A closer look at the #hydrogenhype

The hydrogen hype is everywhere. No, really, it is.

It’s everywhere you turn, from news pieces extolling the virtue of embracing this alternative fuel, to announcements detailing upcoming projects that will further hydrogen’s reach and accessibility in the industry.

It’s not particularly new, either, with the debate around hydrogen having gone on for a while now.

Even as far back as 2019 saw the International Energy Agency (IEA) publish a report detailing the potential of hydrogen as a critical part of a more sustainable, secure energy future. Titled The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities, the report stated that clean hydrogen was receiving strong support from businesses and governments, but was not without its share of challenges.

One major setback found to using the alternative fuel resource then lay in its production, which was almost entirely from natural gas and coal; The report found then that the production of hydrogen was responsible for a shocking 830 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

However, the findings also stated that reducing emissions, while a challenge, would prove fruitful by increasing the scale of hydrogen’s implementation worldwide.

“Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum,” said Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future.”

Today, we see an almost uncontested notion that hydrogen is the way to go for the refining and petrochemicals industry.

The end of August saw Sinopec unveiling its plans to spend 30 billion yuan (4.6 billion USD) on hydrogen energy by 2025, and becoming China’s largest company in the production of hydrogen for use as a transportation fuel.

According to the oil refiner, this is a necessary step towards realizing its goals of transforming into a carbon-neutral energy provider by 2050.

Said acting Chairman Ma Yongsheng: “Sinopec will expand forcefully into making hydrogen from renewable energy, and zero in on hydrogen for transportation fuel and using green hydrogen for refining.”

So far, Sinopec produces approximately three million tonnes of hydrogen per year, that is primarily used in oil refinery and petrochemical processes.

Which is what, again?

Let’s recap.

So now that industry has more or less accepted hydrogen’s reign, the question falls to how exactly to tell the different kinds apart. It can be confusing, having to differentiate between the many colours of hydrogen. Grey, green, blue, brown… Where to start?

It all comes down to how it’s produced.

Interestingly, other forms of hydrogen – such as pink and yellow – also exist, and although it is important to note that naming conventions vary in other countries and geographical territories, perhaps in time we will witness a veritable rainbow of hydrogen used in the industry.

Not all that glitters is, well, blue

However, the road toward hydrogen adoption and implementation has not been the smoothest. Little remains known about if its touted benefits are actually true; A document published in Energy Science and Engineering on 12 August produced shocking revelations for supporters of blue hydrogen.

Produced by Bob Howarth, a Cornell University climate scientist, and Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, the report titled How Green Is Blue Hydrogen? states: “Far from being low-emissions, blue hydrogen has emissions as large as or larger than those of natural gas used for heat… The small reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for blue hydrogen compared with natural gas are more than made up for by the larger emissions of fugitive methane.”

It even goes as far as to say that there is no advantage to using blue hydrogen powered by natural gas, as compared to simply using natural gas for heat, adding:

“Seemingly, the renewable electricity would be better used to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis. This best- case scenario for producing blue hydrogen, using renewable electricity instead of natural gas to power the processes, suggests to us that there really is no role for blue hydrogen in a carbon-free future. Greenhouse gas emissions remain high, and there would also be a substantial consumption of renewable electricity, which represents an opportunity cost. We believe the renewable electricity could be better used by society in other ways, replacing the use of fossil fuels.”

So… What now?

There’s really no such thing as “good” or “bad” hydrogen, but with blue hydrogen now debunked, it appears that green hydrogen might just be the industry’s answer to the decarbonisation drive.

In the Green Hydrogen: A Guide to Policy Making report, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) states that green hydrogen is most suitable for a fully-sustainable energy transition, especially thanks to increased interest in delivering low-carbon solutions and additional benefits that green hydrogen is able to provide.

In a bid to raise awareness and support the usage of green hydrogen, IRENA recently partnered up with Snam, Europe’s largest energy infrastructure operator, to study and potentially implement pilot projects focusing on renewables generation, as well as the transport and distribution of green hydrogen.

“Our collaboration with IRENA represents an important step forward to identifying green hydrogen and biomethane as key solutions to support the energy transition and the combat to climate change,” commented Marco Alverà, CEO of Snam.

“Hydrogen is on the cusp of happening, with costs set to fall faster than expected, pilot projects testing out its application in every sector, and policymakers the world over looking to give this market the judicious nudge it needs.”

Just as recently, Aussie billionaire Andrew Forrest launched the Green Hydrogen Organisation (GH2), a body aimed at speeding up development of the resource and curbing global warming.

Said the organization: “In this rush to develop more hydrogen production, definitions are becoming blurred between hydrogen production that is genuinely green, and hydrogen production that is branded ‘clean’ but is ultimately a by-product of the fossil fuel sector.”

#hydrogenhype unlikely to wane

To borrow lingo familiar to my fellow millennials, the hydrogen hype train is unlikely to stop anytime soon. The pressure inflicted on the oil and gas industry to switch to greener alternatives is only set to grow, and even as refiners debate over growing issues like performative environmentalism and the right to operate, it’s clear that hydrogen has stepped into its role as the fuel of the future, and will remain centre stage for quite some time.