As the world transitions towards net zero emissions, we must ensure that the use of hydrogen is developed in the most impactful way – rather than a quick fix.
The Tokyo Olympics got underway this month. In addition to showcasing sporting talent, Japan is also using the games to show off its energy transition in what they call ‘The Hydrogen Olympics’. Hydrogen-powered cars, buses, and electricity supply are on show, along with a hydrogen-fuelled Olympic flame. The display has made it clear that Japan is one of the leading international proponents of developing the future hydrogen economy as a key part of its shift away from fossil fuels.
But all is not as it seems.
Japan’s Olympic hydrogen buses have proven to be much more expensive and much less convenient to refuel than diesel-run buses. Even the Olympic flame is not all hydrogen – an additive has been mixed in to make the flame visible when it burns. In a way, this small detail is a metaphor of where the discussion of the future of hydrogen stands. Hydrogen has taken a prominent role in the global energy and climate debate for the simple reason that it produces no CO2 when burnt. But this simplistic approach ignores three core issues: where does the hydrogen come from? What are we using it for? And ultimately, why are we doing this?
Currently, 95% of the hydrogen we use comes from fossil fuels. Although the 'emission-free' nature of burning hydrogen is its main selling point, there are significant carbon emissions in its production. Using natural gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make hydrogen (so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen) is touted as a breakthrough solution for the future, even though CCS still has issues and associated uncertainty. Moreover, CCS does not address the upstream methane emissions from extracting the gas in the first place. Methane has a global warming potential 28 times higher than CO2, and methane leaks make up over 5% of global related greenhouse gas emissions. In the long term, so-called ‘green’ hydrogen could be made by using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This approach creates no CO2, but to achieve any real climate benefit the process can only be done using renewable or carbon free electricity. Blue and green are considered the front runners for future hydrogen production, but the 'hydrogen rainbow' has more colours than the Olympic rings.
Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier and has potential uses in industry, chemicals, and agriculture – from making low carbon fertiliser to replacing coking coal in steel making. But just because it can do these things does not mean it is the best tool for every job, especially in sectors like transport and heating where electrification can be much more effective in delivering a service and driving down emissions. In fact, the actual properties of hydrogen and some basic physics mean that, in many cases, it is not the best option.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are a clear example of this, where the production and conversion of hydrogen into electricity means FCEVs have only half the efficiencyof electric vehicles (EVs). Across the ‘power-to-vehicle drive’ chain, EVs use 75% of the original electricity, but FCEVs use just 38%. Producing renewable electricity that is turned into hydrogen is inefficient to begin with, but converting it back into electricity reduces efficiency even more. This is a matter of physics which cannot be simply overcome by innovation - or sustained lobbying by car and oil companies.
Hydrogen for heating has similar issues of conversion losses and inefficiency, especially when green electricity can and should be used directly for heating. Compared to hydrogen, heat pumps are a cheaper, more efficient, and more sustainable way to decarbonise heating. Furthermore, using hydrogen for supplying heat would require significant upgrades to infrastructure, such as gas pipeline networks and compressor stations for its transport, and boilers and pipelines inside people’s homes.
Hydrogen molecules are smaller than methane, meaning metal pipelines that currently carry methane are not suitable because the hydrogen could leak. Hydrogen also has less energy density than methane, meaning it is not possible to just replace methane with hydrogen on a like-for-like basis in existing pipelines and boilers, or blend lots of hydrogen with methane. A 20% blend of hydrogen by volume would give only around 7% of the total energy in the gas mix. In other words, mixing in 20% hydrogen, by volume, does not displace 20% of the methane.
This begs the question: why invest so much time into creating a role for hydrogen in our future energy system when, from a technical and climate perspective, it is far from the best option? The answer is that climate and energy policies, and in particular electrification, are a threat to significant parts of the fossil fuel value chain. In Europe the natural gas industry is at particular risk. And hydrogen provides an opportunity for companies to shield parts of their value chain from the transition, or delay its impacts.
...climate and energy policies, and in particular electrification, are a threat to significant parts of the fossil fuel value chain… And hydrogen provides an opportunity for companies to shield parts of their value chain from the transition, or delay its impacts.
The industry frontrunner for clean hydrogen production, blue hydrogen developed with natural gas and CCS, keeps much of the upstream gas value chain in use. Regardless of whether the hydrogen is ‘blue’ or ‘green’, this also allows owners of gas networks and infrastructure to remain part of the future system - irrespective of whether the use of this hydrogen is the lowest cost and lowest carbon pathway to net zero. For the oil and gas industry, this results in two outcomes: if hydrogen has a major role in the future energy system, it ensures the survival of much of their business in a net zero world. But even if we do not have a hydrogen-rich future, the time spent debating it has delayed the low-carbon transition and allowed fossil-based companies to continue with business as usual.
Source: Michael Liebreich/Liebreich Associates Concept: Adrian Hiel/ Energy Cities
None of this is to say hydrogen cannot contribute to achieving climate goals – on the contrary, hydrogen can play a vital role in decarbonising specific sectors, such as long-distance aviation and shipping or some specific industrial sectors. But to ensure it can do this, we need to develop a ‘hierarchy of needs’ and better understand exactly where we want to use hydrogen, with policies, regulation, and innovation tools designed specifically to meet this aim. There are no shortcuts to achieving net zero, just like there are none to winning Olympic gold. In the race to net zero, we need to think hard about how we get across the line and not let supposed silver bullet solutions break our stride.
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