It will be another seven years before the world realises that clean hydrogen should only be used to replace the existing 94 millions of tonnes of annual fossil-fuel hydrogen supply and in a handful of other sectors, according to Michael Liebreich, the influential founder of research house BloombergNEF who is now an independent clean-energy analyst, adviser and investor.
“It will take until 2030 to rein in the current bout of hydrogen mania, embark on a real plan to eliminate the 2.3% of [global greenhouse gas] emissions currently caused by the 94 Mt/year of grey & black hydrogen [made from unabated fossil gas and coal, respectively], and target its use on a few otherwise hard-to-decarbonise sectors,” he wrote on Twitter this morning.
“Let me be quite clear — we will need clean hydrogen. But fantasies of a hydrogen economy, hydrogen society and globally traded hydrogen market need to be abandoned. There will be a global market in ammonia, but mainly for fertilisers, chemicals, shipping fuel and some [energy] storage.”
Hydrogen Insight asked him why he thought this “realisation” would take that until the end of the decade.
“There’s an element of cult deprogramming required — it takes time. Once people have become convinced of something, they don’t suddenly become unconvinced the next day. It just takes time,” he explains, adding that some people “in the cult will never relinquish those beliefs”.
He gives an example to Hydrogen Insight by explaning his belief that blending clean hydrogen into the gas grid will happen even if it makes no sense — because it will increase heating costs significantly while only providing emission reductions by about 7%.
“On blending, there is no technical reason why we can’t do it,” Liebreich tells Hydrogen Insight. “But it will take five years for the National Audit Office [the UK’s independent government spending watchdog] to figure out how much we’re spending on blending and ask ‘why are we doing this?’
“[For blending] if it’s blue hydrogen [made from fossil gas with carbon capture and storage], we take natural gas and remove half the energy, and if it’s green hydrogen [produced from renewable energy], why would we do it when we can use the electricity directly?”
Liebreich’s issues with hydrogen is not related to the cost of the molecule.
“Learning curves mean green hydrogen will end up cheaper than grey,” he wrote on his Twitter thread. “But nothing will change the physics and thermodynamics of hydrogen: low density; escapey; explodey; embrittley [in steel pipes]; NOx-producey if burnt; greenhouse gasey.
“You can try to get round these fundamental physical problems by using hydrogen derivatives like ammonia or methanol, or by using funky storage technologies like hydride or organic liquids. All these introduce process steps, capex, losses, weight, toxins or other nasties.
“Of course it would be nice if this were not the case, but it is. Wishful thinking, policy papers, models and tweets don't create reality. Nor does lobbying, in the end. Physics does. We don't use steam engines because physics. We mainly won't use hydrogen because physics.”
He added that this has “uncomfortable implications”.
“We are going to need a bigger [electricity] grid and we have to start building it now. That means challenging bureaucracy, NIMBYs [not-in-my-backyard opponents] and contrarians. Blink and use hydrogen because of grid constraints, and you lock in a crappy solution forever.”
Liebreich provides further examples of authorities in France and Germany planning or using hydrogen buses or trains before realising that the economics do not work, and that battery-powered options would be cheaper — as well as Jan Rosenow’s peer-reviewed study of 32 independent reports that all concluded there would be no significant role for hydrogen in heating, and the 2020 study that showed that the vast majority of Europe’s industrial heat can be decarbonised with existing commercially available electric solutions.
“As I said, it will take until 2030 for the current hype cycle to die away, leaving only a focus on decarbonizing current hydrogen production and a number of hard-to-abate sectors. There will be vast noise and lobbying along the way, but bit by bit #HydrogenReality will bite.”