Hydrogen: a silver bullet for decarbonising Europe or a technology that could ‘lock-in’ fossil fuel use?

By Hazel Scurr

The sixth in a series of articles titled 'the voice of young people',  from the opinion formers of the future. 

On the 19th of May, the European Parliament supported the motion for ‘low-carbon’ hydrogen production as a short-term bridge in the shift towards 100% renewable (green hydrogen) production in the future. This recent development supports the short-term production of (blue) hydrogen from fossil-fuel gas coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a way to meet the future hydrogen demand. Yet, Green opposition and recent academic publications have warned of the risks of ‘locking in reliance on fossil fuels’. I believe that  such a ‘lock-in’ can be avoided by the prioritisation of hydrogen technology for hard to decarbonise sectors, such as long-haul transport and industry.

Hydrogen technology will play an important role in meeting the EU’s target to cut greenhouse gas emission to at least 55% below the 1990 levels by 2030. The EU Hydrogen Strategy places a strong emphasis on scaling-up green hydrogen production to reach 6GW by 2024 and 40GW by 2030. However, the Climate Action Network and European Environmental Bureau estimate that green hydrogen will account for just 10% of the hydrogen market by 2050, despite the predicted falls in cost (down 30% by 2030) due to the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production. As such, the projected demand for hydrogen cannot be met through green production alone and blue hydrogen will have to play a significant role in bridging the gap between supply and demand for hydrogen as the EU transitions to a low-carbon economy. The European Parliament’s support of the low-carbon hydrogen motion acknowledges this reality. 

Blue hydrogen relies upon fossil fuels for production and, whilst it is preferable to grey hydrogen (without CCS), there must be careful consideration about the appropriate application of hydrogen technology to avoid unnecessary reliance on fossil-fuel based production methods. 

Proponents of hydrogen commend its versatility and applicability in multiple sectors. Hydrogen is predominantly used in oil refineries and in the production of fertilisers. Most promising expansion of use is the substitution of fossil fuels for hydrogen feedstock and fuels for decarbonising heavy industries and long-haul transport, aviation and shipping. These industries have proven challenging to decarbonise through alternative methods, such as using renewable electricity. This is a necessary step towards a low-carbon economy. The potential carbon-emission savings from these switches will be especially great when coupled with green hydrogen. 

There has also been industry support for hydrogen alternatives in buildings. Indeed, on the 17th March 2021, an open letter sent on behalf of more than 90 energy companies and gas network operators called upon the European Commission to recognise the role of hydrogen blending into existing gas networks. Hydrogen networks or hydrogen blends replace natural gas, which releases carbon dioxide when burnt in boilers. Contributing 36% of EU CO2 emissions in 2019, the decarbonisation of buildings will be greatly important for reaching the EU’s climate targets. 

However, large-scale deployment of hydrogen alternatives in heating has been met with significant backlash. In January of this year, a commmunication to the European commission signed by trade bodies for renewable and energy efficiency sectors warned against the use of hydrogen in heating. Multiple studies have shown that hydrogen for heating is the least efficient and most costly heating alternative, compared to air-source heat pumps and heat networks. With almost 75% of building stock listed as energy inefficient, improving the existing efficiency of buildings is arguably of greater priority and will result in immediate economic and emissions savings. 

To achieve the aims of the EU Hydrogen Strategy the industry will need to develop rapidly and both renewable and low-carbon hydrogen production will be necessary. Green hydrogen production is in its infancy so the need for ‘low-carbon’ hydrogen is clear. However, EU and national green incentives should be formulated so as not to lock-in a reliance on fossil fuel-based ‘low-carbon’ hydrogen production through unnecessary application in sectors where feasible alternatives exist. We should be cautious that the ‘silver bullet’ rhetoric surrounding hydrogen technology does not turn into a ‘grey’ (hydrogen) bullet that simultaneously blocks-off alternatives and knocks us off a path to net zero 2050.

Published: 25 May 21

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