With massive investment promised in low carbon technologies, we are seeing great claims for a whole range of technologies. It is important to look closely at these. Recently, there has been particularly intense interest in the potential of hydrogen as a low carbon fuel.
There are two main ways to produce hydrogen. The first is by electrolysis. If the electricity that is needed to power this process is from a renewable source, it produces genuinely zero carbon hydrogen, albeit, through expensive and inefficient use of electricity.
The second is by the “reformation” of natural gas and then capturing the carbon dioxide that is emitted from this process.
The problems with the second one are that technologies have never been developed that can come close to eliminating the emissions involved in extracting and transporting the natural gas “raw material” or that can capture all the emissions from the reformation process. Once gas reformers are built, they will last for decades.
Even if more advanced processes that remove more of the carbon dioxide are subsequently developed, it is unlikely that existing equipment can be adapted to take advantage of them.
To meet net zero targets, it would be theoretically possible for the emissions from gas reformers to be offset. In principle this can be achieved through a variety of nature-based and engineering solutions, but there is too much expectation of these.
For example, burning biomass in power stations and capturing the emissions has been considered to be a negative emission process. This only works if the biomass burned is replaced by replanting the energy crops or trees used at a matching rate. This is looking increasingly unfeasible at any scale, with growing pressures on land, especially to expand tree cover which in itself is an important tool for mitigating climate change.
Proposals for the development of hydrogen from gas are concentrated in a few coastal industrial clusters. This is where the biggest heavy engineering customers are and where existing infrastructure from the existing gas and chemicals industries can be taken advantage of.
The UK’s largest is along the Humber where there are plans for what would be the world’s largest advanced gas reformer. On Merseyside, another advanced reformer for which funding is being sought could also come into operation around the mid-2020s. For both, the main customers would be local industries.
Beyond that, various partnerships of largely oil and gas businesses have announced much grander plans for massive investments in more hydrogen for industry, various forms of transport from shipping to cars and the heating of buildings. It is unlikely all that demand can ever be fulfilled with hydrogen from renewables so their vision is to keep building more gas reformers, thereby locking in more dependency on natural gas and more emissions.
Hydrogen is routinely presented as a fuel which produces no emissions at the point of use. This hides a much dirtier truth. Besides the drawbacks above which are identifiable in advance, it will take years before any of these highly complex engineering projects can be completed. It is impossible to know what scale of practical problems will arise. The few carbon capture and storage schemes that have gone ahead have a chequered history.
We do not need to lock ourselves into such reliance on hydrogen. For home heating, many consultants are advocating heat pumps instead. These use a modest amount of mains electricity but can draw on renewable heat from the surrounding ground or air, which could not otherwise be exploited. For most transport, electrification is a better option.
There are some purposes for which alternatives to hydrogen are less readily available. So why is far more emphasis not being placed on developing renewables and energy demand reduction measures, rather than plans for gas reformers which will never be zero carbon?
Chris Broome is a campaigner with Sheffield Climate Alliance.
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