The Angry Clean Energy Guy on all you need to know (sort of) about Hydrogen: Green vs. Black vs. Grey vs. Blue, the myths peddled by Big Oil and whether hydrogen is the solution to our de-carbonisation imperative
Photo by Assaad W. Razzouk
Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the entire universe.
And depending on what you read, what you find out is that shockingly, and I did not know this, it makes up 70% of the entire universe.
It also has no colour, no smell, no taste. It’s not toxic. It’s not a metal, and it burns very easily in its pure form.
On earth, hydrogen is usually a gas, and it’s one of the parts that make up a water molecule. It’s the basis of water, H2O.
Hydrogen is also important because it is the fuel that powers the sun and other stars. It’s an extremely versatile element that can be used to create complex hydrocarbons like natural gas and oil.
At the moment, in the climate change space, we’re talking about it because of its applications.
First, it’s a feedstock for industrial and chemical processes, and that’s where most of it is used. Things like refining, petroleum products, methanol, ammonia for fertilizers, etc.
But what we are looking at now is the idea of hydrogen as an energy storage medium. Hydrogen is rich in energy, and it can, for example, be consumed via fuel cells that in turn are used to power cars and trucks. Hydrogen can be converted into electricity, using a fuel cell or burnt like natural gas to produce power and or heat. And both processes really only result in water vapor. But hydrogen can also be stored indefinitely, so it’s a long term form of energy storage.
I know this is very dry, but hydrogen today is being talked about a lot. And do you know what the strangest thing is about hydrogen? It’s, as I said before, the simplest and most plentiful element in the universe. But we have no natural, pure supplies. If we want more hydrogen because we want to use it as energy storage or in an industrial process, we have to make it, and there’s our challenge.
So this episode is about telling you all you need to know (sort of) about hydrogen.
And the dramatic conclusion is this: If you hear talk about green hydrogen, which is hydrogen made from renewing energy, then you can associate that with doing good. It’s part of our future, maybe even a big part (frankly, nobody really knows). But it’s worth committing a career to.
If you hear talk about black or grey hydrogen, that’s hydrogen made from fossil fuels, and at that point you should just move on.
If you hear talk about blue hydrogen, which is hydrogen made from fossil fuels, allegedly combined with fantastic carbon capture and storage or tree planting to reduce the climate impacts, then immediately associate that with “myth propagated by oil and gas companies to enable them to cheat us and continue to burn the house down”. Or just myth, if you prefer.
Welcome to Episode 30 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy Podcast with me, Assaad Razzouk.
And before I forget, if you like this podcast or any of my other podcasts, tell your friends, rate it and consider leaving a review. This would be much appreciated. Thank you.
MORE ON HYDROGEN
A few recent stories piqued my interest in hydrogen. Then some of you asked me to have an episode of The Angry Clean Energy Guy on hydrogen, so here we are.
But first: There is no question that hydrogen has enormous de-carbonisation potential. And the one thing we do know is that we have to de-carbonise and we have to de-carbonise fast. But let’s keep things in perspective. The global hydrogen market today is worth some $130 billion. Now that sounds big, but it’s actually about the size of the global pizza market. So let’s not get carried away for now.
And now to the stories, there were a few in the news in rapid succession.
First, I read one about the world’s first commercial scale green hydrogen plant, 50 megawatts powered only by surplus offshore wind energy that’s arriving to the port of Ostend in Belgium.
Let’s decorticate that for a second. So this is commercial scale. This is green hydrogen, and this is hydrogen created from surplus offshore wind. So all in all, a great project.
Belgium will have over two gigawatts (that’s a lot) of offshore wind installed by the end of this year, and they’re developing another two gigawatts on top. These wind turbines generate, from time to time, excess renewable energy that is not absorbed by the grid. That’s because, for example, they might be producing a lot of energy at night, but we’re sleeping with our lights off, and so we’re not using it. Normally, at the moment, all that excess power is curtailed, so it’s not taken up, rather than stored for future use. But in this Belgian project, they’re diverting the excess power into the production of clean, green hydrogen. Now, the process used to create that green hydrogen is called electrolysis, using electricity to basically split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen and keeping the hydrogen. As renewable energy gets cheaper, and remember, solar costs alone are down 70% in just the past five years, green hydrogen gets cheaper. So that’s important because that green hydrogen can then serve as an energy source for electricity, transport, heat, fuel and as a raw material for industrial purposes.
Then I saw another beautiful story about Scotland’s gorgeous Orkney Islands. The Orkney Islands in Scotland produce more clean energy than their people can use, or export to the grid. So what did they do? They went big into hydrogen. In Orkney, they want to have their cars, their ferries, their boilers all running on hydrogen. And they are actually doing it. By next year, the islands will have the world’s first sea-going car and passenger ferry fueled only by hydrogen.
So that’s great because, unlike petrol or diesel, burning, hydrogen does not in itself produce harmful byproducts. So in a truck, for example, hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce an electrical reaction that powers the engine. The only tailgate emission is pretty much pure water, so there’s no air pollution, there’s no greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
And beyond cars, hydrogen could be used, hypothetically, to heat buildings, to power electrical facilities, to propel trains, ferries, cargo ships, trucks that want to drive long distances but don’t want to charge their electric battery by stopping every 500 kilometers and can therefore be augmented with hydrogen fuel cells so they can drive even longer.
And another benefit of hydrogen is if you have too much of it, you can actually store it. You can also transport it at a large scale relatively easily.
And there is a third example that I want to tell you about.
There’s a company in Sweden which produces steel. It’s turning to hydrogen as a replacement for coal in its processes to cut emissions from carbon dioxide. And that’s really great, because if we can produce things like steel that require enormous amounts of energy from hydrogen instead of from coal, then we are all going to be massively better off because that’s one of the sectors that’s more difficult to de-carbonise. But to really be green, the steel plant has to make sure that the electricity that it’s using to extract hydrogen is also free from oil, gas and coal. And that’s what this Swedish plant is doing. And that’s great news for steel everywhere.
But nonetheless, we should not fool ourselves when we see these stories because at the moment, what the Swedish steel company is doing, what the port of Ostend in Belgium is doing, what the Orkney Islands are doing in Scotland is expensive. Costs are obviously dropping for making green hydrogen, but they are the exception rather than the rule in terms of concrete projects on the ground.
And, at this point, you might also want to hear about Japan because it’s the only country, the only one, trying to build a hydrogen society by 2050. They’re trying to transform their entire economy by harnessing hydrogen for pretty much everything.
But the real challenge in our current civilization, which is energy hungry but facing the absolute imperative to become low carbon, is to manufacture enough hydrogen and to do it cleanly and cheaply enough. But at the moment, the problem with the hydrogen economy is that 99% of the hydrogen we currently produce, that’s 99%, is derived from dirty fossil fuels, and that hydrogen production alone releases more CO2 emissions then the UK and France and Belgium combined. So that’s not good.
But to be fair to hydrogen, unlike petrol or diesel, burning it doesn’t actually produce harmful byproducts. It’s how you make it that matters.
So if you just hear hydrogen, be suspicious, maybe even be very suspicious.
Rule number one when you hear “hydrogen” is that whoever is talking about it is probably talking about a bad idea; and behind that bad idea is an oil and gas company peddling its product in an indirect way. And this is a fact. I’ve touched on it all the way back in Episode 16. There’s a virus, powered by oil and gas, infecting sustainability, and it actually has a name: It’s an organism hiding in plain sight and it’s called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. And if you look at their website, what you’ll see is lots of language about how all these good people are trying to save the world. You can find them at https://oilandgasclimateinitiative.com/. And I love how they put the climate in there next to oil and gas.
The members of that initiative are the usual suspects: Exxon, Shell, BP, Total, Chevron. But you also have China’s CNPC, Italy’s ENI, Norway’s Equinor, Occidental Petroleum, Mexico’s Pemex, Brazil’s Petrobras, Spain’s Repsol and the big monster that’s Saudi Aramco.
So in Episode 16, I described in some detail how that virus is infecting sustainability by funding companies that, on the outside, look like they’re contributing to de-carbonisation and to the fight against climate change, but in fact are mostly smoke screens developing simply more innovative ways to sell more oil and gas.
So their latest idea is to steal the idea of clean hydrogen, or co-opt it, in order to make sure that business as usual is preserved. And that’s very similar to how the coal industry delayed climate action for a couple of decades by strategically using the idea that you can still burn coal, but you can capture its harmful greenhouse gases through carbon capture and storage technology. The coal industry kept saying that it’s all going to be fine, because carbon capture and storage technology was just around the corner. Except there couldn’t be anything more further from the truth.
So hydrogen now being conceptually married with fossil gas and with coal is their latest cunning plan to further delay climate action.
So rule number one: If you hear somebody say hydrogen, he or she are probably talking about a bad idea.
But rule number two is that green hydrogen is a very good idea because here is the good news: Green hydrogen, although a tiny, tiny bit of the global hydrogen market is becoming cost competitive with the bad type of hydrogen, and that’s where our efforts, careers, money can go.
But remember, it’s very, very early days. So for now, hydrogen should probably be used very selectively, for example, for heating on the coldest days; to maybe replaced diesel in large vehicles – until we figure out how to produce it on the scale required, and cheaply, from renewable energy.
So for now, the challenge is that we need to build an enormous amount of renewable energy by 2050 to produce enough hydrogen to, for example, heat homes.
And let me just say a few words about safety.
If done properly, hydrogen is safe. A standard worry is that hydrogen is more likely to leak and then therefore explode because the molecules are smaller. But then surely this is about the quality of the manufactured components. Like everything else, we are, and we are getting better at it.
But this much is true: Hydrogen, for now, is not for everyone and not for everywhere. It’s an option that we can use to help us de-carbonise really difficult bits of the energy system like that steel plant that I referred to, that otherwise we would really struggle to.
So going forward, keep an eye out for new businesses and innovation in what renewable hydrogen will be, and could be, used for. So, for example, as a chemical and energy agent in the manufacture of steel and other metals as well; in the manufacturer of fertilizers; in future transport applications for example, long-haul trucks freight – because you can equip these with fuel cells that convert hydrogen fuel, you can store them on board and then you can use them to extend the range of the vehicle.
Renewable hydrogen can also be used to store energy, obviously, and as an energy carrier.
So the conclusion is: There are enormous growth opportunities in renewable hydrogen. But we must be very careful to ensure that the clean energy potential of green hydrogen is preserved. Because at the moment, what fossil fuel interests, so that’s big oil and coal, are doing, is they are basically greenwashing black hydrogen and grey hydrogen and blue hydrogen and getting us addicted on that or trying to. And they’re also misdirecting support by influencing governments around the world away from tangible and readily adoptable technologies.
So don’t let them delay climate action any longer, they’ve already delayed it by 40 years.
We can meet all our energy needs with sun, wind and water, including making significant quantities of renewable hydrogen to power our future.
We can and we must.
Thank you so much for listening to me, The Angry Clean Energy Guy, and have a great couple of weeks.
There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.
Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.
Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.