Hydrogen blues: Is this the gas industry version of “clean coal”?

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The gas industry needs a new social licence strategy. It’s come up with “blue hydrogen”.

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You remember “clean coal?” It bought the coal industry an extra decade of social licence. It was the technology promised as just around the corner. Eventually it would allow us to burn coal with no climate impact.

Clean coal attracted billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded government support, but today there’s nothing to show.

After cost blow-outs, technical failures and legal roadblocks, globally no projects are planned that will capture all the greenhouse gases from burnt coal and guarantee to lock them away underground (and here is the “F’ word), forever.

But clean coal did its job. This clever strategy, with its techno-hopes and shiny websites kept coal in business for an extra ten years.

Indeed, it’s only the plunging cost of electricity generated by the sun and wind that now point us to the end of coal.

And thanks for that, because as the kids in our streets and various United Nations committees remind us, we have very little time left to fix our climate mess.

Fossil gas, cleaner than.. what?

As coal wanes, people are now thinking about the impacts of fossil gas.

For the last decade, the gas industry built its social licence on the theory that gas was “cleaner than coal”. But with coal now facing its end, that makes gas cleaner than what exactly?

The gas industry needs a new social strategy. It’s come up with one in “blue hydrogen”.

If you’ve been keeping track of the full spectrum of hydrogens, “green hydrogen”, made with renewable electricity (via the hydrolysis of water), can play a large role in our future zero-emission societies, in Australia and around the world.

Green hydrogen can be used in the manufacture of steel and other metals and chemicals, and in other industrial processes. Green hydrogen may even have some transport applications.

Manufacturing hydrogen from water and electricity isn’t hard – many of us did it in chemistry class. Splitting water with renewable electricity was the way hydrogen was made in the first half of the 20th century, before fossil fuels took over.

Going back to the future, green hydrogen can do lots of things presently done by fossil gas.

This loss of market share is another problem for the fossil-gas industry. Especially now as green hydrogen begins to attract the attention of policy makers and technology funders.

So, is there a way to deal with, in one stroke, the fossil-gas industry’s two problems:

1.The lack of an ongoing social licence

2.The rising popularity of renewable (green) hydrogen?

The solution lies in the marketing of blue hydrogen.

Hydrogen makeovers – blue is the new black

Blue hydrogen is where the gas industry takes fossil gas and coverts it to hydrogen in the same greenhouse-gas-producing way it has been doing for the last 70 years (using a steam reformer; call that “black hydrogen”). But then with a marketing makeover, this familiar hydrogen product gets a new name: blue hydrogen.

But here’s the really special part about blue hydrogen: it comes with a recognisable fossil-industry claim. Blue hydrogen might someday be emission-free, thanks to the same fabled technologies promised back in the “clean coal” days: capturing emissions and storing them away underground… forever.

If you can’t lock away Blue Hydrogen’s greenhouse gas emissions, plant a tree. Image from Woodside

So as once we waited for clean coal, we now wait for blue hydrogen. But in the meantime, fossil-gas emissions grow with no end in sight.

As the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”

Hydrogen might be the simplest element known to chemistry, but we are in for some confusing times as the fossil-gas industry makes its next “blue” moves.

Tim Forcey is an independent energy advisor and curator at the Facebook group “Australian Gas Market Insights“.

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