Issue: September 2020, Power-to-X – Why do we need PtX?

In Focus

“There are practical as well as ethical issues at stake”

Interview with Dr Joachim Fünfgelt (Bread for the World)

The Oeko-Institut predicts that in a near-carbon-neutral energy system in 2050, several hundred terawatt hours of PtX will be required. If this involves the use of green hydrogen produced using renewable energies, Germany’s own capacity is likely to be insufficient and large-scale imports will be required from other countries, e.g. in North Africa or the Middle East. But how can Germany ensure that hydrogen production in these countries is genuinely sustainable from both an environmental and a social perspective? We put this question to Dr Joachim Fünfgelt, Energy Policy Advisor at Bread for the World.

Dr Fünfgelt, is exporting hydrogen an opportunity or a risk for countries of the Global South?

It is both. The risk is that Germany will want to build capacity fast and that countries with potential to produce hydrogen will want to start generating revenue as quickly as possible. But establishing sustainable hydrogen partnerships is a long process that requires participants to invest time in exploring ethical as well as practical issues. And to involve local communities – that’s really important. Of course, there are potential benefits for these communities as well, in terms of local wealth generation, jobs, development of local renewables and better access to energy.

What are the ongoing risks?

Hydrogen production can worsen water scarcity and harm the environment; resource extraction is a factor here. A further risk is that it will slow down the expansion of renewable energies for local use. Priority must be given to supporting the countries in achieving a 100 per cent renewable energy supply first, before giving any thought to exports. And of course, there is the risk of illegal landgrabbing; this can occur if land that should be used to grow food for local communities is turned over to hydrogen production instead. 

In that case, should green hydrogen be imported at all?

Yes, certainly, but it is important to proceed with caution. We are in favour of restricting the use of hydrogen. That means only using it where there is no alternative – in aviation, for example – and relying on other solutions as well, such as more energy efficiency or sufficiency measures.

What can be done to mitigate the negative impacts?

When analysing the potential in these countries, it is essential to consider their renewables expansion pathway and corresponding demand. We also believe it is vital to consult and involve the local community. In addition, it is important to define sustainability criteria early on and to discuss them with local civil society.

What benefits are afforded by dialogue with the local community?

Through this dialogue, we gain a better understanding of the local situation and what local communities need if they are to benefit from domestic hydrogen production.

What can be done to ensure that local people’s needs are met?

Regulatory measures are required here. In competitive tendering, for example, local companies should be given preference. And it should be mandatory for energy partnerships to develop the local energy infrastructure.

What is your view of the German Hydrogen Strategy, which earmarks two billion euros for the development of international partnerships?

First and foremost, the emphasis on green hydrogen is extremely gratifying and very welcome. As a development agency, we think it is important to focus on the African continent. It is noteworthy in that context that the strategy clearly states that hydrogen production must be guided by local needs. So a priority now is to keep a very close eye on whether this actually happens.

Do you have any criticisms of the strategy?

One point of criticism is the very high estimate of import demand. Our concern is that our own energy hunger, rather than the local energy transition and energy supply in the countries concerned, will be the priority. So the German Hydrogen Strategy needs to be embedded in much more rapid expansion of renewable energies and a reduction of energy demand through efficiency and sufficiency measures.

Thank you for talking to eco@work.

The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.

Dr Joachim Fünfgelt, Energy Policy Advisor at Bread for the World

Further information about the article

Dr Joachim Fünfgelt
Energy Policy Advisor

Brot für die Welt
Evangelisches Werk für Diakonie und Entwicklung e.V.
Caroline-Michaelis-Str. 1
10115 Berlin

Tel.: +49 30 65211-1054




After graduating in economics and gaining a PhD in the economics of sustainability, Dr Joachim Fünfgelt worked with international NGOs on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He became Bread for the World’s Energy Policy Advisor in 2015. His areas of work are climate change mitigation, renewable energies, low-carbon development strategies and access to energy.

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