it was essentially turned into heat, carbon dioxide, and other poisonous emissions. Carbon dioxide contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change and are making our living conditions worse every day all around the world. Germany is a very densely populated country, so there were millions of people like me living close to those steaming funnels on the horizon. In 10 to 20 years from now, the lignite mines will be filled with water (which is what we usually do in Germany – we turn them into lakes for swimming) and the big thermal power plants will not be operating anymore. Instead, there will be wind turbines on the hills and solar PV on every rooftop. These technologies are already here today (Germany’s electricity mix is around 40% renewable already based on wind and solar PV), but their application will be ubiquitous in the future. People will not be able to return to their home villages, but they won’t have to fear being displaced again.
But this is only the German picture. At my institute, we also have several international projects, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. They evolve around questions of energy access. In the so-called Global South, a small solar PV module can go a long way: it can help you charge your mobile phone and start a business, or provide light so that your children can do their homework in the dark. The fact that you can today go from no energy access at all to your own decentral renewable energy source is one of the greatest prospects of the renewable future. Grid-based electrification with central thermal power plants would take so much longer to set up. And there are still around 1 billion people worldwide without access to reliable electricity.
Nuclear energy is an issue of its own. You could debate that it’s carbon-free or at least more carbon-neutral than fossil fuels and therefore a good choice. But if you grew up like me in Europe in the 1980s with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happening so close to you – and you weren’t allowed to play outside for several weeks and couldn’t eat fresh fruit and vegetables because of significant amounts of radioactive fall-out – it’s very hard to make peace with the technology. It certainly isn’t our way to achieving SDG7 (the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 7) which means access to clean affordable energy for all.
GH: Is a transition to green energy an essential part of moderating climate change?
KG: Yes, it is. There is no other way. And we need to find ways to decarbonize all carbon-emitting sectors with green energy. In most countries, electricity production is the number one polluting industry. But on a global scale, the manufacturing industry plays a big role, too, and food production, and transport. We need to address all of them, and many of them can be improved directly by green energy. For example in the transport and manufacturing sectors, green energy – and green hydrogen which you can use in industrial processes and the chemical industry – will be essential in reducing their climate impacts.
GH: Why is it important for women to have an equal place at the levers of power in policymaking and the implementation of a clean, green inexhaustible hydrogen economy?
KG: Because energy is important. It impacts everyone’s life. It should therefore be a common understanding that everybody is represented in such an important field. Additionally, I see a lack of diversity in the area that I work in. Things like this happen to me regularly: Just this week I was invited to an expert hearing in the Bavarian parliament, the hearing was on energy storage technologies and policies. I was the only female expert invited. In the four-hour session, all the women combined (essentially me and the few women members of parliament who addressed the expert group) had a total of 20 minutes of speaking time as opposed to 220 minutes of speaking time by men. That’s more than one order of magnitude difference. I hope you’re as disappointed about this as I am, and that you ask them – not me – about equality and representation more often. To me, it is obvious that diversity leads to better results, and to combat climate change we need the best ideas and innovations we can get.
GH: We know wind and solar technologies are already close to the cheapest, if not already the cheapest, energy in the marketplace. Green hydrogen depends on green electricity powering electrolysis systems that split water molecules. Is it true that the cost of electrolysis is dropping fast and will very soon be so efficient that it will cost less to produce green hydrogen per unit of stored energy than gasoline?
KG: Maybe the term green hydrogen needs some explaining. Over here there was a lively debate about hydrogen production methods over the last few years, resulting in funny labels like “green” or “grey” hydrogen, where, for example, “grey” denotes the kind of hydrogen that stems from natural gas – so it’s fossil-based, and “green” meaning that it is produced via water electrolysis. Electrolyzers split water into its molecules and then separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. For this hydrogen to be really green, the electricity for the process needs to come from renewable (aka green) energy. It’s correct that wind and solar energy have dropped dramatically in price over the last 20 years making them one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation now (especially in places with a good supply of wind and sun). Does this automatically mean cheap green hydrogen? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that I do expect electrolyzer costs to come down significantly, too, making the conversion process cheaper and cheaper. But there is also a no, it’s a no in the sense that in many applications for green hydrogen, there is a cheaper alternative. In most cases, this alternative will be the direct use of green energy in the form of electricity. For example, in the passenger car that is usually the case: green hydrogen can become cheaper than gasoline, making a fuel-cell vehicle drive less expensive, but then you could probably take a battery-electric car as well, using the green electricity directly and even cheaper.
But you mention the unit of energy stored, and that’s something where hydrogen is very interesting: when I think of some of the “bigger” or “heavier” applications that need to be decarbonized, like trucks, trains, ships, etc., compressed hydrogen can store a lot of energy in a small space better than an electrochemical battery. It might even be transported in that form over long distances – at least that’s what some European countries are discussing right now. The idea is that green hydrogen can be produced inexpensively with on-site electrolysis in countries with great solar potential and then exported to Europe. The German government has just adopted a national hydrogen strategy a few months ago where they actually foresee major green hydrogen imports in the future. They have already entered into a contract with Morocco, for instance.
GH: Once a green hydrogen economy is fully built out over the next few decades, what role will fossil fuels and nuclear power play?
We can substitute all fossil fuels with hydrogen and our electricity will come from wind and solar PV. In theory, if we find out that our future energy system still needs a certain capacity of flexible power plants, we could run them on artificial fuels made from green hydrogen rather than fossil fuels or fossil gas. About nuclear I am not so sure… I don’t see any new power plants coming up in Europe and I am pretty sure the long-term business case is unfavorable in the US, too.
GH: Hydrogen is flammable, but it has been managed as an industrial commodity safely for nearly a century. Is there a reason for the public to be concerned about living safely and comfortably in a world powered by a green energy economy?
KG: I don’t think there is a reason to be concerned. Gasoline is pretty flammable, too, isn’t it? And people have accepted that it’s used in cars. What’s funny about hydrogen is that I remember this topic from around 20 years ago when I was studying to become an electrical engineer. At the time we were discussing fuel cells in class and one of our key concerns was hydrogen storage. As in: hydrogen is such a small molecule, how will we ever be able to contain it? Today, this isn’t an issue anymore – we can store hydrogen in several pressure levels safely. This tells me that science and technology are ever-evolving and hydrogen applications and safety have improved immensely over time, too.
GH: What is the role of government policy on the local and regional levels in facilitating a rapid transition to pollution-free, green energy?
KG: Although I am an engineer, I don’t think technology drives change – policy does. If carbon standards are ambitious, the industry will innovate and technology gets better. If carbon prices are high, we will look into alternatives and apply them. If certain green investments pose a high risk, maybe some sort of short-term government funding will help. And these are only three ways that politics can take to tackle carbon emissions. Generally, I want politics to set the boundary conditions for a market that will lead to real prosperity – not just economic growth or other indicators we have taken for proxies of human wellbeing for a long time. If a pollution-free, climate-friendly life is the goal, or if a rapid transition is a goal, then we need policies that put a price on carbon, that set ambitious standards (for example for power plant carbon emissions, for product life-cycle-emissions or vehicles) and that makes it easy to transition to a greener life. Governments and communities can also prioritize spending when it comes to big infrastructure investments. For example, it would really help if cheap and safe (green electricity based) mass transport were available in every city and suburb, but that is a massive investment. But then again, roads and highways are also very expensive to build and maintain and we’ve grown accustomed to them being part of most public budgets.
I think my main point is that I hold policymakers responsible for the world we live in and the world it becomes. If you go into politics only to tell me that deregulation and a free market will solve every problem, then you’re wasting a precious opportunity that – in my view – is best used by people who actually want to make use of that power and think of a clever way to achieve a better world with effective policies.
GH: Humans have been operating like we are above and superior to nature for millennia. How can we do a better job of embracing our place as part of nature with a fundamental obligation to be good planetary stewards?
KG: We can consider ourselves as part of nature. If nature goes down, so do we. It’s arrogant to think that we will survive without it – or detached from it, or whatever it is that drives this superior view. Life on earth will not be fun with global temperatures and sea levels rising as they are. It’s also an ethical question, right? In the sense that it’s unfair to be messing up life for people in other countries, and that it’s a shame that we are leaving future generations with a world that leaves them no choices anymore to make their own decisions. But how can we do a better job… maybe more deliberation about the ethical issues here might help. Placing more value on humility would help, too.
GH: What can individuals do to encourage the rapid transition to a green energy economy that offers the best chance for a life-affirming future for humanity?
KG: We can consume less, reduce our fossil-based mobility and invest our money in ethical projects. This actually neatly answers your question number 8: politics have to make this as easy and as desirable for us as possible to facilitate the transition to green energy and a green economy.
Kathrin Goldammer is Managing Director of the Reiner-Lemoine Institut in Berlin, Germany, and a founding member of the Women in Green Hydrogen network. She has a Ph.D. in Physics from Humboldt Universität in Berlin. Kathrin advocates for the increased visibility of women in the energy arena and is an active critic of pseudoscience.