Solving the hydrogen conundrum
July 26, 2022

Hydrogen has long been seen as a key part of the transition to cleaner energy. But it’s not a magic bullet. Switching to green hydrogen needs careful management.

There are high hopes – well justified – that hydrogen will be an important part of any clean energy future. For example, the U.K. Government’s energy strategy wants to generate 10GW of low carbon hydrogen by 2050, with 1GW operational by 2025.

The E.U. is equally committed to hydrogen, with a strategy to support at least 6GW or green hydrogen electrolyzers by 2024 and 40GW by 2030. That’s enough to produce 10 million tonnes of green hydrogen.

Meeting the challenge

Globally significant manufacturers are also gearing up to meet the challenge. Industries such as steelmaking, cement and chemicals are huge consumers of fossil fuels. For these industries, switching to using only electricity is not viable, so alternative energy sources are needed. The airline industry is also looking for ways to reduce and, ultimately, remove its reliance on fossil fuels. Currently, aviation accounts for about 2.4% of global carbon emissions.

While some innovators are looking at moving towards aircraft with electric engines and battery storage – or a hybrid solution – big players such as Airbus are betting on hydrogen. In fact, Airbus aims to have a hydrogen-powered, zero emissions service operational by 2035. Other transport industries, including trains and trucks, are exploring similar avenues.

The cost challenge

Currently, one of the barriers to the development of a large-scale green hydrogen sector is cost. It is, quite simply, more expensive to produce clean and green hydrogen than the blue or grey versions. The way forward may be indicated by EDF Renewables’ Tees Green Hydrogen project, which uses a dedicated solar farm and nearby wind farm to power green hydrogen production.

The attraction of the fuel is that hydrogen is not only plentiful, it also produces only water as waste. So although some politicians have latched onto hydrogen as some sort of miracle fuel capable of powering everything from long-haul flights to domestic heating systems, the real story is a little more complex.

Water is not the only waste

For example, the water waste story is only true of hydrogen fuel cells. Burning hydrogen as a gas produces nitrogen dioxide. This means that air pollution levels may not be solved simply by replacing fossil-fuel gas with hydrogen.

Another challenge is that current gas distribution systems are not designed to carry hydrogen, which has smaller molecules that can leak through existing pipelines. Leaked hydrogen would mean that the climate warming gas methane would be retained in the atmosphere longer, with detrimental effects.

In addition, increased levels of hydrogen could affect the amount of ozone and water vapor in the atmosphere, all of which would negatively affect the climate.

Tempered enthusiasm

These potential negative aspects of hydrogen – even in its green form – should not dissuade us from using the gas as part of our transition to cleaner fuels. It is essential, however, to be fully aware of any risks as well as all the opportunities that green hydrogen technology offers. In our view, we should be enthusiastic about the potential of hydrogen, but we should temper our optimism with a healthy dose of scientific detachment and realism.

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