The media — at least in Europe — seems to be abuzz with talk about green hydrogen. As an energy source, backers envision hydrogen powering everything from aircraft, to steel mills, to global shipping fleets, cars, and homes. The catalyst (no pun intended) came from the E.U.’s recent greenhouse gas emission policy review.
The review pushed hydrogen options up the agenda as the only way many industries would achieve carbon neutrality in the next few decades. Plans old and new have been dusted down or reexamined to push the agenda in an environment awash with stimulus in the hope financial support will make some of them possible.
The Financial Times is far from alone, but its recent coverage in multiple articles illustrates the wide interest in the topic. While hydrogen carries huge potential for some industries to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, steel being a major sector dear to our hearts, it isn’t without challenges beyond the pure economics.
To be considered blue hydrogen — that is, without the carbon footprint that comes from its traditional production route of splitting natural gas — it either has to come from the electrolysis of water or from natural gas combined with carbon capture and sequestration. In the latter’s case, both are established technologies but are hugely expensive.
Furthermore, the electricity needed to power the process needs to come from solar or wind power sources if it isn’t to have its own carbon footprint.
It is debatable whether Europe has the available unused landmass to build enough solar parks or erect enough wind turbines to create sufficient power to power the plethora of industries being promoted as candidates for a switch to hydrogen.
According to the International Energy Agency, almost all hydrogen is supplied from fossil fuels. Furthermore, 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal are going to hydrogen production.
As a consequence, the production of hydrogen is responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That total is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined — hardly a clean fuel based on current industrial production practices.
Nor is hydrogen a particularly energy-intensive fuel source. Only some 35% of the electricity generated at the solar cell makes its way through to the fuel at the point of use. In many cases, why wouldn’t you just use electricity, for example, in powering cars?
For steel production, electricity can be a direct substitute for hydrogen required as a reductant in blast furnaces by switching steel production to electric arc furnaces. Then, however, iron ore needs to be refined to pellets to make that technologically viable. Once again, that is a potentially polluting and power-consuming process.
Hydrogen has been boosted as the fuel of the future on at least two occasions in the past, both crossroads of one sort or another. The oil crisis of the early 1970s and the onset of the climate change campaign in the late 1980s both boosted hydrogen’s profile.
However, neither event proved successful in producing significant change with respect to hydrogen. Will this time be any different?