Will Hydrogen Save Us From Climate Breakdown?

The difficulty in shifting our lives away from fossil fuels is clear to anyone who passes a line of cars in traffic, or hears the familiar sound of a boiler roaring to life. Depending on your choice of metaphor, the road to zero carbon emissions could be long and winding, an uphill struggle, or an intractable, thorny problem. However, in recent years, one technology has grown in popularity to take a leading role in the move away from carbon dioxide. That technology is hydrogen, the most abundant chemical in the universe.

Most of the world’s economies have now made commitments to cut their carbon emissions to zero within a generation. These binding targets put added pressure on politicians to devise new plans to shift their respective economies away from fossil fuels quickly. Hydrogen is being pushed hard by business as the answer to these problems and its sudden rise to fame is worth our attention.

The technology’s potential value as a zero-carbon fuel source has been debated for years, in much the same way as the electric car once was: a nice idea, but not happening anytime soon. But the electric vehicle sector is growing rapidly and will soon become the dominant form of transport. Could hydrogen be close behind?

Hydrogen is already in widespread use throughout the world, most commonly in oil refineries to make petrol and diesel or to produce ammonium nitrate for fertiliser. Its use in the energy sector is less common, owing in part to complexities in its production and the prevalence of cheap oil. However, this is projected to change rapidly. The current global market is valued at around $150 billion, but could grow to $600 billion by 2050, according to JP Morgan, with power generation and transport accounting for half this growth.

We should always be wary of salesmen promoting a quick fix, or an easy answer to a difficult problem. And we should be especially wary if the salesman has created the problem in the first place.

It’s taken the influence of the Paris Agreement and new net zero laws to put hydrogen back on the political agenda. Both the EU and the UK now see the technology playing a major role in meeting their climate targets. Proposals released in the past year could lead to massive increases in public and private investment. The UK’s hydrogen strategy outlines its ‘critical role in the transition to net zero’ with immediate plans to ramp up public spending. The European Union also sees it as a game-changer, with a target to increase capacity to 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, roughly 1,000 times higher than it is today.

It’s easy to be sceptical about these grand plans. Hydrogen offers an attractive answer to policymakers who find decarbonisation too difficult a puzzle. And to politicians without a deep understanding of energy, it acts as a panacea, an easy switch for our reliance on gas. There is no need to build lots of expensive new pipelines, supporters say, we can use the existing gas infrastructure. It’s a simple argument which, on the surface, doesn’t require too much disruption to business as usual.

Some of the companies promoting hydrogen as the solution to net zero are major emitters of carbon. The Hydrogen Council is a ‘global CEO-led initiative’ formed in 2017 with an ambition to support the technology to ‘foster the clean energy transition for a better, more resilient future.’ Among its 123 members include some of the largest oil & gas producers and mining companies in the world, including Anglo-American, Shell, BP, Total, and Chevron.

We should always be wary of salesmen promoting a quick fix, or an easy answer to a difficult problem. And we should be especially wary if the salesman has created the problem in the first place. But some of these companies are putting their money and reputations on the line. BP recently announced a proposal to build ‘the UK’s largest hydrogen production facility’ in Teesside, in the north-east of England – a 1GW plant to be operational by 2030. This project alone would meet 20% of the UK government’s short term target. And a separate planned BP facility in the region, called ‘HyGreen’, could cost an estimated £100m if it gets the go-ahead. JCB, a British manufacturer of heavy equipment, is investing the same amount on new hydrogen engines and recently inked a deal worth billions of pounds to import the fuel into the UK.

While the cogs seem to be turning in the right direction, can the industry live up to expectations? The headlong rush by politicians to endorse hydrogen and a flurry of business deals should be met with caution. As private investment starts to flow into this new industry there are concerns around where the fuel can be used and how sustainable it really is.

Colours of the rainbow

Green Hydrogen Can Save Us. But Waiting For It Won’t’, says a recent UK billboard campaign. The company behind the advertisement was Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), a subsidiary of the Fortescue Metals Group, an Australian mining company and one of the largest producers of iron ore in the world. Despite only being founded in 2020, FFI has undertaken a global PR campaign to promote itself as a leader in ‘green hydrogen’. JCB’s deal to import hydrogen is with FFI, although the facility the fuel will be sourced from hasn’t been built yet.

But what is green hydrogen? It’s one of the many ways of creating the chemical in its pure, isolated form. Despite being the most common element in the universe, hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally and needs to be separated from its compound, usually water or methane. There are different ways of producing it and they are each given a colour according to their varying levels of sustainability. Green hydrogen is created using renewable electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. This method produces zero carbon emissions, but requires extra equipment and so currently costs more.

This is where things get murkier. ‘Grey hydrogen’ is simply the way it is made most commonly today, using natural gas in a similar process, which produces carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. And between grey and green is ‘blue hydrogen’, which follows the same process as grey, but with the carbon captured and stored instead.

The CEOs leading The Hydrogen Council and national governments around the world are placing big bets on blue. BP’s new 1GW plant in Teesside will only be making the blue variety. This is why the UK’s strategy talks of ‘low-carbon hydrogen’ – they are counting on either blue or green. As we stand on the cusp of a new energy revolution, with bold new plans and investments being made, much hinges on how much carbon can be stored when making hydrogen through natural gas. The key problem is that carbon capture remains an unproven process and there is an acceptance that 100% capture rates are near impossible even if the technology can be applied successfully.

There is already disquiet within the industry and among campaigners about the development of blue hydrogen. Some academics are warning that it could even lead to higher emissions than using gas on its own. This is due to the greater amount of natural gas needed to create an equivalent amount of hydrogen, and the fugitive emissions which can’t be captured.

The continued pursuit of blue hydrogen technology has led the chair of one of the UK’s energy trade bodies, Chris Jackson, to recently quit, calling it ‘at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use’. Jackson is a strong advocate of green hydrogen and runs his own business, called Protium – an investor in the technology. As he explained to The Guardian: ‘The Treasury has been told that blue hydrogen is cheap and will take millions of tonnes of carbon emissions out of the economy, which is all they need to hear. It checks the boxes they’re worrying about.’

Falling off the ladder

Beyond concerns around developing this technology to reduce emissions, there remains a separate question mark around what we will be using it for in the future. It’s no surprise that decarbonising the entire economy is a complicated process. From commercial aviation to long-haul shipping, from domestic heating to electricity generation, the challenges before us are many and various. In these areas, hydrogen is largely, if not entirely, unused and untested. And there are other clean technologies which could be doing a better job.

Energy commentator Michael Liebreich has attempted to pull together the uses for hydrogen as a zero-carbon fuel source. Drawing on a wealth of existing academic work he created the ‘clean hydrogen ladder’ to show where it could be used and where it doesn’t make sense. He concluded: in almost all use cases there is a good reason why hydrogen is not currently used because other solutions are cheaper, simpler, safer or more convenient.’ In many sectors, electrification or biogas are direct competitors, and, as we’ve seen with electric vehicles, are already being delivered at scale.

Despite this, there are real hopes within the UK government that hydrogen can be used to replace gas boilers in people’s homes. The first trial is already taking place in the small village of Winlaton, just outside of Newcastle. This community of 668 homes will be a test case for using the technology in a real-world setting, with a separate pilot project about to start in Scotland. The intention is that these trials could lead to whole ‘hydrogen towns’ by the end of the decade.

A picture is being painted of these projects cutting energy bills and the UK’s reliance on gas from overseas. And that investments in the technology can revitalise parts of the country which have experienced deindustrialisation. The UK’s booming offshore wind sector is already leading to new opportunities in coastal towns. Hydrogen offers the promise of using that renewable electricity to further support the low-carbon economy and create new green jobs around the country.

The UK is only at the start of this journey but the expectations are high. But the concerns around the feasibility of hydrogen won’t go away and they need to be seriously considered by policymakers. There is a real risk that we could spend years building up a new industry, at great expense, only to find that we have prolonged the life of fossil fuels, and that the uses for this technology are few and far between. Meanwhile, the hard work and heavy lifting of the zero carbon transition has to go on, and at pace. The sooner we realise that this problem can’t be solved with one technology, that hydrogen, be it blue or green, isn’t the deus ex machina we want it to be, the sooner this real work can begin in earnest.


Adam Wentworth works in communications for a climate non-profit. He is based in London and writes a blog called Climate Bubble.

Artwork by Ben Beechener.