Why Is There So Much Hype Over Hydrogen?

It is reaching new levels of silliness, especially in Europe.

Nespresso Hydrogen Trucks
Nespresso Hydrogen Powered Trucks.


Nespresso is now making deliveries in Switzerland with hydrogen-powered trucks, built by Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility. They are filled with "green" hydrogen produced by Alpiq in Gösgen, Switzerland, using clean hydropower.

Pierre Logez, Nespresso’s logistics manager, says in a statement: “Thanks to this revolutionary eco-mobile technology, it is possible to reduce CO2 emission by transporting our Nespresso coffees and products. Next time you are on the road, look out because you might just spot our beautiful Nespresso green hydrogen truck.”

This is notable because we have long complained that coffee pods are the poster child for unsustainable design, expensive little pods that are the ultimate triumph of convenience over sensibility. For years, Nespresso has done everything they could to greenwash them with recycling programs, turning them into art, and we even once showed them being turned into batteries.

But nothing could change the basic fact that it takes a lot of energy and material to package a spoonful of coffee. And most of them go to the dump or the incinerator because the operative word here was convenience.

All of Europe Is Hyping Hydrogen

erman Economy Minister Peter Altmaier
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier announcing hydrogen strategy.

Pool/ Getty Images

Now Nespresso has hopped on the hydrogen bandwagon, which seems to be happening all over Europe. The German government just announced that it is investing $9.78 million in 62 hydrogen projects. Germany's energy minister Peter Altmaier said in a press release: “We want to become number 1 in the world in hydrogen technologies." Meanwhile, Germany's federal transport minister, Andreas Scheuer says: “We are making Germany a hydrogen country. In doing so, we are rethinking mobility - from the energy system and drive technologies to the fueling infrastructure."

Minister Scheuer continued:

"At present, traffic is still more than 95 percent dependent on the use of fossil fuels. We therefore urgently need mobility that relies on renewable energies. Green hydrogen and fuel cells are - across all modes of transport - a great addition to pure battery vehicles. The fact is: we must and WANT to urgently promote the switch to climate-friendly mobility. In order to cover all areas of mobility with zero-emission solutions, we need technology openness. That is why we also support fuel cell technology as well as vehicle and component manufacturers, so as not to miss the boat internationally. Today we are taking a giant step towards climate-friendly mobility."

In France, the Eiffel Tower was covered with the words “Le Paris de l’hydrogène” with the French finance minister Bruno Le Maire tweeting: "For the first time in history, the Eiffel Tower was lit with hydrogen!”

We have expressed some skepticism about hydrogen on Treehugger, and are not alone. Energy expert Michael Liebreich, the founder of energy research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told Yahoo News: "They took electricity and generated hydrogen, with a 50 percent [energy] loss, then used the hydrogen to generate electricity with another 25 percent loss, and then lit up the Eiffel Tower — they literally took electricity to make the hydrogen to make electricity with a 75 percent loss — just to be able to say that they’ve lit up the Eiffel Tower with hydrogen!"

Energy Ladder

Adrian Hiel/ Michael Liebreich

Liebreich expands on the energy ladder created by Adrian Hiel of Energy Cities (seen on Treehugger here), showing that hydrogen makes sense for a lot of things, including making ammonia for fertilizers and replacing coke in steel production. Powering cars and vans are right down there at the bottom of the list, along with domestic heating. (Treehugger's car guy Jim Motavilli has a different opinion.)

As Hiel told Treehugger last year:

"Technically hydrogen can do just about anything but realistically there are very few things it can do better than direct electrification. Anyone expecting hydrogen to become a ubiquitous and cheap commodity is going to be disappointed."

At the time of writing, the words "hydrogen" and "hype" are showing up everywhere. Michael Barnard, chief strategist at TFIE Strategy Inc., recently wrote that hype and hydrogen starting with the same letters isn’t a coincidence. He notes—as Hiel and Liebreich have—that hydrogen has its uses, but that the use of hydrogen for grid energy storage or home heating makes no sense. And, notwithstanding what the German ministers say: "Hydrogen for ground transportation has already lost...Hydrogen cars are dead on arrival, having been vastly outcompeted by electric cars. Hydrogen buses failed, and battery electric buses are dominant."

Hydrogen Is Not "Sunshine In a Bottle"

That's how Janice Lin, founder of the Green Hydrogen Coalition, described hydrogen at a Shell-sponsored conference. She explained:

"You would always use renewable electricity if you could use it in that moment because it is instantaneous, but by converting that renewable electricity through electrolysis into a storable fuel, you are bottling this sunshine and now you can dispatch it whenever you need it so it enables us to take really low-cost abundant renewable electricity and extract value out of it."

But as Barnard notes, "compressing flammable physical substances and putting them on ships has a limited runway." It is difficult and inefficient as a storage medium: "Hydrogen is incredibly lossy as a store of electricity, and there’s no way to square that circle."

He has advice for the media which includes:

  • Never reference the "hydrogen economy" without quote marks indicating its intentional use in the 2020s as a PR item.
  • Never reference "blue hydrogen" without quote marks and a phrase indicating that it’s a greenwashing term used by the fossil fuel industry.

See our guide to the colors of hydrogen here. I would add that if you ever hear the phrase "sunshine in a bottle" you should run from the room.

So Why Now?

Hydrogen Hype

Corporate Europe Observatory

A recent report produced by the Corporate Europe Observatory and other nonprofits explains the forces pushing for hydrogen, including "blue" hydrogen that's made from natural gas. They found that "the hydrogen lobby, whose main players are fossil gas companies, declared a combined annual expenditure of €58.6 million trying to influence Brussels policy-making, although this is suspected to be a gross underestimate."

"The EU’s oversized fossil gas network has been rebranded by industry as Europe’s future ‘Hydrogen Backbone’, blending small amounts of hydrogen into existing gas pipelines in the short-term, and repurposing them for hydrogen in the longer-term. The European Commission appears to support industry plans, which would give a green light to companies building and operating fossil gas infrastructure to carry on as before."

It's likely all a buildup to the German announcement, which is a very big deal. As economist Maurits Kuypers notes in Innovation Origins, "It is a form of industrial politics." We've seen the same kind of industrial politics in Canada recently, with the government's hydrogen plan, which we called "a political strategy, not an energy strategy."

2019 Sankey

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy's Sankey diagrams we recently showed on Treehugger show petroleum and natural gas supplied 68.8% of the energy consumed in the U.S. There is a lot of money behind that. The industry wants to keep people buying energy that comes in pipes rather than using free stuff like sunshine and wind. As we noted before, the only people who benefit from the hydrogen economy are the oil and petrochemical companies that make the stuff.

Shell, Exxon, and Chevron all took a beating recently in climate battles. Hydrogen is their get-out-of-jail card. We may just be at the beginning of a much larger hydrogen hype cycle, with Nespresso leading the way.