To achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050, in early July the European Commission (EC) published their new Hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe. Though the promise of a future green hydrogen-based system is the main selling point, in reality the near-term hydrogen economy will be dependent on a nightmarish mix of fossil gas-derived “grey” hydrogen, later supplemented by “blue” hydrogen, itself dependent upon the proving out of non-functional carbon capture and sequestration technologies (CCS). Behind the scenes, the oil and gas industry and their allies are pushing for a “technology-neutral” hydrogen future, thus ensuring them a handsome stream of profits. Despite the green label, there is every reason to suspect that the coming hydrogen transition will be exponentially dirtier than expected. L. Michael Buchsbaum reminds us to be skeptical in Part II of a series on the promises and pitfalls of green hydrogen.
There is little doubt that hydrogen power could be a game changer for the global transition to low-carbon energy and a fully decarbonized economy. As a fuel, energy carrier, feedstock for synthetic fuels or as storage, hydrogen’s great advantage is that it does not emit CO2 or add pollutants to the atmosphere when burned or used.
To fully decarbonize its economy by 2050, the EU has adopted an aggressive strategy to rapidly scale green hydrogen production up alongside expanded renewable electrification. Though trumpeting the potential of green H2, the methods used to produce that future hydrogen will determine whether it becomes a truly green solution or another disaster for our planet.
Either way, the near-term spear point to ensuring hydrogen’s market penetration is nearly certain to be “grey,” depending on hydrogen produced mainly from coal or gas as a feedstock using a steam methane reforming process. Comparatively cheap, as of last year over 98% of produced hydrogen – estimated at 76.5 million metric tons –was created using grey techniques according to Platts Analytics.
However, the IEA’s Future of Hydrogen report states that to create that amount, global producers require some 205 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 107 million tons of coal each year — in the process emitting an estimated 830 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, about as much as the UK and Indonesia combined.
Though the EU’s Strategy admits that grey hydrogen’s input needs are significant and its greenhouse gas lifecycle emissions are high, they accept this as a necessary evil to ensure the decarbonization of the economy over the next few decades.
To help steer the staggering levels of investments needed to scale up H2 and realize its green potential, the European Commission has established the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance – as announced in the Commission’s New Industrial Strategy. Increasingly populated by the world’s largest fossil energy dependent firms, including lignite and gas-heavy RWE, the EU is worryingly asking the same companies that are historically guilty of ignoring and suppressing climate science, capturing and suffocating competing green technologies, gaming and manipulating energy markets, buying and bribing legislators, regulators, professors and media outlets to somehow dutifully guide our vital green future in the face of a growing climate emergency.
Through their European gas lobby, Eurogas, many of these companies are now unsurprisingly attempting to persuade the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans to mandate a “technology-neutral” approach for the rapid clean hydrogen scale-up. They justify this all-of-the-above push largely because of the exigency of the climate emergency and achieving near-term benchmark of establishing a 40 GW clean H2 market by 2030.
Why not simply demand that all future hydrogen must be climate neutral? Because producing green H2 at that scale is simply too expensive at the moment. Using a proton exchange membrane electrolysis method (PEM), the EU estimates green H2 would be triple the costs of grey H2.
To their credit, to create a viable green H2 sector essentially from scratch, the EU hopes to invest €180 billion in underlying components, specifically funding a rapid acceleration in the production of electrolyzer technologies and other methods necessary to quickly scaling up.
Blue bridge to nowhere
Recognizing the yawning climatic-impact gap between future green H2 and today’s grey production, the EU’s strategy depends upon the successful bridging development of what it terms a “low-carbon hydrogen production process in the transition phase,” or “blue” hydrogen.
Blue H2 is produced from fossil gas or coal and subsequently, using various chemical methods, has its greenhouse gas emissions stripped out, captured and either buried and/or repurposed. After decades of testing, these carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies have indeed achieved tremendous promise.
But problematically, they don’t work nearly as well as promised. Of the 40 projects underway worldwide, many of the heralded “flagship” CCS projects have shut down over the past year; few have hit their intended storage targets; and critically, few projects are actually burying anthropogenic carbon. So it’s impossible to prove that CCS can sequester at scale a significant portion of the CO2 humans have created or if once buried, it stays buried. Indeed, after decades of fossil fuel industry hype, CCS is far from a proven technology.
More disconcerting, although an EU strategy, no large-scale storage facilities ready to receive carbon exist within the 27 member states. Continentally, only Norway’s state-owned energy firm, Equinor, is offering up some of its depleting gas fields as future CO2 sequestration space. Though framed as a climate-friendly act, Equinor’s motivations lie elsewhere.
Ironically, most flagship CCS facilities worldwide are actually designed to enhance oil and gas recovery (EOR) by pumping captured CO2 into declining reserves, re-pressurizing them and squeezing out fractionally more oil. That, not burying climate killing CO2, has always been their purpose. Faced with declining reserves, Norway has long been counting on CCS as a solution to produce more oil and gas.
So to recap, the strategy the Alliance and EU are promoting to wean us off our present fossil-fuel dependency will likely continue to be fossil fuel dependent, at least short-term – mitigated in the future by an expensive, theoretical, and so far non-functional-at-scale technology designed to produce more fossil fuels while incidentally storing carbon.
The only way to actually realize a green H2 vision is to open the floodgates to an all-of-the-above renewable energy expansion, while developing an end market that can sustain high electrolyzer utilization rates. Anything less simply enables fossil energy companies to game the hydrogen transition. From their perspective, green H2 is just another competitor to vanquish. Both blue and grey hydrogen lock in a future dependence on fossil gas while offering industry public subsidies to develop effective CCS solutions that likely will be used to produce more fossil fuels anyway.
But from a climate perspective, grey and blue H2 lock in decades more production pollution and worsening impacts on biodiversity. Given the ongoing environmental tragedy of 2020, the continued subterfuge surrounding fossil gas and fugitive methane and the disconnect between Main Street’s pain and Wall Street’s windfall, we should be highly skeptical of any clean energy plans being championed by an unholy alliance of the likes of RWE, BP and Shell.