Exclusive: To decarbonise hydrogen power, get over the rainbow

August 2, 2021

Within the past year, public and private sector leaders worldwide have made ambitious plans to combat climate change. Within these plans, hydrogen often plays a critical role, and the source of this hydrogen energy has come under increasing interest and scrutiny. The challenge is, the vast majority of hydrogen is manufactured from fossil-fuel sources, and a simple colour association is being used in the absence of a standard for distinguishing the carbon intensity of hydrogen.

For the hydrogen industry to be an effective component of low carbon economies, it must reject the use of the so-called hydrogen rainbow, and cease using terms from blue to grey to green to denote the quality of the hydrogen being used. ‘Grey’ refers to hydrogen made by fossil fuels, ‘blue’ to hydrogen made by fossil fuels with carbon sequestration added, and ‘green’ to hydrogen made using electrolysis powered by renewable energy.

Though many categorise hydrogen using colours and see certain colours like green as good and grey as bad, in actuality, the spectrum is much more complex. Assigning hydrogen a particular colour doesn’t allow enough granularity to compare whether one method of production is quantifiably better to reduce carbon emissions than another or how a hydrogen-based solution compares to other alternatives such as electric vehicles.

In a recent LCA study, renewables + electrolysis (‘green’ hydrogen) showed the most substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction of the different hydrogen supply pathways assessed. The ‘blue’ hydrogen pathways in this study had a wider range of greenhouse gas emission intensities ranging from similar intensity to ‘green’ all the way up to similar intensities as ‘grey’ hydrogen production. However, renewables + electrolysis and reforming + CCS pathways come with different risks related to long-term carbon storage and technology path dependencies. These risks could potentially impact post-2050 emission-reduction trajectories, especially as energy infrastructure assets typically show investment cycles in the range of 30 to 40 years or even longer. [Source]

To avoid confusion, and potentially greenwashing, and for the hydrogen industry to demonstrate the advantages it can bring to decarbonising transportation, the colour designation of how hydrogen is made needs to be discarded in favour of a more data-driven approach to the actual carbon intensity of the end-product. In doing so, all hydrogen players across the value chain will be incentivised to devise production methods that provide the lowest carbon intensity possible. Hydrogen purchasers will also have greater transparency into the sustainability of the fuel they are using and the proper data to factor into their environmental social governance (ESG) reporting.

By looking at hydrogen in terms of its carbon intensity, new pathways for producing it can be explored and accepted into the conversation that don’t neatly fit into the colour schematic. For example, byproduct or waste hydrogen, sometimes called ‘white’ hydrogen, has the potential to be low carbon intensity. Depending on how the byproduct hydrogen is compressed, cleaned up and delivered to off-takers, this hydrogen can be as beneficial for the environment as green hydrogen, and can even be deployed more cost-effectively in the near term.

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