Once thought of as a solution to help governments meet climate targets, “blue” hydrogen is far worse for the environment than once thought and may instead lead to higher emissions than gas and coal.
This is the verdict of a landmark study by academics from Cornell and Stanford Universities in the United States, which concluded that blue hydrogen has “no role in a carbon-free future” and is actually up to 20% worse for the planet than burning gas or coal to produce heat.
As key nations transition towards net-zero emissions, blue hydrogen is perceived by the fossil fuel industry as a solution for its survival. However, the technology has been branded by the study as a “distraction” to genuinely green technologies, and could instead “delay needed action to truly decarbonise the global energy economy.”
The Cornell and Stanford researchers found that the use of blue hydrogen is more harmful than once thought due to the high amounts of natural gas needed to fuel the process, combined with the escape of “fugitive” carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced from extraction.
When compared to the equivalent levels needed to produce the same heat, amounts of these “fugitive” emissions outweigh the emissions produced from burning gas and coal.
The study found that blue hydrogen utilises inefficient carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS). The practice works through splitting the gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which then stores the CO2 and prevents it from being released into the atmosphere – a measure that has become a key element of net-zero transition strategies for numerous nations.
However, the new research, the first peer-reviewed study of its kind, has provided a new perspective on the use of blue hydrogen. The study’s authors concluded that the original analysis had assumed that “captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption. Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”
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This examination of the previously unknown damage that the technology could cause serves as a stark warning to the climate action targets of many nations, claiming that the use of blue hydrogen technology may not be the solution that it was once thought to be.
Politicians around the world, from the UK and Canada to Australia and Japan, are placing expensive bets on blue hydrogen as a leading solution in the energy transition. Our research is the first in a peer-reviewed journal to lay out the significant lifecycle emissions intensity of blue hydrogen.
The research comes after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report warning of a “code red” on climate change, stressing the urgency across the globe for nations to reach their climate action commitments.
The UK government is one of those which has placed blue hydrogen at the center of its energy transition plans, introducing CCS projects in the northern areas of the nation in partnership with oil and gas giants such as Shell and BP.
David Cebon, professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University, expressed in reporting by Recharge News that “this landmark paper sheds light on the key unknown in the UK’s hydrogen debate: the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen. The calculation method is rigorous, the assumptions are all solid and the results are stark… this paper shows that producing blue hydrogen is significantly worse than burning fossil fuels for heat.”
Cebon added that the UK government should take note of this study in its transition strategy, claiming that it must rethink its “investment in blue hydrogen under the premise that it supports our climate goals.”
A UK government spokesperson said hydrogen would be “essential for meeting our legally binding commitment to eliminating the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050… we will consult on a new UK standard for low-carbon hydrogen production to ensure the technologies we support make a real contribution to our goals.”
The spokesperson stated that further details of the government’s hydrogen strategy can be expected to be published next month.
The landmark study has upended the thinking behind the use of carbon capture, instead proposing to advance the use of “green hydrogen” technologies.
New study confirms that “blue” hydrogen results in higher CO2 émissions than natural gas. The only zéro émission hydrogen is green hydrogen made by electrolysing water with electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro. https://t.co/OWDFifRtqt
— Malcolm Turnbull 💉💉 (@TurnbullMalcolm) August 13, 2021
The study should be perceived as a “warning signal to governments,” said Howarth, adding that “the only ‘clean’ hydrogen they should invest public funds in is truly net-zero, green hydrogen made from wind and solar energy.”
Studies show green hydrogen could become the cheapest form of fuel, overtaking gas and coal-produced hydrogen by the end of the decade. The Australian government has described findings on the fuel as “transformative,” and the European Commission has launched a strategy to place green hydrogen centrally in Europe’s goal to reach climate neutrality.
Whilst the Cornell and Stanford study has thrown a spanner in the works for the transition strategies of many nations that have hoped for a blue hydrogen solution, the cheaper and cleaner green hydrogen technologies indicate better solutions to the climate crisis exist in times where urgent action is needed.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Blue Hydrogen Graphic. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay.