Hydrogen Science Coalition Cuts Through the 'Hydrogen Hype'

Scientists, academics, and engineers are working to bring an evidence-based viewpoint.

Image of a plane above a train with the word "hydrogen" on it
Our hydrogen future: planes, trains, and automobiles.

Scharfsinn86 / Getty Images

Hydrogen plays many important roles in our lives. The biggest use is for fertilizer, but it is also used in petroleum refining, glassmaking, electronics manufacturing, and making methanol. We need a lot of it: production in 2018 was 60 million metric tons. Over 70% of hydrogen is classified as "gray" and made from natural gas, while 27% of it is made from coal and is classified as "brown." According to the International Energy Agency, all hydrogen production releases about 830 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year—9.3 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen.

Just decarbonizing the hydrogen we need and use now is going to be a huge and expensive undertaking, yet we are being promised that "blue" hydrogen (where the CO2 is captured and stored during production) or "green" hydrogen (made with renewable electricity) can solve all our problems, from home heating to cars to planes. It seems too good to be true, but that is what we read in the media or hear from our politicians.

That's why the Hydrogen Science Coalition is such an interesting and important resource. It describes itself as "a group of independent academics, scientists and engineers who are working to bring an evidence-based viewpoint to the heart of the hydrogen discussion... We use our collective expertise to translate the role that hydrogen can play in the energy transition for politicians, media and investors." 

“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” said Tom Baxter, visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde and an ex-BP engineer, in a press release.

They have written a manifesto that is jargon-free and a big splash of cold water on so much of the hydrogen hype. The most important point is the first one, but there are several notable points.

"Zero emission hydrogen is an opportunity for governments to speed up the energy transition. However the only true zero emission hydrogen is that made from renewable electricity."

No blue hydrogen, please—it is a fig leaf to keep burning fossil fuels. They claim that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is always partial, and "its emissions can be as bad or even worse than simply burning fossil fuels." This will be the hardest pill to swallow: There is so much money behind blue hydrogen these days, even though it barely exists.

"Deploy green hydrogen for hard to decarbonise sectors, starting with where grey hydrogen is used today."

As noted above, we are using a lot of hydrogen now and will need more in the future for industrial processes like making steel. We should be putting our green hydrogen to work here first.

"Hydrogen shouldn't be used to delay deploying electrification alternatives available today, such as in heating and transport."

As the fun tweet shows, making green hydrogen isn't very efficient, compared to using electricity directly: "Heating buildings with boilers using green hydrogen takes about six times more electricity than using electric heat pumps."

"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."

This is what is being proposed by gas utilities in Europe and North America, but it makes no sense; you need so much more of it because of its lower energy content. We are using high-quality energy to get low-temperature results. As engineer Robert Bean says, it is like warming your hands with a blowtorch.

It is a straightforward manifesto that is easy to understand, as are most of the other backup documents such as "Hydrogen for aircraft – number-crunching the solution, or the hoax," which did a more convincing job munching the numbers on hydrogen fuel than I did last year.

Hydrogen Ratings

Energy Cities

Adrian Hiel of Energy Cities, who developed the original Energy Ladder explaining where hydrogen was useful and where it wasn't, had a look at the coalition's documents and tells Treehugger:

"I am really impressed with what the H2 Science Coalition brings to the hydrogen debate. They don't pretend to have all the answers of where hydrogen will be used but explain really clearly where we should focus our efforts and which sectors (like heating and road transport) where the physics just aren't going to work. I hope politicians are paying attention to these experts rather than the boiler and car salespeople who are trying to protect profit margins at the expense of the energy transition."

The five founders of the Hydrogen Science Coalition—Bernard van Dijk, David Cebon, Jochen Bard, Tom Baxter, and Paul Martin—are all scientists and lecturers volunteering their time. They will have a challenge; look at who they are up against. In Europe, companies like Shell call hydrogen "sunshine in a bottle" and, of course, there is the boiler (gas furnaces for home heating) and car salespeople.

Companies behind H2 Report
Companies behind H2 Report.

H2 Science Coalition

This is what they are up against. It's the list of companies behind the recent "Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy" that described hydrogen as "an energy vector that can be transported and stored, and a fuel for the transportation sector, heating of buildings and providing heat and feedstock to industry." There's serious money out there peddling hydrogen.

Much of the hydrogen hype is about what Alex Steffen calls predatory delay: "the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime." As I noted earlier, it is not delay from the absence of action, but delay as a plan of action—a way of keeping things the way they are for the people who are benefiting now, at the expense of the next and future generations.

The Hydrogen Science Coalition offers an alternative. It says it will "provide briefings, access to data and work as a credible resource grounded in unbiased evidence." I hope that it is kept very, very busy.

View Article Sources
  1. "Hydrogen From Coal." Coal Age, 2021.

  2. "Hydrogen." International Energy Agency.