Greenwashing hydrogen gas as a clean fuel source

Greenwashing hydrogen gas as a clean fuel source

When I taught chemistry, a favorite lab of some of my students was called barking hydrogen. The hydrogen in hydrochloric acid was replaced by zinc metal, creating hydrogen gas, which was collected in test tubes using water displacement.

Some of the hydrogen was mixed with enough oxygen to support combustion, and when a lit match was held close to it, a barking sound could be heard. At times the lab sounded like a dog kennel.

Hydrogen is the first and lightest weight element on the Periodic Table. It is found in nature as a colorless, odorless gas. It is the most common element in the universe. Because it is hard to extract hydrogen from underground deposits, it is usually obtained in other ways using various processes.

There are different color-coded classifications of hydrogen based on the type of process used to obtain it, as well as the source of the hydrogen atoms. Most hydrogen today is produced using fossil fuels as the source of hydrogen atoms.

Black or brown hydrogen is generated through a process called coal gasification. In this process coal is heated to extremely high temperatures (700 C) in the presence of a limited amount of oxygen. This creates a mixture of gases called syngas.

This mixture includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The hydrogen is captured and stored while the other gases are released into the environment. This process creates a large amount of air pollution, especially pollutants considered to be greenhouse gases.

Grey hydrogen accounts for the majority of hydrogen produced today. In a process known as “steam reforming,” water is used to strip hydrogen atoms from natural gas (CH4). Carbon dioxide also is a by-product of this process, and this greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere at a rate of about 10 pounds of CO2 per 1 pound of hydrogen produced.

Blue hydrogen is created in the same manner as grey hydrogen, except the carbon dioxide by-product is not released to the atmosphere but instead captured and stored in a method called Carbon Capture Usage and Storage. The method is not totally carbon neutral, however, because around 10-20% of the generated carbon dioxide cannot be captured.

There are three additional classifications of hydrogen, all of which are generated via electrolysis. You may have seen this method demonstrated in a chemistry class using a battery-operated device. Basically, water (H2O) is separated into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. Different sources of electricity are used for this process.

If you use nuclear energy to separate the hydrogen, it is called pink hydrogen. If you use a mixture of energy sources, it is yellow hydrogen, and if you use renewable energy such as solar, wind or hydroelectric power, the hydrogen generated is carbon neutral and thus truly green hydrogen. Only 0.1% of hydrogen today is created by using green energy sources.

Recently, media sites across the globe and especially in the European Union have seen an enormous surge of articles proclaiming the benefits of green hydrogen. On close examination, it appears a major fossil fuel PR company, FTI Consulting, is behind much of the media blitz touting green hydrogen as the new bridge fuel. A hydrogen lobby has even been formed with most of the members being associated with fossil fuels, especially fracked gas companies.

Industry officials are not being truthful or transparent about issues surrounding the use of hydrogen as a fuel source. Several questions remain unanswered: What percentage of hydrogen can be combusted in power plants? How much of the hydrogen will actually come from renewable sources? What other air emissions are produced? Can existing pipeline infrastructure be used? Will this fuel move us away from fossil fuels?

Clean Energy Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, warned in December that “burning hydrogen for power production has never been done before in the USA and is untested with potentially problematic environmental issues.” The claim this will be a “silver bullet” for climate change is based on the premise that the technology will advance to a point where power plants can use 100% hydrogen as their fuel sources. So far, the highest amount of hydrogen in the blended fuels is 30% hydrogen.

A 5% hydrogen with 95% methane blend is being proposed to power plants in New York, Southern California, Florida and even Ohio. An article on Mitsubishi Power’s website discusses construction of the 1,084 MW Harrison Power Project in Cadiz. It is supposedly “the first hydrogen-capable project to reach operation east of the Mississippi River,” but it too is using only 5% hydrogen blended with methane as the fuel source, and the hydrogen is not green hydrogen.

While it is true burning hydrogen does not create carbon dioxide, it does, however, create another dangerous gas: nitrogen oxide. In some cases the NOx emissions are up to six times higher than when burning methane.

Air pollution has been studied as one reason cases of COVID-19 are higher in poorer, polluted areas. Even Mitsubishi has said the (30 hydrogen/70 methane) blended plants “will produce NOx and carbon emissions equivalent to those from modern natural gas plants.”

The gas industry points out existing fracked gas pipelines can be used to carry the hydrogen gas in the event that someday the energy source might be used instead of methane gas. However, studies show hydrogen causes steel pipelines to become brittle. Hydrogen is a much smaller molecule than methane as well and can leak out of pipelines much easier.

This push for hydrogen-blended fuel appears to be just another ploy by the fossil fuel industry to encourage the production of methane and the construction of more gas-fueled power plants. The source of the hydrogen used for these power plants will still be climate-destroying fossil fuels, not green hydrogen. The gas industry also fails to acknowledge the high costs of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions.

An article in Nation of Change states the obvious. The main reason green hydrogen isn’t a good choice to decarbonize the economy is that the production of green hydrogen takes enormous amounts of renewable energy. It would be much more efficient to use this electricity to directly subsidize the grid or to charge battery-storage systems.

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