The Bauer Et Al “Blue” Hydrogen LCA Paper Isn’t Useful In The Real World (Part 2 of 2)


The first part of this analysis on the recently released life-cycle assessment of “blue” hydrogen covered the provenance and background for the paper, as well as the significant and questionable assumptions that the authors make about both expected demand for “blue” hydrogen and the scalability of carbon capture and sequestration it would demand. This second half continues the analysis of assumptions and statements in the paper.

“In general, large-scale blue hydrogen production will be connected to the high-pressure natural gas transmission grid and therefore, methane emissions from final distribution to decentralized consumers (i.e., the low-pressure distribution network) should not be included in the quantification of climate impacts of blue hydrogen.”

The first problem with this is the assumption that massive centralized models of hydrogen generation will be preferable to the current highly distributed creation of hydrogen at the point of consumption. The challenges with distributing hydrogen are clear and obvious, so it’s interesting that they make an assumption that is completely contrary to what is occurring today, and wave away the significant additional challenges — including carbon debt — of creating a massive hydrogen distribution system essentially from scratch.

This also assumes that there will continue to be a distribution network for natural gas. Electrification of heat will continue apace, eliminating this market. But supposing that it does continue, this assumes that perpetuating the leakage problem is in line with actual climate mitigation, which is decidedly not the case. This is not the point of the paper, but is in line with the rest of the paper’s assumptions.

“… natural gas supply must be associated with low GHG emissions, which means that natural gas leaks and methane emissions along the entire supply chain, including extraction, storage, and transport, must be minimized.”

This is in context of what requirements “blue” hydrogen would have to meet in order to be low-carbon hydrogen per the paper.

I agree with this statement, but further say that there is zero reason to believe that this will be widely adhered to as the fossil fuel industry is already lagging substantially in maintenance with declining revenues in regions impacted by the Saudi Arabian-Russian price war, the history of the industry consists of a Ponzi-scheme of paying for remediation with far distant and non-existent revenues — witness the $200 billion in unfunded remediation in Alberta’s oil sands as merely the tip of the iceberg, and as long-distance piping and shipping of natural gas requires a great deal of expensive monitoring and maintenance to maintain that standard.

In other words, while the statement is true as far as it goes, it is so unlikely to be common as to be irrelevant to the actual needs of the world for hydrogen, something that the authors barely acknowledge.

“Our assessment is that CO2 capture technology is already sufficiently mature to allow removal rates at the hydrogen production plant of above 90%. Capture rates close to 100% are technically feasible, slightly decreasing energy efficiencies and increasing costs, but have yet to be demonstrated at scale.”

Once again, 90% is inadequate with over a thousand billion tons of excess CO2 already in the atmosphere. Second, carbon capture at source has been being done since the mid-19th century. It’s not getting magically better. The likelihood that approaching 100% capture rate technologies will be deployed by organizations and individuals who think 90% is good enough and are likely to be rewarded handsomely for achieving that level approaches zero. After all, Equinor has received what I estimate to be over a billion USD in tax breaks for its Sleipner facility, which simply pumps CO2 they extracted back underground, and ExxonMobil touts its Shute Creek facility as the best in the world when it pumps CO2 up in one place then back underground in another place for enhanced oil recovery, benefiting nothing except their bottom line.

Removal of carbon from the atmosphere to draw down CO2 levels toward achieving a stable climate will not be realized by “good enough,” and close to 100% will be so rarely realized globally that it’s not worth discussing.

“It is important to reiterate that no single hydrogen production technology (including electrolysis with renewables) is completely net-zero in terms of GHG emissions over its life cycle and will therefore need additional GHG removal from the atmosphere to comply with strict net-zero targets.”

The authors appear to think that the current CO2e emissions from purely renewable energy are going to persist. As mining, processing, distribution, manufacturing and construction processes decarbonize, the currently very low GHG emissions of renewables full lifecycle will fall. This is equivalent to the common argument against electric cars, that grid electricity isn’t pure. It’s also a remarkable oversight for a group of authors committed to a rigorous LCA process.

The argument that “blue” hydrogen at its very best in the best possible cases will be as good as renewably powered electrolysis as it decarbonizes fails the basic tests of logic and reasonableness.

“… natural gas with CCS may be a more sustainable route than hydrogen to decarbonize such applications as power generation.”

This is so completely wrong that it’s remarkable that it made it into the document. First, there is no value in hydrogen as a generation technology. That’s a complete and utter non-starter beginning to end, making electricity vastly more expensive to no climate benefit. Secondly, all bolt-on flue capture programs for electrical generation have cost hundreds of millions or billions and failed. They increase the costs of electrical generation to the level where it was completely uncompetitive in today’s markets.

When wind and solar are trending to $20 per MWh, long-distance transmission of electricity using HVDC exists in lengths thousands of kilometers long and underwater around the world, and there are already 170 GW of grid storage and another 60 GW under construction at the bare beginning of the development of storage, assuming that either natural gas with CCS or hydrogen have any play in electrical generation makes it clear that the authors are simply starting with the assumption that natural gas and hydrogen have a major part to play in the future, and have created an argument for it.

The authors’ argument boils down to that in a perfect world, perfectly monitored and perfectly maintained, “blue” hydrogen would be similar in emissions to green hydrogen today, ignoring the rapidly dropping GHG emissions per MWh of renewables and ignoring that the world of fossil fuels in no way adheres to the premise of perfect monitoring and perfect maintenance.

The authors are performing a life-cycle assessment focusing on greenhouse gas emissions, and it is not scoped to include costs. Having reviewed the costs of the technologies that they are proposing for this hypothetical perfect “blue” hydrogen world, they are vastly higher than just not bothering, shifting to renewables rapidly and electrifying rapidly.

As a contribution to the literature on what will happen in the real world, this is a fairly slight addition, one which is being promoted far beyond its actual merit by the usual suspects.

Featured image by akitada31 from Pixabay


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