There is a fairly broad consensus in the climate movement that hydrogen has to play an important role within the international energy transition (especially for the decarbonisation of energy-/feedstock-intensive industry sectors). And while there’s an understanding that only hydrogen produced 100% from renewables will match the requirements of being “clean” and therefore “climate-friendly”, few speak of possible shadow sides of this green dream (especially with regard to the Global North-South dependency resulting from green hydrogen production). In a two parts blog series, Andy Gheorghiu touches upon some of the aspects that promoters of green hydrogen should not forget.
International Energy Agency (IEA), hydrogen and net zero by 2050
According to the IEA, the global energy sector needs to be based largely on renewables by 2050 – with hydrogen being one of the key pillars of the so-called “low-emissions industries”. Global hydrogen demand reached 94 million tonnes (Mt) in 2021 and the IEA estimates that – taking into account global governmental policies and measures – it could reach 115 Mt by 2030. However, nearly 200 Mt would be needed by 2030 to be on track for IEA’s net-zero scenarios for 2050 (which is essential to maintain the chance of keeping global warming within 1.5°C).
Much of the recent hydrogen demand was built on the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels. According to International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) as at the end of 2021 approximately 47% of global hydrogen production came from fossil gas, 27% from coal, 22% from oil (as a by-product) and only around 4% from electrolysis (see also table down below). Only approximately 1% of global hydrogen production comes currently from renewable energies. Here’s where think tanks, industry, non-governmental organisations and politicians see the potential for increase in production – while addressing global warming at the same time.
But do expectations really meet reality? Let’s have a look at the colourful rainbow of hydrogen production before we touch upon this question.
Some of the main colors of hydrogen
| Hydrogen in natural form
(for example in underground deposits)
|Steam reforming (with CCS)
|Fossil gas with Carbon Capture Storage (CCS)
|By-product of methane pyrolysis, together with solid carbon
|Renewable energies (wind and solar)
Sources: https://www.acciona.com.au/updates/stories/what-are-the-colours-of-hydrogen-and-what-do-they-mean/ / https://www.hydrogenfuelnews.com/what-is-white-hydrogen/8552916/ / https://www.rosalux.de/en/publication/id/46412/fair-green-hydrogen
If we skip the debate around possible environmental and social aspects related to the mining of raw materials for renewables, it becomes evident that only green or clean hydrogen could be touted a climate-friendly solution.
The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance supports not only renewable but also so-called “low-carbon” or blue hydrogen, which is based on fossil gas with the “cleaning up” of emissions by carbon capture storage. However, a study conducted by academics from Cornell and Stanford universities, USA, showed that “greenhouse gas emissions from blue hydrogen are still greater than from simply burning natural gas, and are only 18%-25% less than for grey hydrogen”. The analysis also questions the feasibility of carbon capture and storage projects.
However, the global warming impacts of direct hydrogen leaks need to be properly addressed before even green hydrogen can be considered a climate solution. Hydrogen – when emitted directly into the atmosphere extends the longevity of the greenhouse gas methane – which itself is has a global warming potential of up to 108 times higher than CO2 over 20 years. It also increases the concentration of ozone and water vapor, which also leads to higher global warming.
EU’s hydrogen strategy
Back in July 2020, the European Union adopted its hydrogen strategy, aiming to install at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and to produce up to 10 million tonnes of renewable energy hydrogen by 2030. The REPowerEU Plan of May 2022 also sets the target of the same amount of additional imports of renewable hydrogen by 2030.
The EU projects that by 2050 the share of hydrogen in Europe’s energy mix will be at 13-14 % – compared to the current less than 2%. Other estimates foresee a share of 24% of global energy demand for clean (or green) hydrogen by 2050 – mainly aimed to feed so-called hard-to-decarbonise sectors (such as petrochemicals, aviation, shipping, steel and cement).
But even if we would really need all that hydrogen and even if it would be “green” or “clean”, how sustainable is the production and supply chain really? Some studies have tried to answer that question.
The illusion of (Italian) green hydrogen?
A ReCommon research conducted in 2022 by the Italian University of Bologna with the Center for Solar Communities looked into the various critical aspects of the supply chain, from production to transport.
Their results put a spotlight on very important but mostly neglected issues which question the very core of the large-scale green hydrogen production hype in Europe:
- The production of 1 kg of hydrogen via electrolysis requires some 9 liters of water which in constant years of droughts becomes an ever scarcer essential good in Europe too
- Hydrogen transported via pipeline would require some 20 TWh/year, which translates into 3 times the power of compression required for the transport of fossil gas or almost all the power currently generated by solar in Italy
- 4% of liquid hydrogen placed inside storage facilities evaporates on a daily basis, which means that 50% of the hydrogen stored in liquid form would be lost after 4 months – making a continued use of hydrogen much more complex
- to achieve the objective of the Italian strategic plan of an electrolyser power equal to 5 GW, 50 electrolysers of 100 MW need to be built. The needed energy production for that, would require 5500 square kilometres of wind farm or 43,100 hectares of solar park. 5500 square kilometers – which is an area equivalent to the surface of the districts of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy
The difficulties related to the transport, storage and especially production of the big amount of envisaged green hydrogen in a European country such as Italy outline an even greater need for imports – especially from countries with high renewable energy potential in the Global South. This on the other hand risks establishing neo-colonial dependencies between the Global South and the Global North – something we will take a closer look at in part II of this blog series.