Edging into the hydrogen age: Carbon Brief questions if it can really solve climate change

Long recognized as an alternative to fossil fuels and once again heralded as an invaluable tool for tackling climate change, hydrogen is a key component within many of the recently announced national net-zero energy plans being rolled out by individual nations as well as the European Union. Hydrogen will likely be given a center role in new President Joe Biden’s climate plan too. To help sort out hope from hype, climate think tank, Carbon Brief recently published a detailed and invaluable hydrogen explainer. With comments from one of the analysts quoted in the explainer, L. Michael Buchsbaum helps untangle hydrogen’s reality.


Carbon Brief’s detailed hydrogen briefing

“In the most optimistic outlooks, hydrogen could soon power trucks, planes and ships. It could heat homes, balance electricity grids and help heavy industry to make everything from steel to cement,” begins Carbon Brief’s Q&A. But doing all this with it “would require staggering quantities of the fuel, which is only as clean as the methods used to produce it. Moreover, for every potentially transformative application of hydrogen, there are unique challenges that must be overcome.”

Providing a wealth of infographics, maps and interactive charts, as well as the views of dozens of experts – the Q&A examines what they deem “the big questions” emerging around a future “clean” hydrogen economy, while parsing to what extent hydrogen “could help the world avoid dangerous climate change.”

And there in lies the rub. Historically hydrogen has been cyclically hyped as something of a savior: a way to take the place of fossil fuels which produce 80% of the world’s total energy. Different today are the staggering amounts of investments being lined up; the breath of policies being floated; and the diversity of hydrogen’s backers that include heavy industry, renewables producers and international oil majors.

Dreaming of Sunshine

As the Covid-19 pandemic finds most of us restricting our movements and projecting our hopes onto coming vaccines, hydrogen rather elegantly fits our collective desire for a sweeping paradigm shift and “expansive view of the future…where hydrogen replaces most of the societal, economic and geopolitical positions now occupied by fossil fuels.”

Hydrogen’s benign promise was eloquently framed by Dr Saehoon Kim, head of Hyundai’s fuel cell division at Hyundai at an Energy UK webinar in July: “In the past, our technology and industry was all about collecting oil, delivering oil and using oil. And now, in the future, it will be collecting sunshine, delivering sunshine and using sunshine – and what will make that possible is hydrogen,” he said. In this green bullet scenario, wind and solar energy ramp up to an enormous scale, and through electrolysis producers ramp hydrogen volumes, which are then transported into markets worldwide.

But this “hypo-gen” concept is being trumpeted by many of the same slick, snake-oil salesmen who sold policymakers on clean coal, “natural” fossil gas and fracked LNG as “freedom molecules.” As Micheal Liebreich, senior contributor to BloombergNEF, wrote in a recent article: “On the surface, [hydrogen] seems like the answer to every energy question.” But sadly it also “displays an equally impressive list of disadvantages.”

Hydrogen’s Rainbow

Before going further, its necessary to address three vital points:

First, hydrogen is almost never used as a direct energy source but as an energy carrier. Second, precisely how hydrogen is produced determines whether it’s a climate helper or just another climate harm. Three, to get anywhere approximating this green vision requires a colorful imagination.

Often classified by color according to production techniques, Carbon Brief breaks down hydrogen’s rainbow as:

  • Green: Generated using electrolysis powered by renewable electricity.
  • Blue: Production is based on fossil fuels but with CO2 emissions captured.
  • Grey: Made using fossil gas with no emissions captured.
  • Black: Made using coal.
  • Brown: Made using lignite.
  • Turquoise: Heat is used to split fossil gas in a process known as “pyrolysis”.
  • Purple, pink or yellow: Electricity and heat from nuclear reactors could both be used to produce hydrogen, but there is no widely agreed colour for such methods.
  • Not agreed: Production from biomass.

Green vs Grey and Blue

As of today, more than 90% of hydrogen production is still very grey and highly polluting. A 2019 report from the IEA, The Future of Hydrogen, stated that 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal is used for global hydrogen production. This sector alone is responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined.

All the climate and policy think tanks Carbon Brief (as well as other studies) quotes agree that fossil energy produced hydrogen is going remain cheaper and have a faster uptake than green hydrogen through at least 2030. That means, for at least a decade, “clean” hydrogen is going to be filthy.

To help bridge this logical gap, policymakers, influencers and virtually the entire oil and gas industry are pushing hard for blue hydrogen, which depends on massive volumes of fossil gas and methane to produce hydrogen with the carbon pollution stripped out and sequestered through one of many proposed carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques.

Given that the whole point of shifting from today’s fossil fuels dependency paradigm to hydrogen is to avert an existential crisis, it beggars belief that the proffered solution remains more pollution. But there it is.

Viewed from an emissions perspective, blue hydrogen’s entire efficacy “depends on capture efficiency,” wrote Gniewomir Flis, a hydrogen expert with think tank Agora Energiewende, who is also quoted in Carbon Brief’s Q&A.

Mated to the hydrogen dream, CCS is also being hyped as a technological savior. But in reality, very few projects exist at scale, have performed to expectations, or captured much carbon. Indeed, most use captured CO2 to squeeze out and produce more oil and gas instead of managing carbon pollution underground.

Best vs worst case scenario

In an emailed response to several questions, Fils explained that in the “best case scenario you are fully carbon neutral,” but “worst case you’re running your electrolyzers off coal like China.

Currently the world’s largest hydrogen producer, Chinese companies create over 20 million tons of hydrogen annually, about one third of the world’s total, almost all from lignite, the dirtiest, cheapest and most polluting method.

As Flis confirmed, “many oil & gas firms see hydrogen as a lifeline and replacement for their current revenue streams.” Given how much oil majors, their allies and apologizers have and continue to collectively deny and obstruct real climate solutions, there’s “most definitely” a cause for concern that they see H2 as another way to anchor their existence into a legally carbon constrained economy.

For blue hydrogen producers, “much of the costs involved aren’t associated with storage per se, but the infrastructure needed to move around the CO2 – pipelines, ships, liquefaction terminals, injection wells.” That’s why majors like Exxon and petro-nations like Norway, with lots legacy oil and gas infrastructure, are some of hydrogen’s most vocal supporters.

But Flis notes, by 2030, enough green tools will be deployed to render blue hydrogen uncompetitive.

To dig further, consider reading Carbon Brief’s engaging analysis.

New H2

Since Carbon Brief’s report was published, a veritable gusher of new “green H2” projects have been green-lighted worldwide. In early March, Saudi Arabia announced plans to construct a massive wind and solar powered hydrogen plant across an area the size of Belgium. Ironically heading the project, a former CEO of coal-heavy utility RWE. More to come…


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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