Malta aims for 2030 hydrogen import through gas pipeline

Market research study launched to determine interest in hydrogen production in Sicily

Energy minister Miriam Dalli at the European Council, June 2021
Energy minister Miriam Dalli at the European Council, June 2021

The Maltese government is exploring the possibility of having hydrogen and blends of other renewable fuels, including bio-methane, delivered to Malta through a gas pipeline from Gela in Sicily from 2030 onwards.

A tender for a market research survey issued by Melita TransGas, the national company entrusted with the pipeline project, aimed at gauging the interest of potential investors in hydrogen production, storage and transportation.

The prospect of securing EU funds for a hydrogen-ready pipeline were boosted after energy minister Miriam Dalli secured a derogation in 2021 to have Malta’s gas pipeline, which lost out on Connecting Europe Facility funds, be once again in with a chance as an EU project of common interest.

The original gas pipeline is now being re-purposed for the transport of green hydrogen and “other gases and the transport of blends containing natural gas, renewable gases” and “up to 100% green hydrogen”.   

As reported by MaltaToday last month, the most likely source of hydrogen will be in the area around Gela where Eni has commenced a pilot study in the production of green hydrogen, namely hydrogen produced by renewable energy sources.

The market research study will identify any potential investors such as Italian energy companies Eni, Snam, Enel, Edison, SGI and others, “to acquire a better-informed insight” about their plans to produce and make available green hydrogen or bio-methane gases in the area of Gela in Sicily, and estimate the available volumes and costs for 35 years from the finalisation of the pipeline.

The study will also explore funding opportunities programmes at European and national level, for different projects along the hydrogen chain in southern Italy particularly in Sicily.

The study will also assess the cost of hydrogen production.

Gela in Sicily is already the site of Eni’s bio-refinery, where “grey” hydrogen is used to produce biofuels. The town is still reeling from the closure of its petro-chemical plants built in the 1960s and is increasingly dependent on ENI’s energy investments – energy-hungry Malta may well end up boosting the town’s economy.

When quizzed in July by MaltaToday, the energy ministry did not give specific details on how Malta will access the “green” hydrogen market, recognizing that the technology is in fact still in its infancy, though promising.

The ministry acknowledges that green hydrogen is still an emerging technology, by thinks that it is expected to develop at a fast pace.

Eni currently uses hydrogen for making hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO) biofuels in its Venice and Gela bio-refineries. Most of its hydrogen is generated through steam methane reforming (SMR), which is considered to be a grey hydrogen.

In December 2021, Eni and Enel announced they were working together to develop green hydrogen projects through electrolysers that are powered by renewable energy. The electrolysers will be located near Eni refineries in Taranto and Gela.

In Gela, ENI plans to complement existing plants using grey and blue hydrogen, with green hydrogen to explore how these can “interact and integrate with each other”.

Only in May, Enel Green Power’s head of hydrogen business Paola Brunetto acknowledged that green hydrogen was more expensive to produce than grey hydrogen, and that the emergence of a green hydrogen market depends on public incentives.

Unlike grey hydrogen, which is produced by using fossil fuels, and blue hydrogen which relies on expensive and unreliable carbon capture and storage technology, green hydrogen, the option being considered by Malta, is produced by electrolysis: the use of electricity from renewable energy sources, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Presently on a global level, only around 2% of global hydrogen production is from electrolysis, with most hydrogen made directly from fossil fuels like lignite, coal and methane.

Environmentalists are generally wary of the new technology, fearing that this could prolong the dependence on fossil fuels and the life of existing gas-powered power stations.

The provision of hydrogen will require the retrofitting of existing power stations. MaltaToday is informed that the Electrogas plant has been designed by Seimens to cater for the eventuality of a conversion to hydrogen.

A PWC analysis of global energy markets forecasts that demand for green hydrogen to accelerate from 2035 onwards as the fuel becomes cheaper to produce.