Gas to clean hydrogen technology could pay dividends

During the current lockdown, people living in the world’s big cities are seeing first hand how clean the air would be if they could all switch to non-polluting transport. Just as the diesel emissions scandal motivated cities to tax polluting vehicles, this crisis should strengthen the push for environmentally friendly transport.  

After the lockdown eases, investing in vehicle charging or hydrogen fuelling infrastructure may not be at the top of the agenda for most countries. So how can these technologies be implemented to help save citizens from the health limiting effects of air pollution as life returns to normal?

One answer lies with the oil industry. The current drop in oil prices might normally be thought of as bad for renewables. But commentators are saying that with low oil and gas prices predicted for some time, new fossil investments will provide similar returns to typical renewables projects. New technologies for converting gas to clean hydrogen are currently attracting interest. Oil companies can claim that renewable projects such as wind farms and photovoltaic electricity do not play to their strengths. But hydrogen production from gas certainly does fit with their skills. The pyrolysis of natural gas to hydrogen and elemental carbon has been gaining traction and research funds for a while now. Some of the carbon produced could be used for new and existing products and the rest could be sequestered. Storing solid carbon will be much easier than burying gaseous carbon dioxide underground. This work is now moving from the research stage into industrial development.

Using methane as a source of clean hydrogen has wider advantages for oil companies.  Customers refuelling with hydrogen at their service stations, (while spending on sweets, drinks and groceries), is preferable to them charging their car batteries at home or work.  Hydrogen also has more potential as a fuel for freight than electricity, which suits the oil industry. The advantages of hydrogen as a fuel are not limited to the transport sector. Europe has recognised that carbon intensive industries such as cement and chemicals can only be completely decarbonised with hydrogen. Thresholds have been published for hydrogen production to meet EU sustainable financing requirements.  

There are disadvantages of course to these technologies. Methane itself is a greenhouse gas so leaks from the natural gas supply network are a cause for concern. The European Union is getting to grips with this problem by developing a protocol for surveillance and testing.

Predictably, oil companies are reacting to the drop in oil price by cutting back on investment. Banks and other industries however are responding to the pandemic by cutting dividends to conserve cash. Oil companies should be thinking along similar lines and redirecting at least some dividend payments towards renewable projects that fit with their expertise. Shareholders will lose out in the short term but gain in the long term. The way companies act now during the pandemic will determine how they are perceived afterwards. Investing for a cleaner future will bring its own rewards.

Published: 14 April 20

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