Is hydrogen really the Holy Grail of green energy?

Driven by severe price shocks in the oil and gas market combined with the urgent need for low-carbon fuels to stave off a climate crisis, hydrogen is being aggressively promoted as a cure for climate and energy security concerns. Producers, investors and policymakers all are rallying around the prospect of an environmentally friendly solution that can be made using renewable energy or natural gas. While hydrogen offers an important opportunity, we must be cautious about its potential downsides.

The Biden administration’s $8 billion plan for up to 10 regional hydrogen hubs — “one of the largest investments in [Department of Energy] history” — is just the tip of the iceberg. Germany and other European countries are considering importing mass quantities of hydrogen to offset Russian gas. All told, at least $600 billion worth of hydrogen projects have been announced worldwide.

You are reading: Is hydrogen really the Holy Grail of green energy?

And there is good reason for the focus here. Hydrogen does present a unique alternative for hard to decarbonize sectors and there is optimism that this new technology can provide real solutions in our fight against climate change.

At the same time, there are at least three reasons for concern. First, recent science suggests that the degree of climate benefit — if any at all — will depend heavily on where and how the hydrogen is produced and used.

One challenge is that hydrogen has powerful warming effects when it escapes to the atmosphere, a fact even many experts have overlooked. And because hydrogen is a small molecule, it’s particularly hard to keep it contained in the plumbing needed to transport and store it.

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Research published this year by scientists from Environmental Defense Fund and elsewhere also concludes that the true warming power of hydrogen is two to six times greater than standard estimates. That means we’ve been systematically underestimating an important side effect.

At minimum, we need to be investing in technology and practices to find and stop hydrogen leaks from any new infrastructure. And we should be very wary of plans to move hydrogen through existing natural gas lines, which study after study have shown to be highly leak prone.

Another issue is production. Standard methods for making hydrogen today are dirty and energy intensive, far worse for the climate than fossil fuels. Hydrogen can also be made using renewable energy to strip away oxygen molecules from water — leaving just the H in H20 — or derived from natural gas where at least 90 percent of the resulting CO2 captured and supply chain methane emissions minimized.

These methods account for all but a small fraction of the market today. Analysts at Carbon Tracker report that governments and private investors in 25 countries have announced over $70 billion in funding for green hydrogen since the war in Ukraine began, which has spurred significant energy uncertainty. That increased investment is good news. So far, though, most of that exists only on paper; we’re still a long way from production at scale.

Finally, the question nobody seems to be asking is where hydrogen fits in an overall energy strategy. Decoupling our electric grid from fossil fuels and, in turn, using green electricity to replace fossil fuels to power personal transportation, homes and businesses is the core to any viable decarbonization plan.

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But for aviation, maritime shipping and other heavy transport, as well as energy-intensive industries like steel, cement and petrochemicals, green electricity cannot carry the load by itself.

Both the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency identify hydrogen as a fuel for these sectors and feedstock for other fuels and chemicals we need to displace fossil fuels. But it makes no sense to plow private capital or public subsidies into hydrogen applications where green electricity can do the job faster, cleaner, and more efficiently. 

In the race to achieve both energy and climate security, we have neither money nor time to waste. For hydrogen to deliver on its potential, we need to make it without harmful climate pollution; ensure that producers and users monitor, measure, and eliminate leaks; as well as focus our hydrogen investment on the cases where it’s needed most — not those where clear alternatives are more economically and environmentally competitive.

Opportunities like this don’t come along every day. Let’s get this one right.

Mark Brownstein is senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, and a member of EDF’s executive team.

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