Hydrogen: a “miracle solution”, or over-hyped stalking horse for fossil fuels lobby?

by Rosco Jones | Aug 15, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Is hydrogen the “miracle fuel” to ramp up Australia’s decarbonisation or an over-hyped distraction by the fossil fuels lobby to jag government subsidies whose pursuit can only damage the climate further? Rosco Jones reports.

Germany is a world leader in decarbonisation; and the “miracle fuel” which is hydrogen, is a key plank in Europe’s commitment to net zero. Its hydrogen aspirations, however, took ‘one in the eye’ two weeks ago when the European Commission issued a report saying the fuel was not a financially viable option.

“A hydrogen economy set up at the lowest costs for consumers and industry would result in no electrolysis capacity whatsoever in Germany by 2050, says the paper by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (Fraunhofer ISI).”

Indeed, Germany just ditched its world-first Hydrogen Train Network in favour of electricity.

There was zero fuss about any of this here in Australia. Not good news for the fossil fuel giants spruiking the hydrogen revolution. Or the politicians for that matter. Energy Minister Chris Bowen had only just been singing the praises of Australia’s $2b subsidy for the fuel at a conference in Goa, India, and the ink was fresh on a joint funding initiative with the UK government for green hydrogen.

Is it real, or is hydrogen another “carbon capture and storage”? Something technically feasible but commercially unrealistic, another Coalition baby embraced by the incoming Labor government?

Delay tactics and the science

Despite the majority of Australians opposing the usage of fossil fuels, they are still 96% of our energy consumption. This is a consequence of public deception and misdirection allowing for extensive governmental subsidies to continue our unwilling support of oil, gas and coal. To further their interests in an increasingly hostile market, hydrogen is being promoted.

There are two primary forms of hydrogen production: extraction via electrolysis, utilising electricity to split water to produce hydrogen as energy storage medium, or chemical extraction, a process through which fossil fuels are stripped of their hydrogen molecules, releasing CO2.

Electrolysis has no direct carbon emissions, but is far from emissions free, requiring continued supply of rare earth metals for production, creating not only increasing expenses but extensive emissions. This amounts to a kilogram of hydrogen produced, releasing the equivalent of 1.7-4.4kg worth of CO2 (if electricity used for production is assumed to be completely emissions free).

If produced from the current EU energy grid mix, its emissions balloon out to the equivalent of ~16.6kg of CO2 released per kg of hydrogen. 

Chemical extraction of hydrogen produces ~11kg of CO2 equivalent emissions, ~4 times greater than electrolysis. This means with current production standards, electrolysis, the “green” option, is in fact more damaging for the environment than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.

The environmental damage does not end there. An unavoidable issue with hydrogen is it’s extreme leakage issues, with the world’s best storage technology still leaking at least 1% of its content per day

Leakage dangers

In most applications, this will be greater than 3% as hydrogen boils, forcing it to be released. Due to hydrogen’s minute molecular size, it possesses the ability to “sieve” through any substance, making the leakage control impossible. 

It may come as a surprise but, per kilogram, hydrogen leaked into the atmosphere is 40 times more damaging than CO2, meaning any hydrogen leakages add substantially to climate impact.

Currently 99.9% of hydrogen is produced through chemical extraction. This amounts to approximately 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the same amount as the aviation industry, with 74 million tonnes of hydrogen produced releasing 830 million tonnes of CO2 (That’s 11kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen). 

Chemically extracted hydrogen is currently produced at a cost of ~$2.24/kg, with ~75% of production costs being fossil fuels. This is compared to electrolytically produced hydrogen which if produced from renewables will cost $5.75/kg in the most optimistic of scenarios, a price which can be expected to increase due to increasing scarcity of necessary materials such as platinum or iridium which make up the anodes and cathodes of electrolysers.

Powerful vested interests backing hydrogen

The position against hydrogen does have institutional support, despite the vested interests hyping the fuel, with the French parliamentary notes stating “l’hydrogen n’est pas une solution miracle” (Hydrogen is not a miracle solution). Whistleblowers within the industry have come forward as well;

“I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on the fact that Blue Hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals.” – Christopher Jackson on stepping down from chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

Despite these known flaws and harsh criticism, hydrogen is still unabashedly supported by industry, media, and “green” organisations. 

Big Oil pins ears back

In 2017, Shell, Total and 11 other fossil fuel industry members announced the formation of the Hydrogen Council. The Hydrogen Council is a group of fossil fuel heavyweights who have formed a single united front in the pursuit of hydrogen uptake. Members include BP, Adani, Exxon, Woodside and virtually any other fossil fuel or mining-related corporation you could imagine. 

These corporations which have actively lobbied in opposition to renewable technologies, have all come together in supporting the “most promising” renewable technology yet. 

Fossil Fuel giants use collective organisations, such as the Clean Coal initiative, to shield their influence from public light. Yet these “green tech” movements are consistently backed by the same members of the Hydrogen Council.

The Hydrogen Council shares extensive membership with the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. ANSTO, Chevron, Exxon, Air Liquide, BP, Woodside, Howden, Kawasaki, Linde, Man, Mitsu and co., Petronas, Shell and Woodside, along with a multitude of other heavy industry-based corporations, are members of both. 

The Minerals Council of Australia, which has been found to be the “Single largest negative influence on Australian Climate policy”, is also a hydrogen advocate, sharing many of its members with both the Hydrogen Council and the GCCS Institute.

A Coalition baby

Not only has the fossil fuel industry been onboard, but so has the LNP, historic cheerleaders for the fossil fuels lobby. Scott Morrison rejected any attempt to have himself photographed with electric vehicles but seized the opportunity to be photographed with Toyota’s hydrogen car. 

Matt Kean has made a name for himself as a progressive through his support of hydrogen technology, shielding him from criticism for his poor results as NSW environmental minister. The Coalition so passionately supports hydrogen that it was the only renewable technology to receive an increase in federal funding after their federal election in 2013. 

Hydrogen has already consumed vast renewable investment. In total, the Australian government has allocated it 15% of its renewable energy investment plan, with $127 billion dollars assigned to it in total, whilst incredibly promising industries such as Australia’s geothermal energy have been granted nothing. 

The 2023 federal budget subsidised hydrogen by another $2 billion, consuming half of the $4 billion allocated for renewables.

On all levels of hydrogen implementation, it is prohibitively expensive and environmentally damaging. It will not only reduce funding for other renewable technologies, but increase the consumption of fossil fuels. 

Is it a surprise that Andrew Forrest, the man who had made a name for himself in the mining sector as an opponent of environmental initiatives, would inhibit genuine progress, namely attempting to divert the Sun Cable project into hydrogen generation instead of electricity export, to increase revenue of his extensive gas investments?

The hydrogen movement is designed for environmental failure, propped up on unfounded claims about its potential and less than satisfactory feasibility results. It’s a move away from the future.

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Rosco is a student at the University of Queensland studying aerospace and plant science who plans a career in biological payload design for spacecraft. He has a passion for energy and transport infrastructure and its importance for handling the climate crisis.

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