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‘Green’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen for a low-carbon European economy?

From the IFRF Office
Contributed by Patrick Lavery
Sheffield, Monday 1st October 2018

Could ‘green’ and ‘blue’ hydrogen help to bring a low-carbon European economy into being?

In mid-September, energy ministers of the European Union signed a non-binding ‘Hydrogen Initiative’ declaration, outlining a plan to “maximise synergies through regional and multilateral cooperation regarding the exchange of technological expertise, data, results and best practices” in order to increase the use of “sustainable” hydrogen.  The text of the declaration [here] expresses an ambition to enhance the use of hydrogen in industry and transport, improve the integration between electricity generation, industry and transport sectors (so-called ‘sector coupling’), use hydrogen as a means of energy storage, employ existing gas grids to distribute hydrogen, and convert hydrogen into ‘renewable methane’ (i.e. via methanation).  The declaration also contains a pledge to raise awareness and acceptance of hydrogen as a sustainable fuel.  While the declaration is non-binding, it reflects the growing interest in hydrogen as a solution to a range of problems related to energy and climate change which solar and wind energy do not presently seem capable of meeting – the need to provide a steady flow of electricity, and the need for an energy-dense but low-carbon fuel for heavy transport, industry and power generation.  The deployment of hydrogen would also be a boost for the European combustion industry, revitalising political support for research, development and deployment of combustion technologies.

One reaction to the declaration has come from Olav Aamlid Syversen, Chair of the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers EU Committee.  He has argued [here] that the Hydrogen Initiative should widen its focus from ‘green’ hydrogen produced by renewable energy (through electrolysis using electricity) to also include carbon-neutral “blue” hydrogen produced through CCS-equipped processes using natural gas as a feedstock.  Mr Syversen sees both green and blue hydrogen as complementary, with blue hydrogen allowing for “industrial-scale volumes of carbon-neutral hydrogen” that would properly enable a European ‘hydrogen economy’.  Blue hydrogen, Mr Syversen implies, would allow a cost-efficient means of producing electricity from hydrogen by firing it in converted natural gas-fired power plants, and a large number of carbon capture and storage (CCS)-equipped blue hydrogen producing plants would make shared CCS infrastructure (needed also by a range of industries such as cement and steel making and waste incineration) more viable.  The argument for blue hydrogen is a persuasive and reasonable one, though it has a weakness in that CCS is not yet typically an economically feasible addition to any industrial process.  Additionally, increased deployment of renewable power generation may eventually lead to the industrial-scale quantities of green hydrogen Mr Syversen argues is necessary.  Still, economic CCS has a reasonable chance of coming to fruition, and green hydrogen is anyway not without its own economic challenges.  Blue hydrogen, however, may face some public opposition from those opposed to the idea of any use of fossil fuels, even if the use is carbon neutral, and politicians may need to be brave to support it.

As with many hopes for a low-carbon future, CCS does appear likely to be a vital part of any hydrogen economy, and a realisation of this by policy makers may mean a greater focus on CCS in conjunction with hydrogen.


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