The Truth About Blue Hydrogen: Green Fuel or Greenwash?
In this article, FracTracker Alliance Research and Project Management Fellow Ashley Kosak examines misconceptions about blue hydrogen and its role in transitioning to clean energy.
Blue hydrogen is often marketed as a clean and sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels, but is it really as environmentally friendly as it claims to be? In this article, we will discuss blue hydrogen and claims about its environmental impact, as well as the potential of hydrogen fuel cells as a clean and efficient source of power. By examining these factors, we will shed light on the true environmental performance of blue hydrogen and whether it has a place in the transition to a sustainable energy future.
The Colors of Hydrogen
To differentiate between different types of hydrogen, colors are assigned to the hydrogen depending on how the hydrogen is produced. “Gray” hydrogen, which accounts for the majority of U.S. hydrogen production, is produced through a process called steam methane reforming. Steam methane reforming uses natural gas as a feedstock to convert methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. If the carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of this process is captured and stored by way of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the hydrogen is termed “blue hydrogen” according to the hydrogen color code.
|green||renewable energy and electricity via electrolysis of water |
|turquoise||thermal splitting of methane via methane pyrolysis ,|
|blue||produced via hydrocarbons; requires CCS networks |
|gray||fossil hydrocarbons, mainly steam reforming of natural gas ,|
|brown or black||coal |
|purple or pink or red||produced without electrolysis of water ; hydrogen storages; nuclear power|
|yellow||produced by photovoltaic ; low level hydrogen in photovoltaic|
|gold||hydrogen that occurs naturally deep within the Earth’s crust; obtained by mining |
|white||medical hydrogen; refers to naturally occurring hydrogen |
Table 1. Color codes, or nicknames, for hydrogen are used within the energy industry to differentiate between the types of hydrogen according to their production methods.
Hydrogen Life Cycle Analysis
Life cycle analysis is a tool used to assess the environmental impact of a product or process over its entire life, from the extraction of raw materials to the disposal of waste products.
In considering the total impact of blue hydrogen, a complete life cycle analysis would evaluate the environmental impact of extracting natural gas feedstock, transporting materials, steam methane reforming, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and the end use of the produced hydrogen.
So what is the actual environmental impact of blue hydrogen? Recent analyses suggest blue hydrogen could be worse than simply burning natural gas. According to a peer-reviewed study published in 2021, “the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat.”
Industry has countered concerns about carbon pollution associated with the hydrogen life cycle by touting technology to capture and store carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of manufacturing hydrogen. However, not only has carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology not been proven at scale, it promotes continued use of carbon-intensive resources and “locks in emissions” by extending the life of industrial processes that should ultimately be decommissioned.
The Hype About Hydrogen
Evidence clearly indicates that the marketing hype surrounding blue hydrogen as a clean energy source is based on false and misleading claims – also known as greenwashing – partially based on unproven assumptions about the long-term viability of carbon capture and storage. More importantly, despite the false pretense that blue hydrogen is carbon-neutral, producing blue hydrogen is actually a carbon-intensive process that perpetuates our reliance on fossil fuels, and therefore provides little or no benefit for transitioning to a carbon-free future.
Transitioning to hydrogen sustainably is predicated by the eventual widespread adoption of “green” hydrogen produced through electrolysis of water using renewable energy sources (see Table 1). Because it does not use fossil fuels as a feedstock, the production of green hydrogen neither produces carbon dioxide emissions nor perpetuates fossil fuel extraction.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
As hydrogen development progresses, there may be other viable alternatives. Hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that converts hydrogen gas into electricity through a chemical reaction, have some distinct advantages over traditional fossil fuel-based power sources. They are highly efficient, produce electricity with little to no emissions, and can be refueled quickly and easily. Fuel cells are already used in a variety of applications, including as a source of power for vehicles, such as cars and buses, as well as for stationary power generation in homes and businesses.
However, there are also limitations to the use of hydrogen fuel cells. One of the main challenges is the infrastructure needed to support their use. In order for fuel cells to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, a comprehensive network of hydrogen fuel stations and other support infrastructure must be developed. This is an area that is currently being explored and developed, but it is not yet fully established. Additionally, the cost of hydrogen fuel cells and the associated infrastructure can be high, making them less accessible to some individuals and communities
The Take Away
In conclusion, while blue hydrogen could be misconstrued as a step in the right direction compared to traditional hydrogen production methods, which do not capture the carbon emissions, it is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Some research suggests that the process is even worse for the climate than simply burning gas for energy. Alternatively, green hydrogen has the potential to be a completely emissions-free source of hydrogen and provides an opportunity for the storage of excess energy produced from renewable sources.
However, there would be a higher benefit for the current energy needs of communities through dedicating resources towards renewable energy conversion and direct usage within the electrical grid. Going forward, it is important to be aware of the limitations of different types of hydrogen and not to fall for false or misleading claims about its environmental benefits.
References & Where to Learn More
- Read more from FracTracker about the role of hydrogen in our energy future
- Listen to the interview with Ashely Kosak about hydrogen on EcoJustice Radio
- Learn more about the Department of Energy’s strategy for hydrogen technology
- View a panel discussion from the Ohio River Valley Institute on the potential impacts of a hydrogen hub in Western Pennsylvania
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