“We have to learn to love blue hydrogen. Maybe in an ideal world, we wouldn’t, but we do,” said the influential independent analyst Michael Liebreich last week.
Liebreich, who founded renewables analyst group New Energy Finance (now BloombergNEF) in 2004, said in an online interview that just replacing all the grey hydrogen being used today — and meeting the coming demand from sectors that “would almost certainly” need clean H2 to decarbonise, such as steel, shipping and long-term energy storage — would require five times the current installed global wind and solar capacity.
“And then you have to do that at the same time as decarbonising everything else — all of the land transportation, all of the electric vehicles, all of the electric heating you want to do, all of that stuff would need to be on top of that.
“So we are not, in the next two decades, going to meet the need for clean hydrogen from green hydrogen alone. So we have to learn to love blue hydrogen. Maybe in an ideal world, we wouldn’t, but we do.”
Liebreich lamented the polarisation of the clean hydrogen sector, where some are “so aggressively anti-blue and with people resigning publicly” — a reference to Christopher Jackson’s resignation as chairman of the UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association over its support for blue H2.
“This is, frankly, so unhelpful. And if we can inject rationality — and that doesn’t mean just hope for blue hydrogen to be done well, that means regulate for it, that means create the metrics, create the standards, that means naming and shaming the people who do it wrong. That’s really where we need to be going with this.
“A lot of the aggression and hostility about blue hydrogen, frankly, is actually aggression and hostility towards the oil & gas industry, which has in many cases been an irresponsible player in the past, and in some cases continues to be an irresponsible player in the present. But I think we’ve got to separate that from producing clean hydrogen.”
He added that he personally did not care what colour or source the hydrogen comes from, “but I do care very much that if it’s going to be called ‘clean’, it needs to be properly clean”.
“So if it comes from a fossil fuel, there’s really two things that you absolutely have to have, and that is very, very low levels — 0.1, 0.2%, tenths of a per cent, of fugitive methane emissions — and very high capture of the CO2, and I’m talking about 90, 95, 98% [capture rate]. You need to get within range where, frankly, you could do offsets, you could plant trees, you could capture [CO2 elsewhere], you could do whatever for the remainder [of the GHG emissions]. Only then could you call it ‘clean’.
“And the upstream methane emissions, that methane loss, we have to resolve anyway — nothing to do with whether we’re doing blue hydrogen. If we don’t do that, we can kiss goodbye to the climate anyway.”
He added that the production of hydrogen from methane will have to switch from the steam methane reforming (SMR) that is almost universally used today, to autothermal reforming (ATM) — a more expensive process that creates a more concentrated stream of CO2, enabling more carbon to be economically captured. ATR is currently only used today to produce syngas (a mixture of hydrogen anc carbon monoxide), rather than pure H2.
“And those people who say you can’t put your faith in ATR because it doesn’t exist yet [for pure H2 production]. Well, sorry, but there are lots of things, like very cheap solar, that didn’t exist until somebody did them. Frankly, that’s not a grown-up contribution to the debate, saying ‘it hasn’t been done yet and should therefore we should assume it can never be done’.
“The history of engineering is full of people who were told that they can’t do something because it’s never been done yet. Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a steel ship, which should technically have been impossible because it had ‘never been done yet’. And we’re going to do a lot of ‘never been done yet’ if we’re going to get to a zero-carbon economy.”
Due to currently high natural gas prices in Europe and elsewhere, green hydrogen is said to be cheaper to produce than the blue variety, prompting Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, the bullish CEO of trade body Hydrogen Europe, to recently state that “blue hydrogen doesn’t sell, it’s too expensive”.
There are also questions as to whether it makes sense to add to Europe's existing natural-gas demand at a time of shortages as the continent attempts to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels. The EU currently wants to offer subsidies to green hydrogen, but not to blue.
Liebreich acts as an adviser to Norwegian oil & gas major Equinor — which is one of the world’s most active players in blue hydrogen and has very low fugitive methane emissions — but he has long said that has not influenced his thinking on this matter.
Liebreich was speaking to conference organiser World Hydrogen Leaders to promote his appearance as a keynote speaker at this year’s World Hydrogen Congress in Rotterdam in October. The full interview can be watched here.