Is hydrogen a new green wonder fuel?

NO EASY ANSWER: the reality of solving climate change will require a complete overhaul of capitalist production and consumption patterns

SSP national co-spokesperson Roisin McLaren takes a look

· The science and tech news are full of hopeful stories about hydrogen being the new climate friendly future fuel. With Shell proudly Tweeting about ‘kick starting the hydrogen economy’.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it can store much more energy than conventional fuels. A fuel whose by-product is water certainly sounds like the future.

Hydrogen can be produced via electrolysis, using renewable energy, to convert water into hydrogen—this is ‘green hydrogen’. Green hydrogen certainly will have some role in a future decarbonised economy. It may be a solution for situations where electrification is not possible such as aviation.

However, currently green hydrogen makes up less than 1 per cent of hydrogen consumed, with 99 per cent of current hydrogen consumption being derived from fossil fuels—therefore contributing to climate change.

Grey hydrogen
Most of the hydrogen currently produced is so-called ‘grey hydrogen’. Grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas through steam reforming, the excess carbon produces CO2—so a fuel derived from a fossil fuel that produces CO2 i.e. not very green.

If carbon capture technology is used to catch the excess CO2 the hydrogen is called ‘blue hydrogen’. Currently 90 per cent of hydrogen consumption comes from grey hydrogen and 0.7 per cent from blue hydrogen.

So, currently hydrogen is a fuel that involves burning gas and creating CO2 emissions, why therefore is it getting promoted as a solution to climate change? The answer lies in the interests of private capital.

For some time, the gas industry attempted to push the concept of natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ as it produces less CO2 that oil.

The argument went that it was impractical to eliminate fossil fuels right away as renewable technology was too expensive so instead the world should switch to a less polluting fossil fuel until renewables were affordable.

That period is over as now wind and solar are already often cheaper than natural gas and battery electric vehicles are more efficient, safer, and cheaper than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Many cities and states, such as California are now moving to ban natural gas from markets such as heating homes. This is a major threat to the industry which has been producing record amounts of natural gas.

Fracking has massively boosted the amount of methane produced, and the oil industry constantly discovers new natural gas deposits that are a by-product of oil extraction. The gas industry must find customers for this gas and their solution is to try and create a new market for methane in hydrogen production.

As Desmog puts in a recent article: “Pushing fossil fuel based hydrogen as a climate solution is a strategy by the oil and gas industry to delay the implementation of true climate solutions.”

One of the big incentives for the push towards hydrogen is the supposed ease with which the switch from gas to hydrogen could be made.

The argument is made that: “the infrastructure already exists” (Julio Friedmann, Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University).

The infrastructure Friedmann is referring to is the extensive pipeline network already in place for natural gas transportation. However, things are not so simple. These pipes are made of steel and hydrogen makes steel pipes brittle, therefore in danger of leaking, or causing gas explosions.

There could be potentially up to three times more leaks from hydrogen than methane in these pipes, so suggests a study conducted by US Department of Energy. On top of this hydrogen is already more of an explosion risk than methane.

This current push for hydrogen is greenwashing a polluting practise at the expense of investing in renewables.

However, there is a place for green hydrogen, which is currently less than 1 per cent of hydrogen produced. Green hydrogen might have a use to replace fossil fuels in heavy industries like steel.

Green hydrogen could also be a solution for haulage, shipping and aviation as hydrogen is more efficient than battery electric vehicles after a certain distance and weight.

However, green hydrogen powered planes would emit water vapour, while this sounds like a harmless emission if significant amounts of water vapour were added to the atmosphere the resulting extra clouds could add to the greenhouse effect, so heating the earth.

Capital is constantly looking for wonder fuels to simply swap out our current fossil fuels with. However, the reality of solving climate change will require a complete overhaul of capitalist production and consumption patterns. An overhaul probably not compatible with capitalism, if climate change is to be halted not just slowed.

At the moment, however hydrogen is a distraction. Green hydrogen technology is not likely to be an affordable technology until 2040 (Wood Mackenzie) and the climate need technological solutions that are affordable and scalable now, not in 20 years’ time.

At this rate in 20 years’ climate change will have taken hold, we need to slow the rate of warming today.

Renewables, wind and solar with battery storage is already a fully workable scalable technology. Instead of a hydrogen economy we need to invest in an electric economy powered by renewables. The interests of one private industry cannot be allowed to distract from that goal.

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