As carbon reduction measures are implemented and mature globally, there is a growing realization of the need to define and prioritize energy sources like hydrogen according to a carbon intensity rating instead of using colours to designate the source of the process used to make it as described by André Nascimento at H2 Bulletin.
As oil and gas and now electricity dramatically increase in price globally, many countries are now facing the reality of immediate or impending energy crises as they implement strategies to move away from coal, oil and natural gas and embrace renewable sources of energy.
Energy crises in Europe and developing countries have certainly been hastened by the global pandemic and rapid rise in oil prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many analysts have faulted poor European energy policy for allowing too much dependence on Russian fuel and commodities.
However, they are in large part created by many of the measures that countries have undertaken to move away from hydrocarbons as their primary source of energy.
“Well before the Russian invasion, the reliability of energy in most European countries was already showing alarming signs of vulnerability. As Europe was phasing out base-load coal, zero-emitting nuclear power and inhibiting or rejecting natural gas development – all for environmental reasons – they walked right into a massive energy-security issue with an overdependence on a notoriously unreliable supplier. Then there’s the affordability challenge…”
Carbon pricing is by its nature intended to make hydrocarbons more costly, and motivate consumers and industry to seek other energy sources.
Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland recently stated that high gasoline prices are a reminder “of why climate action is so important and why as a country we have to work even harder and move even faster towards a green economy.”
Carbon pricing is also intended to fund renewable energy alternatives and make them more affordable.
Unfortunately, the rapid rise of the prices of oil and natural gas and now electricity in some countries has been so steep, that it is driving many countries to reintroduce coal as a source of inexpensive and dependable energy- a step backward in carbon reduction progress. Lack of foresight in implementing effective policy has reduced refining capacity, making even the most oil and gas-rich countries like the U.S. subject to the detrimental effects of high-priced energy.
Hydrocarbons have been so plentiful and affordable that it is becoming obvious that replacing them with lower-carbon energy sources is a much more lengthy and expensive process than global energy associations and political leaders have contemplated.
Early on, the global movement for carbon reduction adopted language in communication that amounts to sloganism- words designed to rally people emotionally to their cause rather than accurately identifying energy types. There was a secondary motive to negatively identify hydrocarbons in an emotional appeal to motivate leaders and consumers to adopt low carbon initiatives.
Thus, the colour description of hydrogen energy sources became misused- with green to denote a hydrocarbon-free source equated with “Good” or even “Best” due to the strong emotional connotation attached to the green designation. As a result, blue hydrogen has often been cast in a negative light. For example, in January 2022. the new German government unveiled plans to massively increase its national hydrogen strategy with one caveat: fossil gas-based blue hydrogen wouldn’t be included in subsidy schemes with headlines reading “German government disavows blue hydrogen”.
The colour approach, while possibly amplifying the larger message of the importance of carbon reduction, has complicated identification of valid low carbon sources of energy that need to be implemented in the short timelines prescribed by global agencies like the IEA.
There is a growing consensus among energy analysts that energy sources should be described and evaluated according to carbon intensity, rather than an association with colours to indicate their value.
The use of colours encourages an emotional response to a possible energy solution, rather than encouraging a thoughtful consideration of the utility, portability and affordability of that solution, no matter how temporary or permanent we may choose it to be.
In the case of hydrogen – the over-simplification of colour identification is particularly problematic.
According to a paper by Francesco Basetti from the CMCC observatory on climate policies and futures:
“Although it is an abundant element and clean-burning gas-emitting only water and no greenhouse gases when consumed – to create hydrogen you must separate it from the molecules in which it occurs. A process that requires energy and a base material.”
The author wisely points out that “understanding the different effects of how hydrogen is produced can change perceptions on the cleanliness or dirtiness of each specific type of hydrogen.”
Not only do colours oversimplify the value of hydrogen types by overlooking the costs of production but they also deflect further investigations of the repercussions of a particular method.
It is important to assess the real vs perceived abundance of the base material as well as the cost of the base material. These are critical factors when contemplating widespread industrialization of hydrogen production.
This is particularly critical in certain areas of the world and in North America when we consider Fossil vs Biomass/Waste vs H2O splitting methods to produce hydrogen.
Currently, the most common forms being used for hydrogen production involve either splitting water with electricity – electrolysis or splitting fossil fuels and biomass, with the most common and widely used process involving natural gas reforming.
Blue hydrogen, which is produced from fossil fuels, uses carbon capture and storage (CCS) to mitigate emissions, enabling the carbon to be safely stored and potentially utilized in other industrial processes. There is a strong push to transform existing grey hydrogen production projects into blue using CCS. Globally, governments- including Canada’s federal and some provincial governments- have begun including hydrogen in the low-carbon energy mix, as reported last week in BOE Report. In November 2021, the Alberta Government released their roadmap to building a hydrogen economy and announced a $50 million contribution to establish a Hydrogen Centre of Excellence within Alberta Innovates in April 2022.
In another Alberta project, in May 2022, ATCO Group announced an agreement to provide Canadian Pacific with engineering, procurement and construction services to construct two hydrogen production and fuelling stations for Canadian Pacific’s hydrogen locomotive program. The hydrogen infrastructure at each CP site will include a 1MW electrolyzer, compression, storage and dispensing for locomotive refuelling.
However, the intention to electrolyze water to produce green hydrogen is a problematic choice for projects located in Alberta.
Green hydrogen production is a process that requires intensive investigation before it is adopted on a large scale. Analysts calculate that the process consumes nine tons of water to produce one ton of hydrogen.
Green hydrogen producers prefer using fresh water to lower the costs of desalination or purification of other water sources. This could place the supply of a resource that is limited locally in Alberta as well as globally, in jeopardy. Fresh water sources could be at risk due to commoditization -the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of unique attributes end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market. Even the most successful water management program may not be able to support industrial demand for water supply.
In a Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs forum held in January 2022, Dr. Dena McMartin, a leading researcher focused on rural, agricultural and industrial water resource management and treatment commented on the water management challenges Alberta faces.
“We will have more droughts. We’re going to have to be proactive in determining what kind of storage systems we need, what kind of flood protections we need, and what kind of investment we’re willing to make as individual citizens to protect, preserve, conserve and manage our water most effectively.”
In reality, over 40% of the global population does not have access to sufficient clean water. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, according to a UN-Water report.
North America is particularly gifted with freshwater resources with 20% of the world’s freshwater located in the Great Lakes alone and we may be overly complacent about supply. I refer to an article by Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the subject of water scarcity in which he states:
“I think the global water crisis is far worse than most people imagine because it includes both the water quality and water quantity components, and when you put those two together, I’m sorry to say it’s almost an unsolvable problem.”
Famiglietti envisions large-scale Great Lakes water diversions as future projects for American interests which can now include large scale green hydrogen production.
“There’s a giant bullseye that can be seen from space that’s sitting above the Great Lakes: it’s a target area in a sense for the rest of the country. Because there’s so much freshwater… 50 years from now there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix.”
At issue is the fact that there is the same amount of fresh water on earth as there always has been, but the global population has exploded, leaving the world’s water resources in crisis.
Part of the appeal of green hydrogen is the fact that when consumed, hydrogen produces no emissions other than water. But calculations must be done on how much water it relocates and the local effects of removal of water. Will large scale production of green hydrogen by electrolysis create water shortages or perhaps divert water away from areas and create water insufficiency in those areas?
As carbon intensity evaluation replaces the “hydrogen rainbow” designation of hydrogen projects, this will allow essential, additional concerns, like water security to come into better focus.
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.