Hydrogen – The Clean Energy Fuel?

Opportunity or Scam?

Much is being claimed about how hydrogen should be seen as one of the candidates to help us reach a clean energy future. Many governments and business leaders have been convinced that hydrogen is a very good replacement for oil-based products and Japan, Australia, the US and the Europeans have jumped on the hydrogen bandwagon with gusto. So much so, that Japan sees hydrogen as deserving of a large chunk of its $US 19 billion investment in clean energy technologies and see Australia as a major supplier of renewable based hydrogen.

Currently, about 120 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced worldwide with 30 million tonnes being used in oil refining and 90 million tonnes being used for chemical production. Hydrogen is the primary feedstock for ammonia production which in turn, is largely used in the manufacture of fertilizers. Therefore, hydrogen has been seen as a chemical feedstock rather than an energy source up until now.

But there is a wide range of views on hydrogen’s potential as an energy source. At one extreme, it is simply the oil industry’s way of extending their reach into the clean energy field by utilising much of their existing oil and gas infrastructure to produce, transport and store the fuel. Indeed, Toyota, has long been a fan of hydrogen and have produced a car that feeds hydrogen into a fuel cell to drive their Mirai hybrid electric vehicle. Hydrogen is also seen as the ideal replacement for diesel in heavy road transport and maritime shipping given its energy density. All in all, the oil and gas industry sees hydrogen as a small step from gasoline that keeps their multi trillion dollar investment in oil infrastructure reasonably whole and continues to make them relevant in what could be a radically different energy future.

On the other hand, hydrogen is seen by many on the environmental side as a potentially interesting contributor to a clean energy future with one major caveat. If it is not green hydrogen, then what is the point? They argue that the oil and gas industry’s promotion of hydrogen is not only self-serving, but also a scam that not only wastes government investment in the area but also ends up increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the process (both CO2 and methane).

To better understand these opposing arguments, let’s first look at the various ways of producing hydrogen. Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it does not like being by itself and instead finds bonds with other elements (i.e. oxygen to make water and carbon to make hydrocarbons). It takes a lot of energy to break these bonds to isolate the hydrogen but we have four ways to make this happen:

  1. Brown Hydrogen – this involves steam reforming to break the hydrogen/carbon bond in coal. This process leads to significant carbon emissions.
  2. Grey Hydrogen – again using steam reforming, this breaks the hydrogen/carbon bond in natural gas. The resulting carbon by-product is released into the atmosphere.
  3. Blue Hydrogen – the same process as Grey Hydrogen but instead of emitting the CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, the CO2 is captured and sequestered in an underground reservoir. There are currently only two Blue Hydrogen plants in the world and one is using CO2 to flush oil and gas from the storage reservoirs as a cost mitigant of the process.
  4. Green Hydrogen – this uses renewable generated electricity to break the hydrogen/oxygen bond in water through an electrolysis process.

Clearly if our objective is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, any hydrogen production process that involves carbon emissions needs to be questioned. If we consider the supposed best candidate, Blue Hydrogen, Howarth and Jacobsen* of Cornell University have analysed the carbon emissions of the whole Blue Hydrogen process including the fugitive emissions of methane, and concluded that using Blue Hydrogen as a heating fuel, as proposed by Shell and British Gas, results in 20% higher emissions of greenhouse gases compared with using the natural gas directly.

However, some in the oil and gas sector argue that in the short term, the use of Grey or Blue Hydrogen is a means of establishing the necessary infrastructure to bring hydrogen to the market in an efficient way. This then sets up the base demand and the means of delivery that Green Hydrogen can later take advantage of as the economics of its production are further developed and scaled up. Therefore, the argument is that we should wear a short term carbon cost for a long term gain.

To many this sounds a bit like the thinking behind local laws that required a man to walk in front of a petrol driven horseless carriage in the early 1900’s, waving a sign of the danger of such a vehicle. It had nothing to do with safety, it was to protect the status quo of the horse drawn carriage industry. Both in terms of carbon footprint and cost, it is hard to figure how Brown, Grey or Blue hydrogen can be justified when there are seemingly better clean energy alternatives either on the market or currently being developed.

For instance, let’s consider the passenger car market. Toyota’s Mirai uses hydrogen to feed a fuel cell which then produces electricity to drive an electric motor. While the car only produces water through its exhaust, the amount of carbon emitted in the hydrogen production process whether it be brown, grey or blue means we are no better off than fuelling the car with gasoline. Coupled with the cost of the hydrogen at the fuel pump ($US13-15/kg or ~$US 78 to fill the tank – the retail price of hydrogen in California), the cost of driving Toyota’s Mirai confounds any economics much less its environmental footprint. If the Mirai was filled with Green Hydrogen, the fuel pump cost would be approximately double that of grey hydrogen currently available so we may be waiting a long time before the running costs of this particular car move anywhere near the cost of running a battery electric vehicle (BEV).

So how could hydrogen fit into a clean energy future? It all boils down to whether battery technology can meet the needs of moving heavy transport vehicles. We already know that hydrogen will most likely never compete with batteries in the passenger car market regardless of the cost of Green Hydrogen. However, the one advantage that hydrogen does have over batteries is its energy density. As batteries have about a tenth of the energy density per volume than hydrogen, scaling up batteries to move large vehicles (semi-trailers and ships) requires a compounding weight of additional battery capacity to provide the necessary power and range.

Hydrogen may well compete with batteries in very large vehicle such as ships and depending on the performance of new battery models of trucks, could be an attractive alternative for longer route road transport. We will very soon know the answer as the battery powered Tesla truck and the hydrogen powered Nickola Motor Company truck are both ready for market launch sometime this year. The trucking industry, which is acutely cost driven, will then have the opportunity to provide its verdict within the next 2 years.

Hydrogen may also become an effective option for energy storage in the electricity systems of most countries. Tests have already been conducted to demonstrate that a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas can be used to fuel gas turbines which will be required to provide grid stability and as back up for renewable based systems. In other areas where electricity cannot replace fossil fuels such as in raw steel making, cement production and chemical production, hydrogen will almost certainly be an energy candidate as we progress through the clean energy transition of those industries into a net zero world.

So it is a matter of horses for courses when it comes to which energy technology will best meet each energy need. Hydrogen’s role will become better known in the next 10 years as more technological advances are made in both battery technologies and Green hydrogen production. The relative costs of adopting either energy solution will likely evolve with some dead ends but the market will sort this out so long as Governments do not create distortions through ill focused subsidies and other supports and regulations.

Governments are notorious for not being good at picking winners and losers and spreading the research dollars around more judiciously will certainly help. This will mean dumping dead end technologies such as carbon capture and storage which is now seen generally as a white elephant to prop up the fossil fuel industry along with other follies such as Grey and Blue hydrogen. Transition technologies such as Blue Hydrogen may seem like a good idea but they will only probably delay the day when truly green technologies are adopted to meet our more and more aggressive carbon emission targets.

If it can be economically produced, Green Hydrogen could well be a candidate for use in heavy transport and back-up electricity generation. But that is a big “if”. There is no indication that producing Green Hydrogen for as little as $2/kg (being the point at which it becomes economic), will ever happen. Additionally, just to produce the world’s current hydrogen to meet the chemical feedstock demand, it would take the equivalent of all the world’s current renewable electricity production to meet this production level. Producing hydrogen as a fuel will require a staggeringly large amount of renewable energy that probably would be better focused on meeting the increased electricity needs of householders and businesses.

But if there is any scam involved in the promotion of hydrogen as a clean energy alternative, it is in the marriage of carbon capture and storage with the production of Blue hydrogen. CCS has been proven to be uneconomic in all but the most specific circumstances where CO2 emissions are in high enough concentrations to be viably captured. Otherwise, there are no technical indicators on the horizon that will change this situation despite the many proponents still spruiking its potential.

The potentially greater scandal may be pushing one scam on top of the other if Blue hydrogen is used as the Trojan horse. The move to net zero in 2050 cannot be distracted by technical follies that vested interests are pushing, only to misallocate resources away from the best technologies that are either here now or are rapidly emerging.

Gregory Craven

September 2021

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