Michael Liebreich, a long-time leading expert on clean energy and transportation, is adamant: green hydrogen will not be carried round the world by ships, as the economics do not make sense.
“Hydrogen by ship is not, in my view, going to be a thing,” he said. “I think there is going to be little or no hydrogen transported by ship.
“If we transport hydrogen long-distance, it will be by pipeline. And if we cannot do it by pipeline, we aren’t going to do it.”
Hydrogen’s lower volumetric energy density compared to liquid hydrocarbon fuels means three times as many vessels would be needed to ship the same amount of energy as LNG, and energy loss from cooling and liquefying it would push that up to four.
It can be done technically, but economically there is no point in producing hydrogen at a cost of $1 to $2 per kg and transporting it round the world at a cost of $3 to $5 per kg, Liebreich said.
That barrier to transporting liquid hydrogen around the world is another block to using it as a shipping fuel.
Moreover, Liebreich said demand this decade from industrial sectors that are crying out for hydrogen to go green, including its use for conversion to ammonia for ships’ fuel, would require five times as much wind and solar energy capacity as is currently built.
“The markets that exist today for hydrogen are essentially industrial commodity markets — things like refineries, fertiliser and methanol production, and hydro cracking which need and use cheap hydrogen,” he said.
But the early production of green hydrogen is not going to be cheap.
“It will be more expensive by a factor of two or three and the mechanisms on the demand side are not in place to cover that cost,” he said.
That means the energy transition will have to include using blue hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas with carbon capture and storage.
“We have to learn to love blue hydrogen,” he said, and regulate for it to be produced in ways that do not add to emissions.
Liebreich's extensive career includes earning a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Cambridge, founding New Energy Finance and continuing on as chief executive for five years after it was acquired by Bloomberg, and being on the high-level advisory group for the United Nations secretary general’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative.
He has also been involved in investment and company start-ups, runs his own advisory firm, Liebreich Associates, and was appointed as an official adviser to the UK Board of Trade in 2020.
A version of this story was previously published by Recharge’s sister shipping publication, Tradewinds.