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Are even supporters of the green agenda beginning to question hydrogen?

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Followers of ShipInsight familiar with the British press will be aware that the Guardian is probably the most supportive of all newspapers of the Green agenda, so it came as something of a surprise to read an article at the end of last week that appears to question the embrace of hydrogen for solving the world’s climate problems.

The article opened by saying, “Using hydrogen-based fuels for cars and home heating risks locking in a dependency on fossil fuels and failing to tackle the climate crisis, according to a new analysis.”

It went on to say that fuels produced from hydrogen can be used as straight replacements for oil and gas and can be low-carbon, if renewable electricity is used to produce these “e-fuels”. However, the research found that using the electricity directly to power cars and warm houses was far more efficient.

The analysis estimated that hydrogen-based fuels would be very expensive and scarce in the coming decade. Therefore, equipment such as “hydrogen-ready” boilers could end up reliant on fossil gas and continue to produce the carbon emissions driving global heating.

However, a few sectors such as aviation, shipping, steel and some chemicals are extremely hard to electrify. The researchers said hydrogen-based fuels would be needed for these by 2050, when the world needs to have reached net zero emissions.

But they said enormous investment in technology and fast-rising carbon taxes would be needed to achieve this. Using renewable electricity to create hydrogen from water and then using carbon dioxide to manufacture other fuels can produce “drop-in” replacements for fossil fuels. But the new study concludes this cannot work on a large enough scale to tackle the climate emergency in time because globally renewable energy accounts for just a tiny proportion of electricity production.

“Hydrogen-based fuels can be a great clean energy carrier, yet their costs and associated risks are also great,” said Falko Ueckerdt, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, who led the research.

“If we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up burning further oil and gas,” he said. “We should therefore prioritise those precious hydrogen-based fuels for applications for which they are indispensable: long-distance aviation, feedstocks in chemical production and steel production.”

Prof Gunnar Luderer, also at PIK said the EU target for green hydrogen production in 2030 was a thousand times higher than current levels of production, suggesting the scale-up would have to go far faster than even the rapid solar energy rollout of the last decade.

The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, calculated that producing and burning hydrogen-based fuels in home gas boilers required six to 14 times more electricity than heat pumps providing the same warmth.

This is because energy is wasted in creating the hydrogen, then the e-fuel, then in burning it. For cars, using e-fuels requires five times more electricity than is needed than for battery-powered cars.

Clearly the thrust of the article was that the impact of measures to put hydrogen at the core of future energy needs was likely to increase costs for the public as well as increasing reliance on oil and gas. Shipping was given only a brief mention and mentioned as one of the potential users for new e-fuels.

This does raise a question for the shipping industry that needs to be aired. Politicians are very likely averse to greatly increasing the cost of fuel for transport and home use because the result would be a lack of support from the electorate and a likely change of government.

In the UK there is already a groundswell of opinion against some of the government’s recently voiced policies. A phase out of petrol and diesel engined vehicles by 2030 or 2035 is not popular and neither is a more recent one that would see gas boiler banned in new homes in an even shorter timescale. In the UK, gas is seen as the cheapest method for heating homes and producing domestic hot water.

So, politicians rather than upset the electorate may well decide that shipping, aviation and the other industries mentioned will be the sole destination for expensive e-fuels. This might mean that they would be cheaper than otherwise because of less competition, but equally it could mean that limited production will mean no economies of scale in their manufacture.

Since the general public are these days far less aware of the shipping industry’s contribution to their standard of living, any negative comment because of increased costs of goods can be shrugged off by politicians as being not of their doing.

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