Conversations about the energy transition almost inevitably come around to the subject of hydrogen. Some see it as a silver bullet or— to borrow an image from Michael Liebreich—a Swiss Army knife of a solution to our decarbonisation challenges. To others, however, including Liebreich himself, it is little more than a distraction from the development and deployment of other low-carbon technologies.
The appeal of incorporating hydrogen—and its derivatives—into today’s energy system is clear. On the face of it, all you need to do is swap one gas (natural fossil gas) for another (hydrogen). However, things are rarely as simple as they seem. Hydrogen comes with a myriad of challenges, which often make it an expensive and wasteful solution.
Direct electrification has long been proven to be the cheaper and more efficient option for most industries and sectors (See FORESIGHT Autumn/Winter 2020). It is from this basis that we begin our investigation into hydrogen, ammonia and other synthetic fuels.
But as we are regularly reminded, the threat of catastrophic climate breakdown grows with every day we continue to use polluting forms of energy—which still dominate in existing hydrogen production. This is why there is a worthwhile conversation to be had about decarbonising the way we make hydrogen. There are also potentially added benefits for hard-to-abate sectors where we cannot wait for direct electrification to provide viable solutions.
This is what we are trying to examine in this, the 17th special print issue of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy. Note how I have not yet touched on the spectrum of different hydrogens—preferring the “low-carbon” descriptor. Green hydrogen, produced using renewable power, is the better option from a climate perspective. But as we learn, blue hydrogen (which uses carbon capture) could be a useful bridge (page 23).
The sectors that might benefit most from the growth of a low-carbon hydrogen industry include shipping (page 46), aviation (page 30) and high-temperature applications (page 38), all of which we cover here. Yet, one common thread throughout is that there will be not just one chosen fuel. An array of options (including direct electrification and biomass-derived fuels) will be required to decarbonise these sectors before 2050. Hydrogen is no silver bullet.
It is also interesting to see the regional differences in the approach to low-carbon hydrogen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States is generally more bullish than its European counterparts (page 68).
What we try to achieve within these pages is to show where hydrogen and other low-carbon derivatives may be helpful to the energy transition–and, indeed, where not (page 6)–and how to use them without hampering direct electrification efforts.
- David Weston, Editor-in-Chief
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