Hydrogen’s “false promise” could hamper climate progress, lock in fossil fuels

A new study has warned that a universal reliance on hydrogen-based fuels could hamper – rather than boost – the global climate effort, by distracting from the main game of renewable electrification and locking in longer-term fossil fuel dependency.

The study from the Netherlands-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) says that while renewable hydrogen will play an important role in a low-carbon future, producing it remains too inefficient, costly and uncertain to broadly replace fossil fuels.

The researchers argue that hydrogen-based fuels should be prioritised for use in applications for which they are “indispensable;” those that are tough to electrify, such as long-distance aviation, feedstocks in chemical production, steel production and some industrial processes.

And even in these applications, the report notes that hydrogen-based fuels are likely be scarce and not competitive for at least another decade.

“Fuels based on hydrogen as a universal climate solution might be a bit of false promise,” said report author Falko Ueckerdt, from the PIK.

“Betting on their wide-ranging use would likely increase fossil fuel dependency: if we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up further burning oil and gas and emit greenhouse gases. This could endanger short- and long-term climate targets.”

RenewEconomy’s Ketan Joshi put a similar argument just this week, of how hydrogen will be a cover for a new life for fossil fuels. Others have also issued warnings: Why hydrogen energy has seduced a generation of politicians

The PIK report goes into detail on both the economic and efficiency limitations of renewable hydrogen as they currently exist, calculating the costs of avoiding one tonne of CO2 emissions using (100% renewable) hydrogen-based fuels would be €800 for liquid and €1200 for gaseous fuels.

Assuming continued technological progress driven by CO2 prices as well as subsidies and investments into hydrogen and related industries, the study calculates that hydrogen-based fuels could become cost competitive by 2040 – far too late for those sectors where direct electrification alternatives exist.

On efficiency, the report notes that losses happen on both the supply side, in the production process of the hydrogen-based fuels, and on the demand side – a combustion engine wastes a lot more energy than an electrical one.

“If we use hydrogen-based fuels instead of direct electrification alternatives, two to fourteen times the amount of electricity generation is needed, depending on the application and the respective technologies,” said co-author Romain Sacchi from the Paul Scherrer Institute.

“Low energy efficiencies cause a fragile climate effectiveness. If produced with the current electricity mixes, hydrogen-based fuels would increase – not decrease – greenhouse gas emissions.

Sacchi offers the example of the German electricity mix in 2018, where the study calculated that using hydrogen-based fuels in cars, trucks or planes would have produced about three to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than using fossil fuel.

The fresh warning against putting too much store – and too much faith – in renewable hydrogen as a silver bullet for the global climate crisis comes as governments around the world tip billions into innumerable green and blue hydrogen projects and trials, in some cases over and above other key decarbonisation technologies.

Certainly, this has been the case in Australia, where the recent announcement of hundreds of millions in support of “clean hydrogen” has provided a convenient way for the federal Morrison government to gussy up its unerring support of ongoing roles for gas and coal generation.

The PIK report does not suggest policy-makers dial down the level of support for hydrogen fuel R&D – quite the opposite, in fact, it notes that green hydrogen hinges on substantial large-scale policy support and subsidies for about two decades. But it does suggest some key measures to make it count – and to channel those precious billions in the right direction. Unfortunately for Australia’s federal government, carbon pricing is one of them.

“An overall policy strategy could rest on two pillars: First, broad technology support to foster innovation and initial scale-up including direct electrification. Second, substantial carbon pricing and an energy tax reform that together create a level-playing field for all technologies and thus a sensible balance between direct and indirect electrification,” said Ueckerdt.

Report co-author Gunnar Luderer concludes: “The long term vision of hydrogen-based fuels is promising. Tapping into the huge wind and solar energy potential of the global sun belts, e-fuels can be globally traded and thus resolve renewable energy bottlenecks in densely populated countries such as Japan or in Europe.

“However, as international and national climate targets require immediate emission reductions, from a climate perspective direct electrification should come first to assure a safe future for all.”

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