Research

Blue hydrogen could be 20% worse for climate than methane – new study

A new study has found that hydrogen made from fossil fuels could delay UK decarbonisation.

Steam methane reformation proposed by IGas for the production of fossil hydrogen

Researchers from Cornell and Stanford universities found that blue hydrogen, produced with carbon capture and storage, could be 20% worse for the climate than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

They said the focus should be on green hydrogen – made from water using renewable energy.

The study, published today by Energy Science and Engineering journal, raises questions about UK government plans to use blue hydrogen to replace fossil fuels and the proposed conversion of onshore gas sites to hydrogen production.

The academics have suggested blue hydrogen needs large amounts of natural gas and, even with the most advanced carbon capture and storage technology, there would be “a significant amount of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that won’t be caught”.

They said blue hydrogen had “no role in a carbon-free future”. It was a “distraction” that could “divert focus away from genuinely green technologies”, they said.

Blue hydrogen is a key part of the UK government’s energy transition plans. There are major CCS projects proposed for northern England involving large oil and gas companies.

A government spokesperson said:

“Independent reports, including that from the Climate Change Committee, show that a combination of blue and green hydrogen is consistent with reaching net zero but alongside the strategy, 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.”

But a co-author of the study, Professor Robert Howarth, of Cornell University, said:

“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. This is a warning signal to governments that the only ‘clean’ hydrogen they should invest public funds in is truly net-zero, green hydrogen made from wind and solar energy.”

The study found that the carbon emissions of blue hydrogen were barely better than grey hydrogen made using unabated gas.

And the fugitive methane emissions for blue hydrogen were higher than for grey hydrogen because of an increased use of natural gas to power the carbon capture.

The authors said:

“Perhaps surprisingly, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat.”

They added:

“Our analysis assumes 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.

“There really is no role for blue hydrogen in a carbon-free future. We suggest that blue hydrogen is best viewed as a distraction, something that may delay needed action to truly decarbonise the global energy economy.”

  • The UK government is expected to publish its hydrogen strategy next month. The Cornell/Stamford study supports arguments made by the Weald Action Group about fossil hydrogen.

Ruth Hayhurst will be sending reports for DrillOrDrop from the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November .

15 replies »

  1. Simple – forget about blue hydrogen and keep using methane. Green hydrogen in sufficient volumes and with required storage is not going to work.

  2. Of course, you’re right, Jono. Look behind the words and the promises, the new-found conscience and very little has changed. Which of us is naïve enough to believe that the polluters were not aware of what has now become public knowledge. The analogy with the tobacco industry’s efforts to save their product, the water companies’ trumpeting of their green credentials as they pollute with gay abandon is all too clear. Doubts about CCS persist, whether it is achievable at scale, and, perhaps more importantly, whether the long-term safety of such storage can be guaranteed.
    With apology to Greeks, remember the old adage – ‘I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts’.
    The polluters’ sole interest is their pockets. For how long will the people of the planet go along with this monumental subterfuge. Divest. Divest now. Talk to your bank. Talk to your neighbour. Talk to your employer. Talk to your pension provider. Talk to your MP; the more of us who do, the more chance there is that he/she will do something. But fir heaven’s sake, do something!

  3. To avoid misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise,, I should point out that my reference to Greeks is historical (qv) and in no way reflects my view of the integrity of Greeks today.

    • As with any crisis this government are keen to throw money in the direction of their donors knowing full well there’s no return coming, 5 years ago they abandoned their CC program saying it wouldn’t work now suddenly it’s the buzz word to ensure that it’s business as usual for O&G companies.
      Transition fuels are just BS solutions which will make matters worse. People will believe the crap and think everything will be fine whilst the likes of Branson are burning more fuel in 10 minutes than most of us do in a year , just to joyride into space.
      Your comparison to the tobacco industry is very true , remember this advertising campaign?

      https://www.history.com/.amp/news/cigarette-ads-doctors-smoking-endorsement

  4. Ahh, the do somethings are back!

    [Edited by moderator]
    From the very same people who have not come up with any sustainable (ironic really) and comprehensive (maths. again) solutions, other than “do something”. (Like deny transport emissions need to be reduced and deny that HS2, once completed, is doing something as already demonstrated by TGV in France.) No real interest in progressive measures.

    Just an excuse to protest, no real interest in progress. Part of the problem, no solution. [Edited by moderator]

    And, done by artificial light using the products produced by fossil fuel! Keyboard activists, but not influencers. “Do something”?? Well, start with using daylight! It is a simple, free commodity.

    Meanwhile, the price of oil is back to $70/barrel (even though denied because it was inconvenient) and Biden is begging OPEC to further increase oil production to stop it rising further and causing inflation, cutting off the recovery. Now that is ironic, considering how much free dosh the Americans have put into the economy. (If the Americans want oil production increased then perhaps Biden should control ie. increase, US production?)

  5. I saw this elsewhere – if it’s true where is hydrogen going. I saw it as the logical way forward rather than electric.

  6. Caroline, I think your logic is correct, but do not expect it to be an easy path. There are too many vested interests to prevent it happening, unless it fits within their own narrow area. However, as I have yet to see such authors put their money into producing solutions, I suspect it will be the large fossil fuel companies, who have the finance and the scientific expertise, who will be left to make it work. They will be accused of green washing, but does anyone care if they produce the solution? Somewhere within all that, one day someone may realise that carbon is quite a valuable commodity and perhaps other uses will be found rather than just capture-remember, diamonds and graphene. I am not claiming ownership of that thought-it was recorded by two groups of scientists from Oxford and Cambridge Universities some while ago, and it has been seen since how such bodies, working with the private sector, can make things progress very quickly (Covid vaccines).

    I know a number of people who are reluctant to even think about an EV, as their current busy lifestyles incorporate a Friday supermarket shop plus a 5 minute fuel top up for the following week. To enable that with electric is a heck of a long way away, with hydrogen it would be a doddle-so would recovery of the £20 billion plus fuel duty, so would be the utilisation of the current fuel distribution network with a bit of modification. Might seem to be minor points to the activists but such considerations will become major. Meanwhile, the electric charge points plonked into the overflowing car parks in my area, by the Council, remain empty whilst local shops lose business as shoppers can not find parking. So, they go home, and order online!

  7. More on Hydrogen from the Guardian today:

    “It is widely claimed that burning hydrogen results in only water. While this is true of fuel cells it is not the case when hydrogen is burned. Like any high-temperate combustion, hydrogen flames lead to reactions between nitrogen and oxygen, and in turn to health-harming nitrogen dioxide pollution. It is unlikely that the nitrogen dioxide from hydrogen boilers will be worse than the fossil gas and oil used today, but it may not improve either. Replacing fossil gas heating with hydrogen may appear attractive compared with installing district heating, heat pumps and home insulation, but it would be a missed opportunity to reduce air pollution in towns and cities.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/13/pollutionwatch-olympic-flame-warning-sign-hydrogen-future

    Perhaps not the answer………

    • All products of combustion can be managed/filtered or similar Paul.

      I recall the big drive for wood burning stoves, then the concern about emissions, then the management and control of those emissions.

      Such development may be required, but I do not see it as a huge issue-unless it comes from the Guardian. But, it does demonstrate why large organisations such as the oil and chemical companies will be required to get things sorted. The something must be done crew can wring their hands, but others will get on with doing it.

  8. Not too long ago burning wood was considered “renewable” and “green” etc. DRAX and others across Europe went for the subsidies associated with doing this on a large scale but now this is no longer considered “renewable” and “green”, and efforts are being made to stop the huge subsidies and switch back to gas or even shut down (without a viable alternative of course). This came about through pressure from climate change activists, presumably initially backed by scientists.

    We are now seeing the same sort of pressure to replace methane with hydrogen but I wonder if this is the right thing to do. It appears good questions are already being asked about this approach and hopefully it doesn’t end up as another huge renewables mistake.

    The same with electric cars, I think it was Caroline Lucas MP who highlighted this. We don’t need replacement cars however they are powered. Electric cars require the same (actually more) infrastructure than ICE cars. Where is the electricity going top come from? How good will this really be for climate change? Battery materials, disposal etc etc.

    We should be reducing the numbers of vehicles (ICE and EV) on the roads and reducing infrastructure requirements. We should be investing in better public transport, lift sharing etc. to make any significant difference. Charging for driving into Cities such as the upcoming October expansion of the ULEZ in London is a good starting point; this should be expanded across the UK.

    But of course none of this will make any difference to climate change unless the whole world adopts similar measures…..

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