The hydrogen hoax

“Low carbon?” Its emissions are more than twice the UK economy’s

All of a sudden, hydrogen is (supposedly) a weapon to fight global warming. Governments are bigging it up in their “net zero” plans; oil companies say they are investing in it; union leaders say it will create jobs.

But no-one talks about the really existing hydrogen industry, that each year produces about 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen, and another 45 million tonnes of hydrogen in other chemical products … and pours 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yes, you read that right. 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 2% of total global total greenhouse gas emissions. Equal to about four-fifths of the emissions from aviation; more than twice the entire UK economy’s emissions. (See Endnote 1 about the numbers.)

Of that 115 million tonnes of hydrogen output, more than 99% is “grey” hydrogen – which means it is extracted from natural gas, coal or oil, and the carbon dioxide left over ends up in the air.

It’s fashionable to talk about “blue” hydrogen (made from fossil fuels, but with the carbon captured and stored, instead of being emitted) and “green” hydrogen (produced by electrolysis of water, using gigantic quantities of electricity). But these techniques are used only in a tiny handful of businesses. “Grey” hydrogen is completely dominant.

Companies and governments are promising to expand “blue” and “green” hydrogen production. They claim it will replace natural gas to heat people’s homes, and petrol for cars, and that it will cut carbon emissions.

But before expanding hydrogen production, what about decarbonising existing output?

That would be a big cut in the world’s carbon emissions. Nearly as big a cut as if aviation stopped. More than twice as big a cut as if the UK went to zero.

It would also mean a big shake-up of some of the world’s most polluting industries – oil refining and petrochemicals production – where the hydrogen is produced and used.

There is little mention of hydrogen’s gigantic carbon footprint in the glossy reports, press releases and “net zero” policies of the companies that produce it. But a report published last year by the International Energy Agency mapped hydrogen use as follows:

■ One third (33%) of the global total of hydrogen use (38 million tonnes/year) is  in oil refineries. Most of this is produced on site, mostly from natural gas; those volumes are supplemented by hydrogen bought in from merchant suppliers. Hydrogen is used in chemical processes that remove sulphur and other impurities from crude oil. Hydrogen used in refineries produces about 230 million tonnes/year of CO2 emissions (that is a bit more than the entire economy of Singapore, a bit less than France).

■ Another 27% of the hydrogen, including a good chunk of hydrogen embedded in another chemicals, goes into the production of ammonia. That in turn is used mainly to make chemical fertilisers (e.g. urea and ammonium nitrate); a smaller amount goes into explosives, synthetic fibres and other chemical products.

■ The next biggest use of hydrogen, 11% of the total, is to produce methanol, a type of alcohol used to make solvents, fuel products and antifreeze.

■ About 3% of the world’s hydrogen is used in the direct reduction of iron (DRI) process to make steel.

■ Hydrogen is used in other chemicals processes, and to supply high-temperature heat to industry.

The IEA report aggregates useful information about hydrogen production, and its mammoth carbon footprint, that is hard to glean from statistics. The fuels used, and the associated emissions, are spread across statistical categories covering refineries, petrochemicals, steelmaking and so on, obscuring the scale of the problem. (See Endnote 2.)

In the face of the big push by governments and companies to claim hydrogen as a “low carbon fuel”, better quality information is needed.

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, put hydrogen at the centre of his ten-point “net zero” PR stunt last month. He said the government would invest up to £500 million in new production facilities and trialling hydrogen use to heat homes. He talked about building a “hydrogen town” and about generating 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030.

But before a penny is handed to companies producing hydrogen, is no-one going to ask them for a proper inventory of current output? Is anyone going to check what they are doing about their share of the 830 mt/year of CO2 emissions?

Where is the evidence that this hydrogen spending spree would be more effective than demand-side solutions – such as insulating homes so that they don’t need much heat, and providing the heat that’s needed with electric pumps, as trade unionists in Leeds propose?

Unless such questions are asked, we can take the hydrogen hype as a reminder that governments’ “decarbonisation” strategies are aimed chiefly at concealing the lack of progress towards decarbonisation.

Unless such questions are asked, we can be sure that hydrogen is being used not to cut carbon emissions at the speed required, but to support the powerful companies that use it, and make them look “greener” than they are.

Those companies are, in the first place, oil and gas companies, from whose products most hydrogen is produced, and who use one-third of it in refineries.

Will “blue” hydrogen ever be any use in the transition away from fossil fuels? I don’t know; I am not a chemical engineer. But I know that the inflated claims for its role in

The hydrogen value chain. From: IEA, The Future of Hydrogen (2019)

tackling climate change rest on the assumption that carbon capture and storage (CCS) – which, despite repeated efforts over the last 30-40 years by oil companies and others, has never been made to work at scale – can work at scale.

And I know that any political approach that proceeds from what is good for society as a whole, rather than from what is good for the companies or “the economy”, would pose, at a minimum, these questions:

■ Where is the clearly separated-out accounting (resource accounting, not money accounting) of the fossil fuels used to produce hydrogen, the CO2 emissions from the process, and emissions from products in which the hydrogen is embodied (such as fertilisers)?

■ What are the life cycle assessments of the processes that involve hydrogen production and use, including their carbon footprints?

■ What is being done, or not done, to retrofit current hydrogen production with carbon capture and storage? If it is not being done, why not? What are the engineers’ comparisons between retrofitting and newly-built hydrogen facilities with CCS?

■ What do the engineers say about the potential for substituting hydrogen in industrial processes with zero-carbon alternatives?

■ Since hydrogen is so thoroughly embedded in the oil industry, how will it be affected by the decline in oil production that the companies promise? Will hydrogen now used for oil production be available for other uses?

The answers to these questions probably hold the key as to whether “blue” hydrogen can ever play a meaningful part in a serious decarbonisation strategy. I think that is doubtful.

“Green” hydrogen has its own problems. Yes, it is technically possible to use renewably-produced electricity to electrolyse water, to make hydrogen – but you need a huge amount of electricity to produce a small amount of hydrogen.

Maybe my grandchildren will live in a world where this becomes a common way of doing things. But right now we live in a world where (1) just short of two-thirds of electricity is still produced from fossil fuels, and (2) many decarbonisation plans – for the transport sector, for example, or home heating – rely on the assumption that still more electricity will soon be available.

So, for a long time into the future – even assuming that all the most optimistic plans for decarbonising electricity are implemented – there is going to be much, much less renewably-produced electricity available than is needed.

Will using part of that limited supply of renewably-produced electricity to make hydrogen, which is such an energy-inefficient process, ever make sense?

To make 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen per year (current global output), you would need about one-and-a-half times as much renewable electricity as the world produces.

These technological dilemmas could best be resolved by governments, companies, communities, or whoever controls the economic entities, working out integrated plans based on using energy resources efficiently, in ways that society needs. Principles long understood by researchers of industry and ecology – in the first place, that reducing energy throughput is always a more effective means of decarbonisation than substituting one technology for another while leaving the economic framework untouched – could then be put into practice.

But such integrated approaches, based on society’s needs, are the opposite of the contorted solutions devised in the international climate talks – that is, a combination of failed market mechanisms and uncertain techno-fixes.

Those contorted solutions produce illusions of “decarbonisation” that dovetail with oil companies’ needs. Effective approaches to tackling dangerous climate change mean confronting and defeating those oil companies and the social forces that support them.

Don’t be deluded by hydrogen hype. Deal with the emissions from current hydrogen production before talking about future “low carbon” hydrogen. Stop state funding for hydrogen projects that do not serve the public interest. GL, 18 December 2020.

Hydrogen for homes is a terrible idea. We should fight it (People & Nature, October 2020)

■ Follow People & Nature on twitterinstagramtelegram … or whatsapp. Or email peoplenature[at]yahoo.com, and I’ll send you updates.  

Endnote 1. CO2 emissions from hydrogen production are 830 million tonnes per year (mt/year), the IEA’s Future of Hydrogen report says. That’s more than four-fifths of 1034 mt, global aviation emissions in 2018, as stated here and explained here. I compared the total emissions from hydrogen production with the UK’s (387 mt), and the emissions from hydrogen production in oil refineries (230 mt, the IEA says) with Singapore’s (219 mt) and France’s (299 mt) – all 2019 figures from the BP statistical review. On the amount of renewable electricity needed to produce hydrogen, the IEA report says (p. 37) that to get 70 mt of hydrogen would require 3600 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity; in 2018, the world’s renewable electricity output was 2468 TWh, the BP statistical review says.

Endnote 2. The IEA’s report last year brought together information on hydrogen that has previously been dispersed. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (e.g. here), the emissions from hydrogen production appear to be spread between categories for oil refining, petrochemicals, fuels used as feedstock, and other industries. This seems to happen, too, with the national data (such as the UK’s, here, for example). The volumes of gas and coal used to produce hydrogen are divided between a number of categories in the IEA’s own published statistics.

The best national-level information on hydrogen production seems to come from the US, where the Department of Energy last year came up with similar numbers to the IEA’s: global pure hydrogen output of 61-70 mt/year, plus 41 mt/year in other chemical products, by the widest measure used. Those analysts reckon that 9-15 mt/year of the world’s hydrogen is produced in the US. Beyond that, the geographical breakdown is not obvious. The IEA report does not list hydrogen production volumes by country.

There are limits, too, to the information released by companies that produce hydrogen. Researchers at Cambridge university who study material flows through industry complained in a recent paper about the “dearth of public data” on the chemical sector, compared to the steel and aluminium industries they had looked at previously.

8 Responses to The hydrogen hoax

  1. Dick Wolff says:

    You’re doing the fossil fuel industry’s job for it : describing as a hoax one of the technologies that could make it redundant. Who is it who is arguing for fossil fuel produced hydrogen? That would be a scam. Certainly I wouldn’t put it past Boris Johnson (who’s made a life’s work of being a corrupting influence) to muddy the waters. But you must know that that is not what is being suggested – certainly by Chris Goodall in his recent book ‘What we need to do now for a zero carbon future’. Hydrogen can be produced electrically, from renewable energy. You must know this : you did it in the school lab. And it can be piped on the existing gas network to homes for space heating – even, for a transitional period, as a mix with current methane (the old town gas was a methan/hydrogen mix). Heat pumps are a highly expensive solution for the millions of poorly built, poorly insulated homes in the UK. I have one, working with a 19kWh domestic battery and 28 PV panels. It’s great, but it was a £50k refit on a newly-built house straight from the developer before we moved in!
    Yes, the production of hydrogen involves energy loss; yes, we would need a lot more renewable energy to produce enough hydrogen — but even today I can be paid by Octopus Energy to use electricity when temporary energy surpluses on the grid force the electricity price into the negative. Renewable energy needs storage, and batteries and hydro are not the only answer. Space heating is our biggest challenge. Please stop confusing the fossil fuel industry’s involvement with hydrogen (whatever that is – I don’t know and don’t care because it’s irrelevant) with hydrogen as renewable energy storage and transmission. And associating the word ‘hydrogen’ with the word ‘hoax’ is nothing short of irresponsible in the face of climate emergency. Please stop it.

  2. John Read says:

    Beginning with air transport – which accounts for 2% of atmospheric carbon emissions from fossil fuels, or about 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon, green hydrogen provides remedy. Carrier molecules can now greatly reduce H2 containment and transport, making storage feasible.

    Batteries, beyond urban taxi service, provide zero (0) solution to aircraft air pollution. Airbus knows this. Safran knows this. Boeing knows this, Embraer knows this. Maybe you do too.

    If you didn’t, you do now. It goes much further than aircraft. With technical attention to H2 undistorted by greed, we could eliminate 90% of human-related carbon footprint.

  3. Matthew says:

    If you read and researched you would find out the the term low carbon hydrogen is for hydrogen produced via renewable energy so going on about the CO2 emissions? Completely wasted time.

    As for your math..

    To make 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen per year (current global output), you would need about one-and-a-half times as much renewable electricity as the world produces.

    1 ton of hydrogen has an energy content of 39.4MW, Current electrolysis methods are now starting to exceed 80% efficiency meaning energy to create 1 ton of hydrogen is 50MW (Less but I rounded up).

    Seeing as the world produced 26,700 TWh of energy in 2018, and 26% of this came from wind, solar, hydro etc giving just under 7,000 TWh of clean energy, 70 million tons of Hydrogen at 50MW ton gives a requirement for 3,500 TWh… Try researching and doing basic match before making claims.. Going on about hydrogen hoax just silly.

    Here is another pitch, Hydrogen and ammonia can help to decarbonise the aerospace and shipping industries, It can decarbonise the steel industry, Through hydrogen needing large amounts of renewables both larger tnd more efficient they can hep to bring the costs down for them.

  4. Jonathan Feinstein says:

    Gabriel,
    Some of your numbers are correct, but not all. You may not understand the pluses and minuses of energy. That is, nothing is zero carbon, even solar power.You mention hydrogen is used to make ammonia. Actually 50% of hydrogen is used for that. DId you know that without ammonia the earth could not sustain its present population? Without nitrogen based fertilizers, which all derive from ammonia and hydrogen, we would be down 1 to 2 billion humans. Ironically, it was the production of hydrogen and ammonia that brought what was then called the green revolution. It may also interest you that different fuels create different amounts of carbon dioxide for the amount of energy they provide us. Coal and wood make the most CO2 per unit of energy. Petroleum products are relatively much better. Natural gas cuts out another 25% compared to petroleum. If you take the carbon out of natural gas, you have hydrogen. That is the intent of blue hydrogen. It may surprise you the emissions will not be zero from any solution that takes us closer to net zero carbon. You can make flashy articles, but your clients will need to see that you understand the topics you cover and that your ravings do make some sense. The world is not as absent minded as you suppose. Just be careful, and do you homework.
    Best,
    Jon F.

  5. Gabriel Levy says:

    Hello Dick Wolff. First, if you want to come on here and talk with me, please be respectful. Telling me I am “doing the fossil fuel industry’s job for it” is a terrible conversation starter. Please check the comment policy on the About page.

    Second, you ask who is arguing for fossil-fuel-produced hydrogen. Well, not only Boris Johnson, who you mention, but also e.g. the European Commission, and the governments of China, Australia and other big fossil-fuel-producing countries.

    Third, you say that you don’t know and don’t care what the fossil fuel industry’s involvement with hydrogen is. Well, I do care, (a) because the fossil fuel industry, and other industries, are pouring 830 mt of CO2 into the atmosphere, each year, producing hydrogen, and (b), because the fossil fuel industry, and others, claim that the production of hydrogen is an effective response to climate change, and justifying the investment of large sums of money into it, ahead of other measures. This is the “hoax” I referred to.

  6. Gabriel Levy says:

    Hello Jonathan Feinstein. Please, please don’t address me like I’m a ten-year-old (“just be careful, and do your homework”). Also, what makes you think I have “clients”?! The blog is clearly labelled “socialist ideas about society, the earth and their interaction”. We socialists try to treat ideas as a common good, not property to sell to clients!

    You say that 50% of hydrogen is used to produce ammonia. But the IEA report that I cited says 27%. Could you give a source for your figure? Thanks.

  7. Gabriel Levy says:

    Hello Matthew East. Honestly, what is it with you people? (“If you read and researched”, “try researching and doing basic match”, etc). Be nice, if you’re going to come on to my blog and comment. Have a look at the comment policy on the About page, thanks. And what’s “basic match”, anyway?

    Your point about the amount of renewable energy needed to produce 70 mt of hydrogen is dealt with in Endnote 1, last sentence. There you can see that my figure for the world output of renewable energy is 2468 TWh. You can also see that that figure is from the BP statistical review, and refers to wind and solar, and not hydro. Sorry if that wasn’t clear, but hydro is usually counted separately in the statistics, as you probably know. That’s why that figure is smaller than your 7000 TWh. In focusing on wind and solar (and not hydro) vs the amount of energy required, I am following the IEA, and I am doing so because it is wind and solar that green hydrogen advocates point to when making claims about the potential for expansion.

    You say that electrolysis is 80% efficient. Yes. But to get electricity from hydrogen there is also an energy cost to compression, liquefaction, transportation and electricity generation, isn’t there?

  8. Colin Megson says:

    Green hydrogen from electrolysis is the only way to decarbonise all energy sectors. Irrespective of whether or not you believe in anthropogenic climate change, pollution in UK cities is costing £19.8 billion per year.
    This is real money coming out of the pockets of every UK income earner. It degrades our lifestyle choices and our health and productivity.
    We need to create an unpolluted environmental future for our younger generations and it would cost nowhere near £19.8 billion per year to finance the green hydrogen economy.
    This is particularly true in using nuclear power plants (NPPs) to manufacture the green hydrogen. By 2030, GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 will be available, complete with electrolyser plant at an OCC of £800 million. That’s for a 300 MW combo that will generate low carbon electricity and green hydrogen, with a 95% capacity factor for 60 years.
    700 TWh per year of low carbon electricity is an upper figure being talked about for green hydrogen to decarbonise all of our energy use. It would take 280 of these units (14 per year from 2030 to 2050), costing £11.2 billion per year.
    But then there would be a 40 year hiatus before anymore investment would be needed. So that’s like spreading the investment over the 60 years lifespan of the plants – and that equates to ~£3.8 billion per year. A saving of £16 billion per year.
    Apart from a clean, pollution-free nation, future home owners would have £640 per year back in their pockets to spend on lifestyle choices, instead of the penalty of pollution.
    What’s not to like about a green hydrogen economy?

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