Canadian Consulting Engineer

Why hydrogen has been a non-starter

June 25, 2024
By Stan Ridley

Roadblocks remain.



Hydrogen has widely been touted as a super-abundant ‘wonder element,’ expected to help bring humanity to a green energy future. Many governments and agencies today are proposing hydrogen as part of the solution to global warming and the climate change crisis.

Those rosy expectations, however, ended for many experts in the early 2000s, for very sound scientific, engineering, environmental and economic reasons. Roadblocks were identified—and those roadblocks effectively remain in place today.

When one is only considering hydrogen’s reconversion to a usable form of energy, it certainly offers the benefit of zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When considering the full life cycle of hydrogen systems, however, from production and compression to transport, storage and distribution, hydrogen turns out to be one of the least attractive forms of energy in terms of its low life-cycle efficiency and its GHG emissions.

Even though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and very abundant on our planet, it is invariably tied up with other elements, such as with oxygen in water. So, hydrogen can only be ‘produced’ by breaking up those compounds using energy. Today, more than 95% of all hydrogen used globally is produced using fossil fuels, releasing enormous quantities of GHGs.

We do need major technological breakthroughs in global energy systems if we are to win the battle against global warming and climate change. While these breakthroughs may include nuclear reactors, carbon capture systems and the storage of energy from intermittent renewables (e.g. wind and solar), there seem to be very few valid technical justifications for the present ‘push’ on hydrogen.

Today, more than 95% of all hydrogen used globally is produced using fossil fuels.

Carrier of energy
Hydrogen is not a primary energy source, but rather a very inefficient carrier of energy. Complete life-cycle (LC) hydrogen processes, as mentioned earlier, are only 45% efficient or less, regardless of energy inputs. By way of comparison, modern electricity transmission lines are typically 95% to 98% efficient.

Grey hydrogen
At present, more than 95% of all the hydrogen used globally is ‘grey hydrogen’ produced using fossil fuels, mainly natural gas. Grey hydrogen’s life-cycle processes lose 55% to 75% of the input energy and emit enormous amounts of GHGs.

Blue hydrogen
Grey hydrogen is considered ‘blue hydrogen’ if carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) systems address its associated GHG emissions. In present life-cycle analyses, however, there do not seem to be any viably scalable CCUS processes to meet such requirements.

Green hydrogen
Humanity is not going to significantly reduce its GHG emissions by burning more fossil fuels to drive an inefficient hydrogen life cycle. Faced with this stark reality, many proponents of hydrogen are now focused on using relatively clean energy from renewable sources (e.g. wind, solar and hydroelectric) and/or nuclear reactors to drive hydrogen processes. Hence, ‘green hydrogen’ is produced with very little carbon content.

Globally, humans consume about 600 exajoules (EJ) of primary energy every year. More than 80% is from fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas. Wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear energy consumption represent about 3%, 2%, 7% and 4%, respectively.  As these non-fossil fuel sources are very limited, they must continue to be allocated and committed prudently to the most efficient systems while we seek to increase their generation and availability widely.

And indeed, our present processes for using limited, relatively clean, renewable energy to directly displace and/or replace GHG-heavy energy are already at almost 100% efficiency (i.e. 1 MWh clean for 1 MWh dirty).

While nearly all green hydrogen proposals seem to be scientific and environmental non-starters, there may be an exception in proposals to harness massive amounts of solar energy from the world’s major deserts, to fuel international hydrogen storage, transport and distribution systems.

Recent geopolitical developments, however, including the bombing of major inter-country undersea pipelines that were once economic lifelines, must raise grave concerns about energy dependence and self-sufficiency of major industrial nations.

There are some applications where we will continue to need hydrogen.

Natural hydrogen
In the last few years, there has been much discussion about the possibility of mining naturally occurring hydrogen in enormous quantities. While relatively minute quantities of natural hydrogen have been mined, such sources are not well-understood.

As yet, is not clear whether significant quantities of natural hydrogen are available and can be mined, with what form or energy, at what overall efficiency and at what commercial price. There is still a paucity of scientific, mining and commercial expertise in this area. While some small players are exploring such horizons, major energy companies are still maintaining a watching brief.

Niche applications
There are some applications where we will continue to need hydrogen. A substantial portion of the hydrogen produced and consumed today is used by industry while producing metals, refining petroleum, processing food and producing fertilizers and other chemical products.

Fatal flaws
Without major technological breakthroughs to significantly improve the overall efficiency of hydrogen processes or the discovery of enormous quantities of natural hydrogen that we could access and deliver competitively, there would seem to be no technological or environmental justification for increasing the production and consumption of hydrogen using fossil fuels, renewables or nuclear sources.

Nearly any increase in the production and use of hydrogen would increase overall emissions of GHGs much faster than current processes for directly displacing and/or replacing dirty energy with clean.

Further, the notion of using non-dispatchable intermittent renewable energy—some of which is indeed available—to produce and store hydrogen until it can be reconverted to a usable form when needed seems highly questionable. Such a suggestion ignores the reality of many other existing energy storage systems that are already much more efficient than a hydrogen life-cycle process.

Stan Ridley is president of West 2012 Energy Management, based in Vancouver.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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