We need “blue” hydrogen. And we need to get it right.

September 7, 2021

Hydrogen is essential to decarbonizing key parts of the economy. While “green” hydrogen could dominate in the long term, “blue” hydrogen can reduce emissions quickly in the near-term – if policy-makers reward appropriate performance.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us – again – that we need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by mid-century in order to avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change. This means that rapid and deep emission reductions are critical for both carbon dioxide and shorter-lived climate pollutants, especially methane. At the same time, the International Energy Agency tells us that CO2 emissions in 2021 are expected to grow about 5% over 2020 levels and will reach nearly pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. The reason is simple: deployment of higher-emitting energy sources continues to outpace deployment of lower-emitting energy sources.

Despite the growth in emissions, there remain reasons for optimism. Data from the International Renewable Energy Agency indicates that global renewable electricity capacity grew by about 10% in 2020 (primarily driven by wind and solar). These are critical additions to clean electricity supplies for the growing world. But they are not enough, and clean electricity is not the only problem we need to solve. Energy consumption and emissions continue to grow in heavy truckinginternational marine shippingiron and steel, and industrial process heating (e.g., chemicals manufacturing), where replacement with clean electricity can be especially difficult.

Hydrogen is a solution for decarbonizing these hard-to-electrify sectors. Hydrogen is a potent energy carrier that contains no carbon and so emits no CO2 at its point of use. About 70 million tons per year of hydrogen are used around the world today, mostly as feedstock in oil refining and fertilizer production. Analysts estimate that between half a billion and one billion tons per year (or more) of hydrogen could be needed by mid-century, representing one quarter of global final energy demand in some decarbonization scenarios. Policy-makers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have begun to focus on ensuring these hydrogen supplies are available to support decarbonization efforts.  If hydrogen produced without significant greenhouse gas emissions is not available at large scale, these sectors are unlikely to fully decarbonize.

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