My previous article — How Blue Hydrogen Can Help Decarbonize The Economy — generated a lot of feedback and discussion on social media. Today I had intended to provide specific examples of how some companies are using hydrogen to improve Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) metrics. However, given the amount of feedback generated from the previous article, I will use today’s article to address some of the comments.
Criticism 1: The Cornell/Stanford Paper
Multiple people pointed to the recent report from researchers at Cornell and Stanford Universities that criticized the idea of blue hydrogen. I can only assume they didn’t read to the end of the previous article, because I explicitly addressed this report.
I provided one critique of that report, but here I will provide another. Michael Liebreich, among other things, is the founder and senior contributor of BloombergNEF. He is extremely active in the areas of cleantech and climate change, and widely-respected in the energy sector.
Here is Michael’s critique of this paper on LinkedIn. I encourage you to read the full critique. As he notes, he is “not in the business of promoting blue hydrogen”, but he adds:
“The flaws and cherry-picking of data in the Jacobson/Howarth paper are trivial to spot for anyone with an energy or engineering background; I was not the only person who immediately pointed out the problems on Twitter – others included David Joffe, Thunder Said Energy, Gniewomir Flis, Philip Sargent, SINTEF Energy Research and Alex Trembath.”
He summarized his critique on Twitter: “We do not have the luxury of consigning technologies to the dustbin because they (or the companies that own them) fail a socio-political purity test.”
So the paper isn’t quite the bombshell some might think. The methods and conclusions are hotly disputed, even by people who otherwise have no interest in blue hydrogen. The paper will be supported by people who oppose blue hydrogen, but it won’t likely convince the undecided.
Criticism 2: Carbon Sequestration Doesn’t Work
Multiple people pointed out that carbon sequestration has a poor track record. There is some merit to this criticism. It is true that many carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects have failed.
You can think of CCS like this. A coal-fired power plant generates a lot of carbon dioxide. If you could capture that carbon after combustion, and prevent it from entering the atmosphere, then that would be successful CCS.
The problem is that it isn’t economical to simply capture the carbon dioxide from a power plant, compress it, and then inject it into a storage cavern (or react it to produce solid calcium carbonate). There are also concerns that if carbon dioxide is injected into a storage cavern, that it could seep out over time.
Thus, to date most projects attempting to do this have failed, and that has caused many to rightly view CCS with great skepticism.
However, there a number of projects that do capture carbon dioxide and utilize it for other purposes. This 2019 article highlighted 18 such projects. In many cases the captured carbon dioxide is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which isn’t the same thing as simply locking it up long term.
With EOR, some of the carbon dioxide will remain in the ground, and some will come back up with the oil. But by using the carbon to produce more fossil fuels, critics argue that this can’t reasonably be considered CCS. In practice, companies can get partial credit for carbon sequestered by EOR.
The CCS piece of this has to work in order for blue hydrogen to work. If the carbon capture and storage rates aren’t high — and there are significant fugitive emissions — then the criticisms are valid.
However, producing hydrogen from methane has a substantial advantage over capturing the carbon emitted from coal combustion. First, coal consumption produces over twice the carbon dioxide per unit of power produced, relative to natural gas (Source). That means you have a lot less carbon that has to be dealt with when producing blue hydrogen.
Second, during the purification of blue hydrogen, the carbon is separated from the hydrogen. So, the process itself creates a highly-concentrated stream of carbon dioxide that can be easily separated. That’s another substantial advantage of attempting CCS with natural gas instead of coal.
Thus, it isn’t necessarily comparable to view CCS attempts with natural gas against historical failures of CCS with coal.
Criticism 3: Too Late/Too Much New Infrastructure
There is simply no time, according to some, to waste with blue hydrogen when we need to move directly to completely renewable sources of energy. Plus, too much new infrastructure would be required to create a blue hydrogen industry.
This was similar to criticisms of the electric power industry when it migrated in large numbers from coal to natural gas as an energy source. There were those who said that this move simply traded one fossil fuel for another, and thus didn’t substantially address the issue of carbon emissions. They argued it would be better to move from coal directly to renewables.
The problem with this line of argumentation is that renewable sources weren’t capable of replacing coal-fired power plants. They could supplement them, but coal provides large-scale firm power. You can only replace that with intermittent power, such as that from wind and solar power, by overbuilding capacity and installing lots of storage. But those were simply not economical options.
Thus, if the natural gas option wasn’t there, those power plants likely would have continued to use coal. Instead, they replaced with natural gas, and that was the primary reason the U.S. experienced the largest decline of carbon emissions over the past 15 years of any country in the world.
That’s the risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The “perfect” in this case may be renewables, but since that wasn’t an option that was technically and economically feasible, demanding the perfect would have ensured that U.S. emissions remained high. By accepting the “good” of natural gas over coal, U.S. emissions substantially declined.
The infrastructure criticism is much ado about nothing. Substantial hydrogen infrastructure already exists. Hydrogen pipelines already exist. And, as I will cover in the next article, hydrogen can be blended in small quantities into existing natural gas pipelines.
Criticism 4: Too Much Energy Required
Some correctly noted that it takes more energy to produce hydrogen from natural gas than it does just to burn the natural gas. This is true even when considering just the production of hydrogen, and before adding additional energy requirements for the capture and sequestration of the carbon.
But simply burning natural gas makes it more difficult to capture and store the carbon dioxide. Separating the hydrogen is what makes that possible.
Further, we have numerous industrial processes that are effectively energy sinks. Consider the production of plastics. Lots of energy goes into producing the plastics, but then that energy remains embedded in the plastics. It’s a net energy sink.
So the relevant issue isn’t that it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than to burn natural gas. That’s true, but what is gained in the process? The ability to easily separate out the carbon. That is a substantial benefit derived from that extra energy expenditure.
There are some valid criticisms of blue hydrogen, and some that aren’t as valid. The main one that has merit is that blue hydrogen doesn’t work unless the vast majority of the carbon is being captured and stored. This is admittedly still an open question.
But regardless of those who argue that hydrogen is a dead end that shouldn’t be pursued, the reality is that it is being pursued. In the concluding article in this series, I will highlight the efforts of several companies in this area.