Blue hydrogen is not a ‘clean’ energy source after all

Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell truck.

Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell truck.
Photo: Jae C. Hong (PA)

New research reveals that blue hydrogen, touted by fossil fuel producers as a climate solution, actually has a 20% larger greenhouse gas footprint than just using natural gas. The to study, published Thursday in Energy Science & Engineering, gives important context on a new high-profile fuel, a who happens to be the “Clean energy” apple of the fossil fuel industry.

Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, has many promises for the energy transition: It can power cars, provide electricity to buildings, and be used to help decarbonize tough industries like manufacturing and construction. The problem with hydrogen is that it has to be separated from the other elements, which in itself consumes a lot of energy. Hydrogen can be separated from the oxygen in water by electrolysis to create what is called green hydrogen, an option free from any greenhouse gas emissions, but quite expensive. It can also be harvested from fossil fuels like coal and gas, to create what is known as gray hydrogen. It’s a little cheaper than green hydrogen, but emits quite a bit of CO2 when extracting hydrogen to treat.

Faced with growing calls for decarbonization, as well as a large amount of natural gas they needed to find uses, fossil fuel producers came up with the idea of ​​repackaging the image of gray hydrogen as low-carbon. carbon by capturing all the carbon emissions that would come with its creation. A new type of hydrogen has been born: blue hydrogen, which is gray hydrogen that uses carbon capture and storage technology to get rid of all those pesky carbon emissions and be, technically, a fuel for low carbon content. Big oil saw the opportunity use blue hydrogen as part of their public relations push for acarbon future.

“As far as I know, no one was talking about blue hydrogen until just a few years ago,” study author Robert Howarth said in an email. “The Hydrogen Council was created in 2017 by BP, Shell and Total, and they and other industry-related groups have started pushing hard on this idea of ​​blue hydrogen. They described [blue hydrogen] like low emissions or even zero emissions. But they never presented any actual data to back it up. Until this paper, Howarth said, there has been no peer-reviewed effort to analyze the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen – just “industry summaries” which, according to him, “do not hold up well to scrutiny”.

Unfortunately for the oil and gas industry, a close examination of the process of creating blue hydrogen reveals some uncomfortable truths. Howarth’s study found that blue hydrogen only has a slightly smaller carbon footprint than gray hydrogen, and in terms of methane the situation is much worse.

“While CO2 emissions are lower for blue hydrogen than for gray hydrogen, methane emissions are higher,” Ho said.Washingtonsaid rth. “This is because more natural gas is consumed to make blue hydrogen, because energy is needed to fuel the capture of the CO2, and that energy comes from natural gas.”

Methane emissions only stay in the atmosphere for a little over a decade, far less than the 300-300 of carbon dioxide.up to a lifespan of 1,000 years, but they’re pretty powerful while they’re there, because methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The IPCC report published this week for the first time called methane as a big climate problem, noting that methane emissions have increased dramatically over the past decade. The main culprits of methane are oil and gas companies, which release a lot of methane when extracting natural gas. The The IPCC estimates that fossil fuel companies are responsible for a quarter of global methane emissions.

The findings on methane in the IPCC report are particularly worrying considering what a heavy natural gas process is creating hydrogen from fossil fuels and storing CO2 emissions. In fact, manufacturing hydrogen is so energy intensive that the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is larger than that of natural gas. In other words, burning this supposedly “clean” fuel is actually worse, in terms of greenhouse gases, than just using natural gas itself.

“It takes a large amount of natural gas to produce hydrogen, using the methane from the gas as a raw material source, but also to burn it to fuel the steam reforming process and the CO2 capture process.” , Howarth said. “There are CO2 and methane emissions associated with this large use of gas. “

There’s a lot of hype surrounding the possibilities of hydrogen right now, as governments and industries around the world seek to decarbonize. The infrastructure bill that was passed by the Senate on Wednesday included $ 8 billion dedicated to the development of hydrogen energy; Department of Energy officials have spoken in the past on how blue hydrogen can fit into the Biden administration’s clean energy goals. The hydrogen industry said in February that more than 30 countries have created plans to develop more hydrogen projects. The UK is developing its own hydrogen strategy, and a government official told The Guardian that hydrogen would be ‘essential’ to UK’s own climate goals.

“We need to move away from all fossil fuels as soon as possible,” Howarth said. “The best way to do this is to use 100% renewable electricity from solar, wind and hydro sources, combined with beneficial electrification to provide heat from high efficiency heat pumps and for provide transport using electric vehicles. Blue hydrogen is a dangerous distraction, who, if it is actually used on a large scale, rather than help to combat climate change. Policymakers should be skeptical of such ideas until they are carefully scrutinized by independent scientists and engineers as part of a full life cycle assessment in a transparent and peer reviewed framework. peers. “

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