Hydrogen: is it promising for the future of energy, what is green hydrogen and are there any downsides?

Hydrogen is on the scene as a promising source of energy to cut carbon emissions - but is it the answer to help prevent climate change?

Hydrogen has been put forward as a sparkling potential for a more renewable source of energy.

Various companies have begun trialling its use, for example at the COP26 summit a new hydrogen powered NHS ambulance was unveiled and big oil company Shell is trialling a green hydrogen production in Germany.

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Even hydrogen trains and double-decker buses are gaining popularity in the UK.

It could play a major role in the next few decades and has been highlighted as a possible solution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

But, is hydrogen going to become the favoured source of renewable energy in the future or does it have limitations that are being overlooked?

How is it produced and what is green hydrogen?

Blue and green hydrogen are classed as low-carbon and are the two types gaining traction.

The blue can be produced by being extracted from fossil gas using carbon capture technology to trap the climate emissions which are released.

Green hydrogen is made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity.

The most environmentally-friendly is green hydrogen because it can be produced using renewable energy and does not produce any harmful emissions.

Although questions have been raised at how meaningful its role is in cutting emissions.

Creating blue hydrogen could generate 20% more emissions over its life cycle than burning natural gas, and possibly even more, research from academics at Cornell and Stanford Universities found.

GreenPeace UK have also spotlighted the issues of using hydrogen as a replacement for the likes of oil.

A spokesperson for GreenPeace UK said: “It is not an energy source the way oil, coal, the sun or the wind are, it is an energy carrier, like a battery.

“There are no natural reserves of hydrogen, and so it has to be produced by ‘cracking’ water into hydrogen and oxygen, and that takes a lot of energy, or by coal gasification (brown hydrogen) or steam methane reforming (SMR) of natural gas (grey hydrogen).”

Is hydrogen the key to cutting carbon dioxide emissions?

National Grid highly advocates the use of hydrogen as it “provides a flexible, storable source of energy with no carbon emissions at the point of use.”

National Grid have recently set up a project called FutureGrid to build a new hydrogen test facility in Cumbria, in order to improve the understanding of how hydrogen can be used to heat homes and deliver green energy to industry.

The electricity and gas company points out that hydrogen would significantly decrease carbon dioxide emissions.

“Even if a 20% hydrogen blend was rolled out across the country (say, in the early years of conversion), it could save around six million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year – the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road,” Antony Green, Hydrogen Director at National Grid, said.

Mr Green added that if the energy delivered by the National Transmission System to Great Britain which “equates to around 165.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide” was “replaced with green hydrogen, generated from renewable energy, all those carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided.”

Mr Green also supports the use of blue hydrogen as if it replaces natural gas “153.18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided each year,” he said.

Despite GreenPeace UK dispelling positives on hydrogen, the organisation does recognise hydrogen “will have some very important uses in the future, perhaps including heavy goods vehicles, and ships.”

A GreenPeace UK spokesperson said: “We will definitely need it for making steel, as the Hybrit process is currently the only low-carbon steel technology likely to replace coking coal as the fuel for steel production.”

What are the downsides to using hydrogen?

While hydrogen is being trialled in the UK and across the world, there are already negatives to its use.

“It has to be stored and transported at around -250C under high compression, which makes it very dangerous in several different ways, and expensive to deal with,” GreenPeace UK said.

There are also huge downsides to blue hydrogen despite gas companies “pushing” for its use, according to GreenPeace.

The gas will still come “from the same leaky platforms, through the same leaky pipelines to the same leaky refineries as any other gas” which “will have heavily polluted the atmosphere before it ever reaches the hydrogen plant,” the organisation said.

GreenPeace UK also pointed out that “blue hydrogen requires more gas to produce the same end-use energy, and the extra methane leakage is greater than the CO2 captured.”

The GreenPeace spokesperson added: “Switching to blue hydrogen without first fixing the majority of gas leaks would not be of any help in saving the climate, and may make the situation worse.

“Put simply, only green hydrogen is green.”

Will it replace oil in the future?

Despite its recent developments in trialling hydrogen, National Grid Hydrogen Director Antony Green said, “there is no plan to make hydrogen the dominant fuel source in the future, and the world is only just starting to scope out the potential of hydrogen as a mainstream fuel.”

However, the electricity company sees “hydrogen being part of a myriad of potential solutions.”

In order for hydrogen to be more widely used “an effective funding model is critical to enable the investment needed in hydrogen networks,” Mr Green said.

Mr Green notes that uncertainty from customers on the use of hydrogen will affect how popular its future use will be and is “an additional challenge.”

“Research conducted for National Grid showed that consumers view hydrogen as a viable option but want to be reassured that it is safe, and that their bills will not increase more than they would otherwise,” Mr Green added.

“We believe that the transition to a truly green economy will require a diverse mix of technologies, including hydrogen and low carbon gases playing vitally important roles in the decarbonisation of transport, power, heating and industry.”

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