Newsletter: Blue hydrogen blues

Earthjustice report raises concerns that hydrogen hype could funnel money away from cost-effective tech that already works.

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Given all the chatter about hydrogen as a climate solution, it’s crucial to remember that clean hydrogen remains almost entirely in the realm of imagination. 

The world produces a lot of hydrogen, but less than 1 percent of it is made with renewable energy. The dominant process uses methane and a lot of energy to make hydrogen used in oil refining and other industrial applications. 

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An uncritical endorsement of hydrogen as a fuel of the future could make a lot of dirty infrastructure look clean. That’s why the environmental lawyers at Earthjustice took a critical look at hydrogen in a new report. 

The organization’s provocative argument, as reported by Canary Media freelancer Ingrid Lobet: If hydrogen backers in the oil and gas industry want to make the case that hydrogen is a climate solution, they should start by decarbonizing their own production processes.

That’s not an outlandish ask, given how governments around the world are offering up billions of dollars to jump-start the hydrogen economy. Who better to show that hydrogen can be a constructive player in the energy transition than the companies that already make money producing hydrogen?

But there are some rather expansive definitions of clean” floating around in hydrogen industry circles. Some groups promote blue” hydrogen, which uses the steam methane reforming process but theoretically tacks on carbon-capture processes that aren’t in widespread commercial use yet.

  • A handful of facilities already do this, but they represent a minuscule portion of the hydrogen industry.
  • Blue hydrogen still depends on the aforementioned dirty and energy-intensive steam methane reforming process. It also relies on the methane supply chain, which produces well-documented leakage of this potent planet-warming gas.

Here’s what report author Sasan Saadat, senior research and policy analyst at Earthjustice, told Canary Media about clean hydrogen:

This is being used as a strategy to siphon climate investments toward a commodity where the oil and gas industry currently dominates production and consumption.” 

Advocates like Saadat are concerned that hydrogen hype could funnel money away from things that already work and are cost-effective (rapid renewables adoption, electrification of vehicles and buildings). And if blue hydrogen ends up becoming a major source of hydrogen, it would end up washing out much of the supposed climate benefit.

Green hydrogen has its own work to do.

  • It currently costs several times more than conventional hydrogen.
  • The intermittency of renewable power poses a challenge for industries that rely on more consistent hydrogen production.
  • We need immense growth in green hydrogen production to meet demand for the product.

We’re still super early in this adoption cycle. Hydrogen could end up either ubiquitous in a low-carbon society or relegated to niches that are hard to reach with any other carbon-free energy. But there’s a ton of money riding on that outcome, and that comes with vested interests. Ingrid’s story is a great reference for where those tensions stand at the moment.

For another angle on how hydrogen fits into the future, check out Jeff St. John’s latest story on how to rank the costs of different decarbonization tools when they’re highly interconnected and one investment influences how others perform.

The report Jeff covers, produced by the analysts at Evolved Energy Research, supports the view of hydrogen as a relatively expensive tool that will be necessary when other options exhaust their emissions-reduction potential.

But the Evolved Energy analysts say that it’s worth investing today in long-term technologies, even if they’re costly, because we’ll need them when the cheaper options have been exhausted.

(Lead photo: Raphaël Biscaldi)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.