An independent expert group of scientists, academics and engineers has today launched a new advisory body — the Hydrogen Science Coalition (HSC) — that aims to bring “concrete evidence back into the hydrogen debate, free from industry bias”.

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“Policymakers in the UK and EU are placing big bets on hydrogen's role in the energy transition. While hydrogen has an important part to play, we're concerned that an over-reliance on hydrogen will delay existing, cheaper and scalable solutions like electrification”, says founding member David Cebon, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge.

Fellow founding member Tom Baxter, an ex-BP chemical engineer and visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, adds: “Any decisions to invest public money in hydrogen need to be backed up with facts. Relying only on vested interests to guide the development of a hydrogen sector risks undermining where the evidence tells us hydrogen should play a role.”

The HSC’s new manifesto describes H2 as an important piece of the energy transition puzzle, but points out that hydrogen today “is a massive decarbonisation problem we have barely begun to tackle, given that almost all hydrogen in the world at large is currently made from fossil fuels, without carbon capture”.

“Because truly zero-emission hydrogen is essential but it is very energy intensive and does not yet exist at scale, we cannot expect hydrogen to have an impact on emissions or jobs within the next decade. Developing a hydrogen economy is a long path forward, yet climate science shows us we need to act today to reach our net-zero goals.”

The manifesto makes four key recommendations to governments:

1) To prioritise support for “the only zero-emissions hydrogen — green hydrogen” over blue H2.

“Hydrogen won't have the impact on climate we need if it is a fig leaf for continuing to burn fossil fuels which drive up emissions,” the document explains.

“Blue hydrogen, which is produced by burning natural gas and attempting to capture carbon emissions with CCS [carbon capture and storage], should be approached with caution. That's because CCS is always partial, fugitive methane emissions during production and transportation are significant, and the risk of lock-in to expensive fossil fuels are very real.

“A variety of emerging studies are highlighting the lack of understanding of the climate impacts of blue hydrogen, suggesting that its emissions can be as bad or even worse than simply burning fossil fuels, and at best is a very expensive way to mitigate GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from necessary hydrogen production.

“Therefore we cannot assume hydrogen made from fossil fuels and CCS will by default be low emissions. However, assessing and mitigating the lifecycle emissions of blue hydrogen is a complex issue that could take many years, when we know we need decarbonisation solutions today without delay.”

2) To deploy green hydrogen for hard-to-decarbonise sectors, starting with where grey hydrogen is used today.

“The grey hydrogen currently used for chemical feedstocks and fertilizer globally accounts for roughly 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – not dissimilar to the amount generated by aviation globally,” the manifesto says.

“Hydrogen (in the form of synthesis gas) is already used to reduce iron ore to iron metal. The first production of fossil-free steel in Sweden has already taken place, made from hydrogen and fossil-free electricity. Scaling up green hydrogen to produce steel could be the beginning of developing a more competitive and sustainable steel sector.”

3) Hydrogen should not be used to delay deploying electrification alternatives available today, such as in heating and transport.

“Hydrogen isn’t the best solution if it's more risky or expensive than already deployable alternatives like electrification,” the manifesto explains.

“Research shows that it is too risky and too expensive to use hydrogen to heat buildings or to power road transport. Producing hydrogen uses vast amounts of energy, which is a fundamental flaw when comparing it with other electrification alternatives.

“Heating buildings with boilers using green hydrogen takes about six times more electricity than using electric heat pumps. Similarly, it takes about 3.3 times more electricity to power a hydrogen fuel cell lorry than one running on an Electric Road System.

“Focusing on the wrong demand sectors for hydrogen, such as heating and transport, would be an expensive mistake that can be avoided with other cheaper alternatives. Prioritising electrification, energy efficiency and a focus on green hydrogen for heavy industries will bring jobs to the UK and EU.”

4) Given how valuable green hydrogen is, blending it into the existing gas grid does not make sense due to its limited impact on emissions savings.

“It is widely understood that current natural gas transmission infrastructure can carry a maximum of a 20% mix of hydrogen before needing expensive retrofits. Hydrogen-ready natural gas transmission pipelines do not exist today,” the manifesto says.

“Studies also show that injecting 20% of green hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines will only save around 7% of carbon emissions. Blending hydrogen with natural gas reduces the energy content, meaning more of the mix is needed to deliver the same amount of energy to the consumer. Furthermore, the safety of hydrogen in domestic environments is questionable and where hydrogen is burned in a gas cooker or gas boiler, it still generates NOx [nitrous oxides, which are powerful greenhouse gases] emissions.

“Before blending our valuable green hydrogen into the natural gas grid, the priority needs to be areas where we can have significant and immediate emissions reductions, such as replacing highly polluting grey hydrogen.”

The manifesto concludes by saying: “We encourage governments to consult independent experts, alongside the energy industry who stand to benefit from these policies, on the development of a hydrogen sector.

“A successful climate action plan is no longer just about the rapid build out of wind turbines and the phasing out of coal plants.

“It is about deploying all the solutions we have within the right sectors, ensuring that we tap into all expertise available to guide these decisions. A well thought through strategy on hydrogen is a key part of that climate action plan.”

The HSC, which receives no funding from governments or businesses “in order to maintain neutrality”, says that its five founding members “bring a diverse portfolio of hydrogen expertise, ranging from chemical engineering, energy processing, decarbonising heavy duty road transport, aviation and domestic heating”.

The five founders are:

● Tom Baxter, visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland

● Bernard van Dijk, airplane performance lecturer at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

● David Cebon, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge

● Paul Martin, a Toronto-based chemical engineer and process development expert

● Jochen Bard, director of the energy process technology division at the Fraunhofer Institute for Energy Economics and Energy System Technology in Germany

The quintet previously joined forces in September to write an open letter to the UK government to warn about the inefficiencies and added expense of using H2 in sectors such as heating and transport where electric alternatives are cheaper.

The Hydrogen Science Coalition does not mention the industry-led groupings that are lobbying governments based on their members' vested interests, but these include the Hydrogen Council, Hydrogen Europe, the Renewable Hydrogen Coalition and the Green Hydrogen Organisation.