Is hydrogen worse for the environment than natural gas?

An article published recently by Sky News warns of the hidden costs of hydrogen; Energise’s Head of Net Zero, Sarah Legg, shared her thoughts on the role and future of hydrogen in our transition to Net Zero

The Big Zero report

Image: FNZ

Hydrogen is one solution to our fuel dilemma, but is it the most sustainable one?

An article published by Sky News warns of the hidden costs of hydrogen.

Based on what we know to date, should we or shouldn’t we switch? I’m going to share my thoughts on that very question.

To give you an idea of the role it currently plays in our fuel mix, hydrogen is the common fallback position for all vehicles and heavy industrial machinery that prove difficult to electrify. But it is not a homogenous product and there are significant concerns and challenges around its cost and production process, which I would be happy to delve into in a separate blog.

What I intend to focus on today however is whether the change needs to be made in the first place and what the distinction is between what is referred to as “green” vs. “blue” hydrogen.

How can you tell them apart?

The key difference is that “blue hydrogen” is heavily reliant upon fossil fuels (in this case in the form of natural gas), while “green hydrogen” isn’t.

The Sky News article covers recent work undertaken by researchers which concludes that blue hydrogen is significantly worse for the environment than its base element, natural gas.

Image: Gasunie via theworldofhydrogen.com

What do we make of this discovery?

I, for one, see why hydrogen will need to play its part in the transition from fossil fuels. Highly polluting and damaging emissions are driving climate change to a point of no return, so making the right choices greatly improves our chances of keeping climate change below 1.5°C.

But choosing the right type of hydrogen and, crucially, only using it where necessary, rather than seeing it as an “easy” fix, is central to our success in approaching sustainability.

Cars, vans and even construction tools like crawler cranes all come in electric versions. As battery technology continues to improve, their electric counterparts will only become more and more viable for their respective activities.

In situations where electric solutions are still a long way off, I believe hydrogen could well be a temporary answer, but it absolutely MUST be of the green category. Alas, this answer still comes with a cost barrier, as the process is more difficult and costlier to achieve than both the blue and grey solutions, and that is hard to ignore.

So what should we do?

Find a real alternative, not just an alternative fuel!

We can no longer live in a world where we just swap diesel for electric, and carry on consuming at the rate we do. We now have a responsibility to make better choices and live differently. Sure, we may have our own electric cars, but we also need to consider how often we end up driving it.

  • How often is it truly necessary?
  • Is there an alternative? Could you share a lift, could you use public transport on your shorter journeys?
  • When it comes to the movement of goods, do we still believe that road transport is the long-term vision, or should the improved model rely on electric rail hubs and smaller “milk-round” vehicles. A recent Guardian article shows that using smaller electric bike deliveries is 60% faster in a city and cuts emissions by about 90%, when compared to diesel vans performance on the very same trips.

The way I see it, if we “do the same, we get more of the same”! And if we don’t question our habits, how can our future look any different?

“I love the sound an engine makes, and how it feels to drive”

There is a thrill and true pleasure many people experience from the sound, feel and experience of combustion engines. I used to feel the same. Times have changed and I now feel that other things are more important, such as having easy access to food supplies or not having to live in fear of flooding. These are just some of the opportunity costs of not transitioning.

Not to mention the excitement I see on my god-daughters’ faces when they ride in a car which makes no sound … irreplaceable! I encourage you to give it just one go and look at it through a fresh pair of eyes.

Image: Energise

But what about the capacity of renewables?

A common, justified concern is that we won’t have enough energy if we all “go renewable”.

But what we need to remember is: the more people demand it, the more investment materialises. The more local and private generation takes place, the cheaper and more easily accessible that power becomes. We can no longer be a society that acts as an “energy vampire”, taking from the environment without any repercussions, draining the very stability we rely upon from planet Earth. We must balance our demand with our clean, sustainable supply.

Lots of people will be uncomfortable with this.

“It’s not cheap enough!”

“It’s moving faster than technology!”

“It’s not that urgent!”

An article in the Independent reminds us that the UK government is spending just 0.01% of GDP on fighting the climate crisis, while spending 2% on the military. Now, it is not my place nor is it my area of expertise to criticise the military budget. However, what I do know is that the next wars will likely be climate-driven. Water scarcity, mass immigration, and food shortages will be huge factors in aggravating conflicts around the world. At the same time, the Committee on Climate Change recommends a 1% GDP spend to be allocated to giving the UK a chance of achieving its Net Zero targets.

Is it is all down to the government? Of course not, businesses and individuals should choose wisely. Here at Energise we use a “4Rs” framework which I think could easily work as a foundation for questioning of choices:

  1. Review – What are you emitting?
  2. Reduce – How can you reduce it? Consider different business models, reduce waste
  3. Renew – Accept and adopt new technologies and fuels
  4. Rebalance – Inset or offset by investing in carbon capture or carbon reduction in other projects

So is hydrogen fuel worse than natural gas? In two out of three scenarios, yes, but more importantly, our starting point when questioning the transition should always be – how do we reduce our demand in the first place?

I will leave you with this – carbon emissions are not just about fuel and electricity; every product or service has a footprint.

Live lightly and, if you must use hydrogen, Live green.

 

Latest Podcast