EU hydrogen-fuelled future not as green as promised?

Electric van at Blenheim Palace, UK.
Electric van at Blenheim Palace, UK. Pic: John Lawrence

Oxford, 15/10/2020. At the start of EU Green Week (19-22/10/20), the EU’s much touted ‘green revolution’ for transport appears to be widely accepted as a good thing. And on the face of it, any move away from traditional fossil fuels for highly polluting road transport has to be positive, yes? Unfortunately, like always, it’s not that simple.

EU alternative-energy thinking for vehicles has for years been split into two major streams, electric (including hybrid) and hydrogen. Electric power was thought to have won the battle years ago, with vehicle manufacturers now producing electric cars, light-goods vehicles and even 2-wheelers for road transport.

More recently however, hydrogen, while lurking at the back of the field for some years, appears to have rejoined the race to power Europe. Hydrogen has always been an attractive alternative for heavy-goods transport by road, rail or sea, because of the ability to carry larger fuel reservoirs for longer range. Recently, Germany announced plans for a massive investment in hydrogen infrastructure for its major road network.

So is hydrogen making a comeback! Should you and I abandon our plans to make our next vehicle purchase an electric one? No, say the vehicle manufacturers; unsurprisingly they don’t wish to lose the investment they have made already into electric vehicles. Their view is supported by the Greens in the European Parliament, who see electric vehicles with a continuing role in road transport, especially if the mileage per year is fairly limited.

There are also doubts being raised about the ‘green-ness’ of this push to hydrogen. So-called ‘green hydrogen’, generated using wind and solar power, is fine and receives the stamp of approval from the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. However there is another type, called ‘blue hydrogen’, which is generated using traditional fossil fuels, natural gas in particular.

This is the fuel being heavily promoted in the EU right now by the oil industry. It does have the benefit of being available quite soon, since the raw materials, oil and gas, exist. And the industry is likely to gain in the form of contracts or grants in any push to establish a European hydrogen infrastructure.

The problem is that blue hydrogen is not really green. Producing this type of hydrogen generates as much air pollution as the fossil fuels it replaces. The industry is attempting to get round this problem by promoting carbon-capture technologies, for example storing waste gases in empty oil fields under the North Sea.

There are two issues with this approach. The first and most immediate is that carbon-capture technology appears to be a pipe-dream – no carbon-capture projects have yet succeeded in delivering the results expected. The second issue is that in the long-term, storing waste pollutants underground or under the sea is not solving the pollution problem, merely postponing it to a later date when future generations will have to deal with it (imagine what they will think of such policy-makers!).

Yet the European Commission has given its blessing to this ‘mixed’ hydrogen approach. The logic behind that acceptance is its label as a ‘transition’ technology – allowing blue hydrogen to be supplied by the fossil-fuel industry enables those countries that wish to start building their hydrogen supply infrastructure, such as Germany for example, to get started immediately.

While there may be benefits to such a compromise solution, one of the consequences is that air pollution is likely to become highly concentrated around hydrogen-generating plants. Even if a working carbon-capture solution is found for such facilities, the inevitable breakdowns and spills will produce localised air pollution. Whether such consequences are better for Europe than having lower-level pollution spread by individual vehicles over the whole European road network, no-one can yet say.

It is interesting that one EU country, Portugal, has apparently dismissed these arguments and is investing in green-hydrogen production only. Although this author has not yet seen any figures yet to confirm the extent of such investment.

In Brussels the battle lines have been clearly drawn. On one side traditional big oil promoting a mixed hydrogen approach, with the European Commission accepting their argument. On the other, environmental NGOs and green groups in the European Parliament, who see this mixed approach as undermining their attempts to reduce air pollution across Europe.

Who will win? In my view the battle is likely to imitate the stasis of the First World War, with both sides committed to their fixed trenches and unable or unwilling to move far from them. In the process, Europe’s road-sourced air pollution is likely to continue.

However this political stalemate could produce some environmental change across Europe. Even if the total pollution contribution to climate change is little reduced, those pollutants that have proven so deadly in big cities, for example NO2 from diesel vehicles, could be cut significantly.

A change for the better then! Maybe, but not immediately. With private cars enjoying an average lifetime of ten years plus, the benefits of cleaner fuels will be slow to take effect. In the cities, the environment will take time to recover from residual pollutants lurking in the greenery.

If they were able to speak, city trees, bushes and waterways would probably thank us for a move to hydrogen, if they live that long.

© Philip Hunt, 2020.

One Comment

  1. Not a bad article but some factually wrong points. Blue hydrogen uses either an SMR+CCS process or ATR+CCS process. It is not blue if it does not use CCS. The SMR process was commercialised in the 1930/1940s and apart from CO2 it produces little in the way of pollution.

    In terms of emissions, green hydrogen has a CO2 footprint of around 5.5gCO2/kWh to 8.25gCO2/kWh. Using best available technology hydrogen produced using SMR+CCS or ATR+CCS has a carbon footprint of 25gCO2/kWh. This footprint does not take into account the footprint of natural gas due to extraction and transmission and all externalities included is, thus, considerably higher.

    CCS coupled to SMR has operated in a number of locations, Koch Industrie’s Oklahoma SMT plant pipes CO2 to an oil field for “enhanced oil recovery” with the CO2 mostly staying in the ground – operating since the 1980s. Statoil have been running a CCS system off the coast of Norway for a number of years. But as of right now, there is no SMR+CCS plant in existence that can reach 25gms CO2/kWh of H2.

    Electrolysers producing low-carbon H2 can be scaled to the 100GWs needed. No significant risks – apart from “how fast can you build them”. In the case of SMR+CCS the risk is an open-ended storage one. Oddly, no bank will go near SMR+CCS projects with respect to funding. Can’t think why.

    Green H2 has a range of uses – certainly in heavy goods vehicles and certainly some industry sectors such as steel, cement, fertilisers.

    One final point regarding road pollution: a great deal comes from brakes & tyres. Thus moving to EVs (of FCVs) will not address this aspect. More public transport, more cycling etc – will.

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