Hurdles to hydrogen: the pragmatic and public cases against the fuel 

Hydrogen is increasingly becoming a pillar of national decarbonisation plans but still faces pragmatic hurdles to its implementation as a genuinely clean fuel. Annabel Cossins- Smith investigates whether it can move past these obstacles to make a real difference. 

Hydrogen fuel has become increasingly central to national net-zero plans across the world. Credit: petrmalinak via Shutterstock

focus has begun to settle on hydrogen as a new fuel alternative. Since the start of the decade, governments around the world have tabled legislation and road maps seeking to ramp up hydrogen production as a way to decarbonise industry and meet national net-zero targets.

At the end of last year, the EU finally came to an agreement on its long-awaited hydrogen policy after fraught negotiations between the European Council and Parliament. The final draft received mixed reactions. Jerzy Buzek, lead MEP in the negotiations, said that the deal was the first of its kind in history. Others were more sceptical, with some European think tanks criticising the agreement as unclear and out of sync with climate ambitions.

Some member states have now made the development of hydrogen the backbone of their climate plans. Germany, for example, updated its national hydrogen strategy last year after much anticipation. Originally unveiled in 2020, the updated hydrogen plan doubled previous government targets for domestic electrolyser capacity to 10GW by the end of the decade, leading demand for hydrogen in Germany to reach 95–130 terawatt-hours over the next six years. In February this year, the EU approved almost €6.9bn ($7.43bn) in state aid to support Germany and six other member nations with the development of hydrogen infrastructure.

The US also tabled a draft version of its National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap at the end of 2022 in a bid to provide economic and developmental structure for the fledgling industry. Indeed, most nations now have some form of hydrogen framework as part of their overall net-zero plans. However, obstacles, from the fundamental viability of the fuel to public acceptance, still stand in the way of its commercialisation.

Hyping up hydrogen

Perhaps governments have recently pushed hydrogen with such fervour because its uses are, to its merit, diverse, and it is relatively easy to make. Once produced, hydrogen can be used either in its gaseous form as an alternative to natural gas or liquified for use in vehicles or homes, burned directly to generate energy. Unlike fossil fuels, burning hydrogen produces no emissions. Its only waste products are heat and water so pure that it is actually drinkable. It can also be fed into fuel cells and catalysed using chemical reactions to produce electricity, a process that is also clean at the point of consumption.

But not all hydrogen is made equal, and its marketing as a ‘clean’ or ‘low-carbon’ fuel becomes murky when its different methods of production are considered. While true ‘green’ hydrogen – produced through electrolysis powered by renewable energy – has the potential to be an entirely clean, emissions-free fuel, most of the world’s hydrogen today is produced from steam reforming methane, which is usually sourced from natural gas. This remains a highly polluting process that has often attracted accusations of greenwashing. Several key studies conducted in recent years have found that ‘blue’ hydrogen – made from natural gas with CO₂ emissions ostensibly caught and stored underground through carbon capture and storage (CCS) – is even more polluting overall than its fossil fuel counterparts.

Keen interest from oil and gas companies in the production of blue hydrogen has added fuel to the controversy over hydrogen’s viability as a green fuel. The infrastructure required to make and transport the fuel overlaps heavily with that already used by the fossil fuel industry, and its dependence on CCS technology, already pushed heavily by Big Oil, makes blue hydrogen an interesting prospect. Meanwhile, the oil and gas sector’s active disinterest in green hydrogen has raised questions.

Not all hydrogen is made equal, and its marketing as a ‘clean’ or ‘low-carbon’ fuel becomes murky when its different methods of production are considered.

Costs are, unsurprisingly, a key factor in the industry’s preference for blue or grey hydrogen over green. Roy Calder, industry principle for oil and gas at software company Aveva, explains that green hydrogen is approximately six to seven-times more expensive to manufacture than grey hydrogen and around three to four-times more expensive than blue hydrogen. “You can make it [hydrogen] quite easily,” he says. “We have all seen the experiments at school.” However, green hydrogen specifically, he clarifies, is “only really taking off in regions that have access to either a lot of wind, such as the east coast of America, or parts of the world that see a lot of sun, like Australia, Portugal, Spain.”

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University and co-author of a study on blue hydrogen’s shortfalls, has previously warned that anything other than green hydrogen is “largely a marketing creation by the oil and gas industry that has been hugely overhyped”. Only true green hydrogen can be considered useful in the race to net zero, he emphasises.

Besides viability issues and claims of greenwashing, the nascent industry faces another challenge. While governments and private companies move to boost supply of the fuel, which has not yet become as mainstream as its zero-emissions electric counterpart, in some countries public opposition to hydrogen has emerged as a seemingly immovable hurdle to its implementation at the everyday consumer level.

“A fickle beast”: public sentiment towards hydrogen

The UK is a notable example of, as Calder describes, not only “severely lacking” hydrogen policies and subsidies incentives “compared with other parts of Europe and the US” but also ongoing public opposition that is stunting the sector’s growth. The government has attempted to force acceptance through several ambitious hydrogen heating projects, trials that would see entire towns’ heating systems converted from gas to hydrogen, although none have successfully made it through the planning stage.

At the end of 2022 and into the beginning of last year, residents in a small English town called Whitby, which sits in Cheshire just outside Ellesmere Port, began to campaign against potential plans to use their homes as part of a new government hydrogen heating trial. Initial plans had selected 2,000 households in the village to use as part of the project. Later this changed, with gas company Cadent, which was set to oversee the trial, suggesting that it would apply for permission to use up to 10,000 homes in a move that would see the town turned into the UK’s first “hydrogen village”.

Locals had complained that they were “being forced” to use hydrogen in their homes if plans went ahead, with no way to refuse involvement in decarbonisation schemes. Opposition to the notion was palpable. One resident said: “No one is questioning that we need to move away from natural gas but what many of us are saying is, experts know that hydrogen is not the long-term replacement for home heating. I will not be letting the emperor sell me his new clothes.” Eventually in the middle of July, the government scrapped the Whitby trial altogether. Energy minister Martin Callanan said that after listening to the views of residents, it was “clear that there is no strong local support”.

What we see more and more with these projects, when you talk about hydrogen to the public, there is instantly a safety concern.

Simultaneously, a second town, Redcar in North Yorkshire, was being considered as the top candidate for the project. Callanan said at the time of the Whitby U-turn that the government was still “likely” to progress the trial in Redcar. In November, energy secretary Clair Coutinho doubled down on this, suggesting she was “minded to approve” the scheme despite ongoing opposition from locals. Plans seemed almost certain to go ahead – but not even one month after Coutinho’s statement, the Redcar trial was abandoned altogether after months of protests from residents.

“What we see more and more with these projects, when you talk about hydrogen to the public, there is instantly a safety concern,” Calder says, because “everything about hydrogen goes back to the Hindenburg explosion”, referring to the 1937 disaster in which a huge airship, inflated using hydrogen, caught fire and was quickly destroyed as it floated above New Jersey in the US, killing scores of passengers and crew.

An immovable association between hydrogen and danger, of an uncontainable explosiveness, seems to be barring the public from trusting the fuel enough to have it running through their towns and into their homes, despite evidence suggesting that hydrogen is less dangerous than other fuels we use today when handled properly. “It really is just the fear factor,” Calder continues. “Everybody is scared of everything nowadays, so the industry itself has to win the hearts and minds of the public – but it is a fickle beast.”

“Not dead yet”: the future of hydrogen as a source of clean energy

“They [the public] don’t understand it,” says Paul Bignardi, principal transport planner at San Francisco’s public transport operator. “Is it really that dangerous? If it is handled incorrectly, it can be very dangerous, but if it is done well and the public were to support it, it would probably operate just fine.” Bignardi speaks from his decades of experience in public transport planning in San Francisco, which has now electrified almost all of its public transport. He thinks that people trust what they know, and that is why electrification as a decarbonisation method has taken off so spectacularly over the last decade while hydrogen has not.

“Electric operation is a known quantity. It is also more straightforward in a lot of ways. For example, take the electric motor. We have electric motors everywhere, in your own house, your mixer has an electric motor, or your drill in your garage. People have lots of experience with how they work, how they are designed. There are differences, of course, but the basic concept is the same. By comparison, a hydrogen fuel cell is a whole different thing, it is a lot more difficult to engineer and figure out.”

Hydrogen as a source of low-carbon heating has its own electrical counterpart that has been better received by the public in the UK and elsewhere: the heat pump. After multiple failed attempts to galvanise support for the fuel, hydrogen’s viability as an alternate heat source might have hit a wall, at least in the UK. The day before it scrapped the Redcar trial, the government announced its formal backing for plans to ban the installation of gas and ‘hydrogen ready’ boilers as part of a drive to ramp up uptake of heat pumps, bringing attempts to trial “hydrogen villages” to a seemingly abrupt end.

While public sentiment towards the fuel might be poor and, according to the industry, policy generally insufficient, the UK has already set in motion several hydrogen plant projects, all of which remain in the early stages of development. The HyNet project is one of the biggest of these, set to be a sprawling production and distribution network that will span parts of the north-west of England and northern Wales, delivering hydrogen to industrial businesses in the region.

The UK has already set in motion several hydrogen plant projects, all of which remain in the early stages of development.

The UK Government has also given the green light to several new plans for major hydrogen projects this year alone, including a 350MW plant at one of the country’s last remaining oil refineries, also in Cheshire, and a 600MW plant in the Humber region in east Yorkshire. All of these new projects will produce blue hydrogen, however.

In the end, changes from the status quo are necessary if hydrogen is to be commercialised in a way that translates to meaningful climate action. Relying on CCS as a way to maintain a ‘low-carbon’ label could come at a cost. Repeated warnings from scientists and research groups, as well as evidence from projects already in operation, that the technology is still not where it needs to be to meaningfully reduce emissions from polluting processes does not instil hope for the hydrogen industry. Calder insists that CCS will “always be part of it [hydrogen] because of the very nature of our power industry” in countries like the UK and US, although, he concedes, this may not be the answer for the future of hydrogen.

If Bignardi is right, perhaps public sentiment towards the fuel will change as time goes on and familiarity eases distrust, but even if this hurdle is overcome, the issue of viability as a genuine source of clean energy will remain as long as blue hydrogen exists. Even with effective implementation of CCS, the possibility of methane leaks remains high, and dependence on gas as an original source leaves the door ajar for continued oil and gas expansion in the name of decarbonisation. Many outside the fossil fuel lobby believe that true green hydrogen can be the only worthwhile way forwards for the fuel.

“It is not dead yet. It could still win the day,” Bignardi says, but concludes that it is “not looking promising”.