From the Editor - The Rocky Road to Hydrogen [GasTransitions]
Today, it seems that hydrogen has become the absolute number one solution, on which much of our climate policy hangs. At least, in Europe.
In an incredibly short time, the EU has embraced hydrogen not merely as the key to a decarbonised world, but also as the major pillar of a new industrial policy by which it hopes to secure a bright future for much of its manufacturing industry.
How sensible is this? That’s indeed the question. There certainly are some dissenting voices, particularly in academic circles. Professor Tom Baxter of the University of Aberdeen has written a highly critical article, arguing that at least for the UK “hydrogen isn’t the key to green recovery”. He charges that “businesses with a vested interest in promoting hydrogen are doing so at the expense of British consumers.” See page X.
Baxter is not alone. Three Australian researchers have published a similarly critical article on the website of The Conversation.
At the same time, two other professors, Michael Prather of the University of California, Irvine and Graeme Pearlman, of the University of Melbourne, point to another potential problem of hydrogen which has not received much attention yet. They note that increased concentrations of hydrogen could lead to a reduction in concentration of hydroxyl radicals. This is not good, because these radicals remove greenhouse gases, such as methane, from the atmosphere.
Oops. Could hydrogen actually be bad for the climate? “Don’t rush into a hydrogen economic before we know more about the climate risks,” write Prather and Pearlman. See page X.
Then, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a “green” think tank, has published a report which shows up yet another risk: it turns out that Europe, in its rush to “green” (renewable energy based) hydrogen is still pretty much on its own. China is largely sticking to “grey” hydrogen, Japan, Australia and South Korea are much more open to “blue” hydrogen (fossil fuel based with CCS).
Okay, so Europe would be leading, you might say. Is that bad? Well, Europe is also counting on significant imports of hydrogen to meet its future needs. Leading is one thing, but going it alone is hardly an option. Article on page X.
And there is more scattered bad news. German hydrogen start-up Sunfire for example has warned that German power costs are much too high to enable the expansion of renewable energy Germany needs to underpin its future hydrogen economy.
Another ominous bit of news: in the Netherlands an in-depth study for a distribution system operator compared cost of electricity network expansion with the cost of building hydrogen capacity. It concluded that the electric solution was twice as cheap under any circumstances. Not a very encouraging result. See our News section on page 16.
But we have some good news as well for hydrogen advocates. A study commissioned by 11 European gas pipeline operators into the possibility of building a European hydrogen backbone came up with surprisingly positive results. It turns out that it’s quite feasible economically and technically to build such a continent-wide network, for a large part based on conversion of the existing natural gas network. Article on page X.
In addition, the cost of green hydrogen production may also be much less than is generally assumed. Independent energy consultant Mike Parr chides analysts from investment bank HSBC and others who, he writes, don’t understand that costs of electrolysers do not need to come down very much, as they are only a small part of total production costs. What is more, notes Parr: costs of green hydrogen are entirely predictable. Article on page X.
Where the road to hydrogen goes, no one knows. But we will keep following it for you in Gas Transitions, with critical but open minds.
Karel Beckman, editor-in-chief