Hydrogen plays many important roles in our lives. The biggest use is for fertilizer, but it is also used in petroleum refining, glassmaking, electronics manufacturing, and making methanol. We need a lot of it: production in 2018 was 60 million metric tons. Over 70% of hydrogen is classified as “gray” and made from natural gas, while 27% of it is made from coal and is classified as “brown.”1 According to the International Energy Agency, all hydrogen production releases about 830 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year—9.3 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen.2
Just decarbonizing the hydrogen we need and use now is going to be a huge and expensive undertaking, yet we are being promised that “blue” hydrogen (where the CO2 is captured and stored during production) or “green” hydrogen (made with renewable electricity) can solve all our problems, from home heating to cars to planes. It seems too good to be true, but that is what we read in the media or hear from our politicians.
That’s why the Hydrogen Science Coalition is such an interesting and important resource. It describes itself as “a group of independent academics, scientists and engineers who are working to bring an evidence-based viewpoint to the heart of the hydrogen discussion… We use our collective expertise to translate the role that hydrogen can play in the energy transition for politicians, media and investors.”
“Any decisions to invest public money in hydrogen need to be backed up with facts. Relying only on vested interests to guide the development of a hydrogen sector risks undermining where the evidence tells us hydrogen should play a role” said Tom Baxter, visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde and an ex-BP engineer, in a press release.
They have written a manifesto that is jargon-free and a big splash of cold water on so much of the hydrogen hype. The most important point is the first one, but there are several notable points.
“Zero emission hydrogen is an opportunity for governments to speed up the energy transition. However the only true zero emission hydrogen is that made from renewable electricity.”
No blue hydrogen, please—it is a fig leaf to keep burning fossil fuels. They claim that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is always partial, and “its emissions can be as bad or even worse than simply burning fossil fuels.” This will be the hardest pill to swallow: There is so much money behind blue hydrogen these days, even though it barely exists.
“Deploy green hydrogen for hard to decarbonise sectors, starting with where grey hydrogen is used today.”
As noted above, we are using a lot of hydrogen now and will need more in the future for industrial processes like making steel. We should be putting our green hydrogen to work here first.