As analyst Michael Liebreich told the hundreds of attendees at the opening of the World Hydrogen Congress in Rotterdam yesterday, it was a brave choice for the organisers to ask him to be the keynote speaker.

“I’ve lived through, I think, five [economic] bubbles in my professional career, and I’m afraid to say I start to recognise the pattern,” the founder of Bloomberg NEF said to a large room filled with hydrogen professionals.

He then read out recent “hyperbolic” quotes from both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — who said that hydrogen will create a “huge boom” and replace the natural gas used today for industry, heating and fuels — and UK energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described H2 as a “silver bullet” that can use excess wind power to produce green hydrogen that will heat Britain’s homes.

The view that hydrogen is a silver bullet or a Swiss Army knife capable of decarbonising everything from heating to transport to heavy industry and power generation is “dangerous”, Liebreich said. “This leads us into bubbles.”

Before we position hydrogen as the solution to climate change, we first have to deal with hydrogen as a problem in climate change

The use of clean hydrogen in a net-zero world would actually be limited, he explained, by the physical properties of the gas; the sheer amount of renewable energy that would be required if green H2 were to decarbonise certain sectors; and the fact that hydrogen is in direct competition with electric options that are likely to be lower-cost and easier.

“You can cut your hair with a Swiss Army knife and you can prune your trees with a Swiss Army knife, and you can replace a tyre on your great Dutch bicycle with a Swiss Army knife, but you don’t. And the reason you don’t is because there’s always something cheaper, safer and easier to use,” Liebreich told the audience.

“Just because you can do something with the hydrogen Swiss Army knife, it doesn’t mean you will. Because you’re in competition, not just with diesel, petrol, coal, gas — you’re also in competition with other clean technologies.

“We will do, as an economy, whatever is cheapest and most convenient. And, hopefully, also clean.”

The bad stuff

The independent analyst, adviser and investor explained that 94 million tonnes of grey and black hydrogen made from unabated natural gas and coal — the “bad stuff”, as he put it — were produced each year, emitting 830 million tonnes of carbon, and that these figures were still rising.

“Before we position hydrogen as the solution to climate change, we first have to deal with hydrogen as a problem in climate change,” he explained.

Just replacing this dirty hydrogen — used mainly in chemicals production and oil refining — with green H2 made from renewable energy would require 143% of all the wind and solar installed globally to date, Liebreich said.

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Add in the other sectors that would probably require green hydrogen or its derivatives to fully decarbonise, such as shipping, steel and long-duration energy storage, and it would require five times all the existing wind and solar installations — and that is before decarbonising the electricity supply or hydrogen use in less hard-to-abate sectors such as heating and road transport.

“What I’m saying here is that the supply chain for renewables is not going to cope if we do anything other than the most essential [uses of hydrogen],” he explained.

“If we do the German steel industry [ie, replacing fossil fuel use with green hydrogen], that takes up 60% of current German wind and solar output.

“If we go to ammonia shipping, it’s 300% of China’s current renewables output. The numbers are staggering.”

Hydrogen’s competition

Liebreich complained that all the use cases for hydrogen that “we read about in the mainstream [news]papers” and for which politicians “get their hard hats on and their hi-vis [jackets]”, such as heating and land vehicles, were more likely to be met with electric solutions.

He displayed images of the internal workings of a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car and a battery electric vehicle (BEV) — the former clearly having a far more complex system.

“Which one’s easier to make?” he asked the audience, rhetorically. “Which one’s easier to maintain, which one’s going to be cheaper?

“And then, of course, you’ve got the cycle inefficiency of going from electricity to [green] hydrogen to electricity, versus [just] electricity.”

He then presented two charts showing historic sales of the two types of zero-emission cars. While sales of BEVs have been in the tens of millions, sales of fuel-cell cars have been negligible — to the point where the second chart appeared blank.

“Fuel-cell vehicles have been around just as long in the market,” Liebreich pointed out, but the low sales volume “is because fuel-cell vehicles are worse vehicles”.

“Buses are going to go the same way,” he added. “Yes, you can do a hydrogen local train, but why would you?”

Liebreich then spoke about the argument that battery-powered long-distance trucks would be too heavy and too difficult to recharge.

“People say, ‘ah, [batteries] will never work for heavy vehicles’. [But] take a 40-tonne truck, take out the engine, take out the gearbox, take out the differential, take out the fuel tank, take out the exhaust system, take out the vibration management stuff, put in some heavy batteries and you end up with [only] a slightly heavier vehicle.

“And all you have to do, particularly in Europe, is drive for four-and-a-half hours, and you have to stop, according to the European working hours directive, for long enough to recharge your battery.”

An alternative viewpoint, put forward by hydrogen proponents, is that supplying enough clean electricity to quickly recharge multiple heavy truck batteries at the same location at the same time would be almost impossible.

Liebreich added that even sales of hydrogen forklift trucks — long seen as a fuel-cell success story — have been negligible compared to the tens of millions of electric forklifts sold.

For heating, heat pumps would require six times less renewable electricity compared to green-hydrogen-fired boilers, he said, pointing out that proponents of H2 for heating “don’t want to talk about the cost and difficulty… [the need to replace] every single [gas-fired] appliance, checking every single pipe...”

And then he told the audience that green hydrogen would never be imported to Europe at scale, even if the nearby Port of Rotterdam was planning to do so.

The volumetric energy density of hydrogen is so low that it would be “like shipping expanded polystyrene”, Liebreich said. “It’s not going to happen.

“You might import green ammonia, you almost certainly will, but it will be used in the chemicals industry. If you think any business, any value chain that goes from electricity to hydrogen to ammonia, to liquefying and shipping it, to expanding it, to then generating electricity — with 22% cycle efficiency, and then the people using that [power] are supposed to compete with the people using electricity at the source country, forget it.

“Sadly, it means Europe is going to lose its energy-intensive industries and we need to get to grips with that politically.”

The outlook for hydrogen-powered aviation was not much better, in Liebreich’s view.

While the 200 tonnes, or 250,000 litres, of jet fuel required to fill a Boeing 747 could, in energy terms, be replaced by 73 tonnes of hydrogen, the H2 fuel tanks “will weight five, six, seven times that”.

“But the biggest problem is the volume. A million litres of hydrogen to have the same energy content — not going to happen, I don’t care what Airbus says.” (The French airplane maker has a long-term programme to produce hydrogen-powered planes).

The situation would be no better for planes fuelled by liquid ammonia, despite its higher volumetric energy density, he added, pointing out that you would get a similar amount of energy flying on wood pellets.

Liebreich also sought to cast doubt on the pro-hydrogen argument that there was not enough lithium or copper available worldwide to meet the demand for batteries or new power lines, pointing out that similar arguments were made in the late 2000s when the price of polysilicon briefly soared when solar-panel production quickly grew, before falling back down as supply grew to meet demand.

“There is no shortage of lithium in the world, there is no shortage of copper in the world, there is no shortage of raw materials for the electrification route,” he said.

However, Liebreich’s speech was not all doom and gloom for the hydrogen industry as huge amounts of green and blue H2 would still be needed — and would be produced at “massive hubs” around the world.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I hate hydrogen... I feel no hatred toward any element on the periodic table. I am thrilled [at the numbers of] people here, serious people [working on clean hydrogen solutions]. And there are great reasons for optimism. The experience curve will do for green hydrogen what it did for solar and wind [power] and what it is doing with batteries.”