Grabbing the Land or Benefitting Communities? Renewable Hydrogen in the Norwegian Arctic
Green hydrogen (H2) is often portrayed as a key component for the green energy transition, since it is produced with renewable energy through electrolysis – the splitting up of freshwater into hydrogen and oxygen – and does not emit carbon dioxide when combusted. Not only does green hydrogen harbour huge potential for the decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors (e.g. steelmaking and production of fertilizers) as well as maritime shipping and aviation, its use as an energy storage solution makes it particularly promising for remote and sparsely populated areas with an abundance of renewable energy resources.
In regions such as the Norwegian Arctic, the potential for wind energy is enormous. However, because of low overall demand in this sparsely populated area and weak grid connectivity with the southern regions of Norway, its surplus green power can neither be fully harvested nor exported. This is precisely where green hydrogen and green ammonia – a derivative that is easier to store and transport – could come into play. Specifically, working as a large-scale transportable “battery” for long-term storage of renewable electricity, green ammonia could offer a storage solution that would enable excess electricity from wind farms to be delivered to other regions and countries. This potential export energy sector could significantly benefit local communities by creating new economic, social, and environmental opportunities. However, the development of green hydrogen infrastructure could improve socio-economic conditions in the Far North, it could also throw up new challenges and uncertainties that will need to be properly addressed.
The East-Finnmark district in northernmost Norway is particularly suited as a future centre for green hydrogen production. In its coastal and mountainous areas, Arctic winds blow constantly and there is an abundance of fresh water – the main feedstock for electrolysis. However, the existing grid infrastructure is insufficient to transport excess energy to the southern regions. Against this background, the small fishing community of Berlevåg on the Varanger Peninsula (population ca. 1,000) has developed plans to become a hydrogen frontrunner within Europe. The idea is to use the surplus energy from the existing 100 MW Raggovidda wind farm – one of the most efficient onshore wind farms in Europe, consisting of 27 wind turbines – to produce green ammonia on a large scale both for regional use (particularly Arctic shipping) and export.
Current plans aim to commence the commercial production of green ammonia by 2024 and to expand the wind farm by another 16 turbines (about 100 MW) by 2026. The EU-funded project is raising high expectations among local and national politicians, who hope to turn Berlevåg into a centre for renewable energy in the Arctic and to use the by-products of hydrogen production – heat and oxygen – to support other economic activities such as fish farming and vertical agriculture. This would create green employment opportunities in the region and help to counteract population decline, which presents enormous challenges for the region both economically and in terms of security policy.
Challenges on the way to success
However, the expansion of wind energy is highly controversial in Norway. In particular, Indigenous Sámi People who depend on reindeer herding oppose the development of new wind parks, because they would affect the migration patterns of reindeer and have a negative impact on Indigenous ways of life. As a result, the green transition in Norway has been criticized by Sámi politicians and researchers as “green colonialism” and a violation of Indigenous Peoples´ rights – a view that has found favour in Norwegian courts. In 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that two wind farms on the Fosen Peninsula violate Article 27 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities […] shall not be denied the right […] to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.” In Berlevåg, the plan to expand the Raggovidda wind farm has not met with public protest, but criticism has been voiced by affected reindeer herders’ in the district as well as from members of the Sámi Parliament, who argue that the wind farm and the planned expansion will affect reindeer migrations. Therefore, even if it is not the subject of public debate, the project in Berlevåg is not uncontroversial and risks causing socio-cultural tensions and land conflicts in the future.
Apart from the problems associated with the expansion of wind farms, green ammonia itself could pose additional challenges. In fact, ammonia is a toxic substance and excessive exposure can result in brain damage or even death. Besides, if leaked into the sea, apart from endangering aquatic life, it will promote eutrophication, which will result in increased algal growth. This, in turn, is likely to lead to a shift in species composition in the Norwegian and Barents Seas. Given the extreme fragility of the Arctic environment, projects of this kind must be managed with great care and require special precautionary measures. That is why, precisely because there is so much enthusiasm for green hydrogen and green ammonia, it is important to remember that these solutions entail the use of very risky technologies.
In addition to these potential challenges and conflicts, it is important to note that current planning for a low-carbon energy transition in the Finnmark district does not foresee an exclusively green hydrogen future. Unlike the EU’s hydrogen strategy, which prioritizes green hydrogen in the long term, Norway is also embracing blue hydrogen, i.e. hydrogen produced from natural gas in combination with carbon capture and storage technologies. A hydrogen strategy and feasibility study prepared for the Province Troms og Finnmark, for example, estimates that the ratio of green to blue hydrogen production in the year 2025 will be approximately 1:20 and around 1:10 in 2045. Given the importance of the oil and gas sector for the Arctic regions and the higher production forecasts for hydrocarbons-based hydrogen, it is unclear whether green hydrogen will be able to replace fossil fuel-based hydrogen in the long term, or whether it is doomed to a shadowy existence.
On a more general note, while more controversial green ammonia export projects are planned in East-Finnmark, it is not clear whether these projects will be able to compete with hydrocarbons-based alternatives. While the ongoing energy crisis has resulted in record natural gas prices that have made green hydrogen production in Europe cost-competitive for the first time, blue hydrogen production is still estimated to be two to three times less expensive than the generation of green hydrogen under “normal” conditions. Whether communities like Berlevåg will be able to produce renewable H2 at a competitive price when their hydrogen/ammonia facilities enter operation remains to be seen.
At the same time, given the current controversy surrounding the expansion of wind energy and other infrastructure, it is vital that green hydrogen development in the region not only creates new green jobs, but is conducted in a way that acknowledges the rights, culture and livelihoods of Indigenous people. Only then can green hydrogen contribute to a genuinely just transition that will benefit local and Indigenous communities rather than contributing to a new form of green land grabbing.
This article also appeared on New Security Beat.
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