Recently, the conversation around hydrogen has polarised. Five years ago, any mention of hydrogen usually resulted in a knee-jerk reference to the 85-year-old Hindenburg airship disaster.

Today, it is rife with clumsy analogies and basic hydrogen production efficiency calculations. But why not think in terms of efficiencies? Surely there must be a clear physics-based answer to what we should and shouldn’t do with hydrogen?

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Well, as with most things in life, it’s a little more complicated than that — and as forecasters we must consider more than the most basic efficiency calculations when discussing something as complex as an energy system.

Let’s take the example of hydrogen as a replacement for the natural gas used for domestic heating and cooking.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the (now ex) UK energy secretary, recently said that excess electricity produced by wind power could be used to produce hydrogen that would then be used to heat people’s homes. This is certainly true. It could. Ask any engineer. But should it be done? Probably not.

UK gas demand exceeds 800TWh a year and during cold snaps can reach daily peaks of 5TWh. To give you an idea of the scale, 800TWh would power a hairdryer for approximately 46,000 years. That’s a lot of hot air.

To make that much hydrogen would require more than double the current global renewables capacity just for UK gas demand. If the UK is to decarbonise quickly that isn’t a viable option.

Then why is the UK considering this? The answer is that it isn’t. The hydrogen in question would actually come from natural-gas reforming, not electrolysis, making any comparison to the global renewables capacity a moot point.

The argument for efficiency is strong but ignoring the realities of the inefficient world we live in serves no purpose other than to polarise the conversation.

Major studies from gas producers and gas grid operators have, unsurprisingly, concluded it is achievable using reformed natural gas with the CO2 stored underground.

But should it be done? Again, probably not. Why? Because building renewables and installing insulation and heat pumps would be far cheaper according to a review of independent studies not conducted by interested parties (gas or heat pump producers). It’s a question of efficiency.

So again, we ask: why is the UK seriously considering this? The answer is that decisions are not taken based solely on efficiency calculations (or in this case, the overwhelming scientific evidence) and the UK has a strong gas lobby, and a pro-natural-gas government.

So, there is more at play here than just some simple efficiency calculations. When it comes to forecasting there is a real danger of conflating what will and won’t happen with what should and shouldn’t.

Let’s look at another example: the Orkney islands off northern Scotland. With fantastic renewable wind and tidal resources, Orkney should, based on efficiency, electrify everything.

Except that they aren’t. They are producing hydrogen and using it for fuel in road vehicles, and planning to power ferries and short-range passenger aircraft and heat buildings in the near future. Why? Because Orkney has a huge renewable resource that can’t currently be exported but can be used on demand if it is converted to hydrogen.

So again, we see that at certain scales, in certain geographies and in certain demand/supply balances, hydrogen use in multiple sectors suddenly makes sense despite the basic inefficiencies.

This is because the benefits of energy storage are hard (but not impossible) to calculate and do not get quantified in 99% of the efficiency calculations floating around online. Neither do the costs of doing nothing and wasting renewable energy potential.

In cases where there is a large, high-quality renewable resource that is not being utilised due to a lack of local demand, the case to transport the energy becomes interesting.

Various studies have looked at the distances involved and whether it makes more sense to send it via cables as electricity or convert it to hydrogen and send it down a pipeline. This sounds like it would be an easy decision, but again geographical, infrastructural, political, and market considerations need to be accounted for.

Perhaps a cable or pipeline with spare capacity already exists and influences the decision. The Xlinks project between Morocco and the UK opted for brand new cables. But perhaps a link between Tunisia and the EU would opt for hydrogen due to existing pipeline connections and the political weight of REPowerEU. In these cases, doing nothing would be less efficient than doing something.

This supply/demand consideration becomes more prominent when we step outside of Europe towards nations like Japan and Australia, who are currently trialling (extremely polluting and coal-derived) liquid hydrogen shipments between the two nations. The Japan/Australia example is heavily influenced by politics and lobbying and as forecasters our job is to understand why it happened and how it will develop, not to simply write it off as inefficient and deny its existence.

Rather than endlessly revise reference lists of hydrogen dos and don’ts, we need to put in the work at a project and regional level to understand how this complex system of variables leads to decisions on whether hydrogen is produced and used or not.

This not only involves efficiency of production, but also scale, availability of other options, demand changes, benefits of storage, geographical considerations, carbon pricing mechanisms, and politics.

The argument for efficiency is strong but ignoring the realities of the inefficient world we live in serves no purpose other than to polarise the conversation.

Hydrogen is unlikely to dominate future energy systems but ignoring technological advances and making bold, unquantifiable statements about how certain regions will never import green hydrogen at scale, or that liquid hydrogen will never be shipped when it already is, contributes nothing.

Forecasters should be more precise with their language and consider all the variables when analysing complex future energy systems, not just efficiency. It turns out that hydrogen, and its many colours, is far from black and white.

Jonny Scafidi is a senior data analyst at Rystad Energy, working on hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and industry.