Vattenfall is supporting the conversion of the decommissioned coal-fired power station Moorburg into a green hub for Hamburg’s hydrogen economy. In an interview, project manager Arne Jacobsen explains the background to this paradigm shift.
Mr Jacobsen, where does Vattenfall’s interest in getting involved in the Hamburg Green Hydrogen Hub (HGHH) come from?
Let me begin with the historical background: Vattenfall has been active in Hamburg for a long time and has also been involved in the hydrogen sector since the early 2000s – for example, from 2003 in partnerships to supply hydrogen buses and from 2012 with the hydrogen filling station in HafenCity. As far as the HGHH is concerned, we received support very early on from Senator for Economic Affairs Michael Westhagemann, who brought a 100-MW electrolysis unit into play a few years ago. Initial discussions with the first partners quickly got underway.
Following the decision to phase out coal, a good re-use concept for the Moorburg location was particularly important to us. Here, of course, the idea was to advance renewable energies, which can continue to use the excellent local infrastructure. After all, the location is ideal with its connection to the 380-kV and 110-kV grid as well as its proximity to the Elbe and large industrial companies.
What is Vattenfall’s role in the joint project?
Vattenfall contributes the Moorburg location, including the options for using the existing infrastructure and expertise. On the technical side, this concerns the dismantling of the existing coal-fired power plant, which will enable it to continue to be used as a hydrogen hub, and the integration of the parts that remain into the required new infrastructure. This includes, for example, water treatment. Work on emptying and cleaning individual parts of the plant will be followed by clearing the building site, i.e. the partial dismantling of the existing power plant, which is subject to approval. When it comes to approvals, we have the full support of the Hamburg Senate.
Regarding local industry, we have very good contacts from an electricity sales perspective, and as an energy company we have the “electrons”, the electricity distribution capacity and the technical knowledge. Our two offshore wind farms in the North Sea, DanTysk and Sandbank, are virtually directly connected to the Moorburg site by the 380-kV line and, above all, without network bottlenecks.
How did Vattenfall come to take the new coal-fired power station Moorburg off the grid and instead dedicate the site to the construction of a Green Hydrogen Hub?
The early shutdown of the coal plant, which was only put into operation in 2015 and was one of the most modern in Germany, follows the plans of the federal government to reduce emissions from coal-based power generation. And it goes hand in hand with Vattenfall’s strategy of making a life without fossil fuels possible within a generation. It was only in September that we decided to further reduce our emissions considerably by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. Vattenfall is thereby making an important contribution to limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Incidentally, Vattenfall is one of the few leading energy companies that has decided to take this decisive step.
What do you see as the decisive challenges for the hydrogen economy in Hamburg to be a success?
The “pain points” on the customer side are known, in particular the hydrogen price per kilogram for the customer. What is important here is sensible regulation by the legislator. The great thing about Hamburg is that we can find almost all forms of hydrogen application, each of which requires different energy media or raw materials to be replaced – mostly diesel, natural gas or grey hydrogen. The appropriate regulatory framework must be created for these diverse application possibilities. Furthermore, these customers have different usage profiles with different purchase quantities and time windows. We have to meet this challenge with the best possible optimisation of hydrogen consumption among these users, a high degree of flexibility on the part of our system and the advantages of the gas network as a buffer.
Experience is key: What experience does Vattenfall have with regard to hydrogen?
In Sweden, we are working with partners to develop a process to produce carbon-free steel. In this joint venture, HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology), with the steel producer SSAB and the mining company LKAB, we started building a pilot plant in Luleå in northern Sweden in 2018. The large-scale implementation of the fossil fuel-free process for steel production should be possible in 2035. In Germany, we also want to use the IPCEI project BayH2, a cooperation with the Bavarian refinery Bayernoil, to produce electricity from regional wind energy and thus play a major role in the decarbonisation of fuels. As a leading developer and operator, especially of offshore wind farms, Vattenfall can also make an excellent contribution to the hydrogen economy by supplying renewable electricity for electrolysis.
And what insights do you hope to gain from the project?
We want to collect technical know-how in construction and operation – but overall we are less concerned with technical testing than with practical use. Because the technology itself is not new, knowledge of the commercial side is more important: the integration of the electricity and the subsequent distribution of the hydrogen. From the point of view of business development, we gain valuable knowledge that can be used worldwide.
There are numerous hydrogen projects in Germany and Europe, but what makes the HGHH so special and so important for Hamburg, Germany or the energy industry?
An important point is the existing infrastructure, that the location is in the middle of an industrial metropolis and that we have a large variety of customers. At the planning level, we have a special ensemble of partners that take different perspectives into account when working together on an equal footing. In addition, the HGHH will be the first big impetus for the local hydrogen economy in Hamburg when it goes into operation, as we can map the entire value chain in the hydrogen network – from the production of renewable electricity to various hydrogen applications. For this reason, we could have 100% capacity utilisation from day one. And we have strong political backing.
The Hamburg Green Hydrogen Hub is not the only project at the Moorburg site – what can you say about that? Is there enough space there for several hydrogen projects?
Partnerships are always possible, but space is scarce and the approval situation is complex. In addition, the construction of the A 26 is taking place in the immediate vicinity. It will therefore be a bit cramped at the site, at least until the dismantling of the power plants that are no longer needed is completed in a few years.
The phase-out of coal is a done deal in many countries, so in the future numerous coal-fired power plants will be taken off the grid. Can the HGHH also serve as a model for the further use of those locations?
The framework conditions of such large power plants are too diverse to be able to use the HGHH as a universal blueprint. There are various re-use concepts for such plants, but the special conditions described in Hamburg make hydrogen production at the Moorburg location particularly attractive. The insights related to the demolition and conversion will certainly represent very valuable input for evaluating the situation of other power plant locations at Vattenfall and beyond.