Shell has started up what is claimed to be Europe’s largest green hydrogen electrolyser so far, as the Anglo-Dutch supermajor hailed a step on the road to gigawatt-scale deployments.

The 10M-megawatt proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser is located at Shell's Energy & Chemicals Park Rheinland near Cologne, Germany.

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Shell and its partners in the pan-European Refhyne consortium plan to boost the electrolyser to 100MW at a later stage as part of a strategy to become a major supplier of green hydrogen to Germany’s industrial heartland.

The oil and gas group will tap renewable power and use green hydrogen made at the site to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels produced at the refinery. Later ambitions include production of sustainable aviation fuel.

'We want to be the partner of choice'

Shell’s downstream director, Huibert Vigeveno, said: “Shell wants to become a leading supplier of green hydrogen for industrial and transport customers in Germany.

“We will be involved in the whole process — from power generation, using offshore wind, to hydrogen production and distribution across sectors. We want to be the partner of choice for our customers as we help them decarbonise.”

The PEM electrolyser used at the Rheinland project was produced by UK-based ITM Power, whose chief executive Graham Cooley said: “We’d like to congratulate our partners on the successful start-up of Europe’s largest green hydrogen production plant. We all recognise that this is just the beginning of the journey to net zero.

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“The next step, Refhyne II, is even bigger and would take us into the hundreds of megawatts for the first time, on our way to gigawatts deployments.”

Although a relatively new technology, PEM electrolysers have found favour in green hydrogen pilots as — among other advantages — they ramp up quickly and are highly efficient at low loads, making them better suited to the variable energy input supplied by wind and solar power.

Scale essential

Rapid scaling up of both supply and demand of green hydrogen is seen as crucial if it is to become competitive with other forms of hydrogen, most immediately the grey variety that currently dominates the market and is far cheaper.

Like other European oil and gas giants, Shell has set out its stall as a leader in that push, not least by laying plans to build massive North Sea wind developments to power electrolysers.

However, the hydrocarbons sector’s support for hydrogen is far from controversy-free, with claims that its attempts to push blue hydrogen made using abated gas are a bid to keep one of its key fossil products in the energy transition game.

The fossil fuel lobby is also in the crosshairs of prominent energy transition commentator Michael Liebreich, who told Upstream's renewable energy sister publication Recharge the sector has an interest in talking up hydrogen even for inappropriate applications as a way to delay mass electrification.

(This article first appeared in Upstream's renewable energy sister publication Recharge on 2 July, 2021.)