Briefing – the use and abuse of hydrogen

The latest in our series of briefings. Like all of the briefings this one is just two sides of A4 and is published under a Creative Commons license which means you are welcome to share, adapt and reuse the content. Download a PDF version here.

Abuse

Check through the news bulletins and the financial papers and you’ll find hydrogen in the news.  Big energy companies, the Westminster and Holyrood governments and some trade unions are all heralding hydrogen as a ‘green’ alternative to the natural gas which most of us use for heating and cooking.  For example, SGN who run Scotland’s gas network are promoting a plan in which hydrogen would be produced and stored at the St Fergus gas terminal, north of Peterhead.  It envisages starting to use hydrogen in Aberdeen and then extending the hydrogen network to the rest of the northeast coast and the central belt by 2045.

Natural gas used for heating and cooking accounts for around 30% of the UK’s carbon emissions.  In contrast burning hydrogen for heat results in zero emissions.  So, it appears that replacing natural gas with hydrogen is a no brainer.  In this briefing we’ll explain why that’s not the case. 

Grey, blue and green?

You will hear talk about grey, blue, and green hydrogen.  The colours refer to how the hydrogen is produced – and it’s the production method that determines the impact of hydrogen on the environment.

Grey hydrogen is made from natural gas. Almost all the hydrogen that’s in use now is produced in this way. World-wide production currently amounts to 70 million tonnes.  Greenhouse gases are a by-product of the production process, and current production has a similar impact on global warming to the whole aviation industry.

Much of the current hype is over blue hydrogen.  Blue hydrogen is produced from natural gas in the same way as grey – the difference is that the production process incorporates carbon capture and storage. Greenhouse gases are stored rather than released to the atmosphere.  Using blue hydrogen for all our domestic heating and cooking would require carbon capture on a massive scale.  Large-scale carbon capture is untested, the technology for capture is not yet available and there are serious concerns about the long-term safety of large-scale storage.  The production process for blue hydrogen is energy intensive and needs large amounts of green electricity.  One example – Northern Gas Networks have a plan to convert domestic gas supplies to hydrogen.  The aim is to have converted 15.7 million homes by 2050.  This would require 8 million tonnes of hydrogen and need the equivalent of 60 production plants of the size of the largest currently operational plus a huge deployment of unproven carbon capture and storage technology.

Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysing water – if that electricity is from a renewable source the process is zero carbon.  However, the process requires even more green electricity than producing blue hydrogen.  The NGN scheme to supply 15.7 million homes would require around seven times as much wind generated electricity as is currently produced in the UK.

Image by Utahraptor ostrommaysi CCBY-SA 3.0

Generating electricity to provide the energy to ‘reform’ natural gas or electrolyse water into hydrogen and then using the hydrogen for heat is inherently inefficient.  Direct use of electricity is cheaper, more efficient and would require much less generating capacity.

So why the hydrogen hype?

A new hydrogen economy (dependent on carbon capture and storage technology) is at the heart of the North Sea Transition Deal, dreamed up by the industry body Oil and Gas UK, published by the UK government in March 2021 and endorsed by Holyrood. The transition deal aims at continuing extraction of oil and gas through to 2050 and beyond. It is a costly diversion. To be sure of cutting emissions with the speed that is required we need to phase out oil and gas and invest in proven technologies that are based on renewable energy sources.  

Ed Matthew Associate Director at independent climate and energy think tank E3G says hydrogen is the wrong choice for heating homes.  Blue hydrogen (manufactured from natural gas) needs CCS so would be massively expensive and keeps us hooked on gas. Green hydrogen (made by electrolysis using renewable electricity) is 4 times less efficient than using heat pumps. “Hydrogen is being pushed by the gas industry. Beware.”  Dave Toke, reader in energy politics at Aberdeen University agrees. He calls it: “the start of one of the greatest pieces of greenwash that have been committed in the UK.”

Use

There is a place for hydrogen in a new sustainable economy.  Hydrogen fuel cells supplied with green hydrogen are likely to be an integral part of a full decarbonised economy.  Fuel cells work by using hydrogen to produce electricity which can then power a motor instead of using battery power, such as for electric vehicles.

Image by Bill Harrison CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrogen fuel cells are currently better suited than batteries for long distance transport and to transport heavy loads.  There are likely to be applications in energy storage and in some very specialised processes that are difficult to decarbonise.  Sea transport may be a case in point

Campaign

The main message of this briefing is that the hydrogen + CCS strategy is designed to maintain the profits of the big energy company’s and will not achieve the cuts in carbon emissions that are needed.  It puts profit before people and planet.  There are alternatives that will work.

To decarbonise heat, we need retrofitted insulation, heat pumps and district heating schemes on a mass scale that can only be achieved by the public sector.

Firms producing filthy-dirty “grey” hydrogen must be required to take action to reduce the horrendous levels of greenhouse gas emissions they produce. 

Hydrogen use must be limited to applications that are socially useful and don’t add to the climate crisis.

You can find all our briefings on the resources page.

A Botched Rehearsal

Mike Downham reflects on the impact of Covid, the aftermath of COP26 and what we might do differently in future. This article was first published in Scottish Socialist Voice.

It’s nearly two long years since we began to become aware of the potential scale and danger of the new virus. At that point some prescient people suggested that how we reacted to the pandemic would be a rehearsal for our performance in the forthcoming big show of climate breakdown.

This wasn’t the first time ‘rehearsal’ had been used for how we organise on the left. John Berger described every act of resistance as a rehearsal. Colin Barker called his 1987 book about the uprisings in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland between 1968 and 1980 Revolutionary Rehearsals. And he used this title again in his subsequent book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, written jointly with Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson published this year – posthumously for both Colin and Neil – which describes the uprisings in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt since 1989. 

It’s reasonable I think to say that we’ve made a right mess of the Covid rehearsal. Had we known two years ago what we know today, we would have learnt our lines and our cues more thoroughly. What we know today is that 9,634 people in Scotland have died; that the majority of these snuffed-out lives have been among the poor, the disabled and the marginalised; that 99,000 people in Scotland are living with Long Covid; that about 10% of children who catch the virus go on to have disabling poor health for weeks or months; and that the NHS has broken down.

That the NHS has actually broken down, no longer something we just fear might happen, was brought home to me this week by hearing about a middle-aged woman in the Paisley area with an 18-month history of severe neck pain who waited so long for surgery that she’s been forced to give up her job as a care-worker, then lost her home because she couldn’t keep up with her mortgage repayments. Not that this is the only tragic story about NHS failure we could tell between us.

Now the omicron variant (whether or not it turns out to be as bad as feared – we’ll have to wait a week or so before we know) is shouting at us from the wings, telling us that if we allow the virus to spread, whether in Scotland’s communities, schools and workplaces in an incompletely vaccinated population, or in largely unvaccinated countries sent to the back of the queue because they can’t pay, sooner or later we’re going to get a variant which will evade current vaccines.

And yet the cues were there in the script from the beginning. If we’d read it and learned it we’d have known we couldn’t trust the governments of wealthy counties, including Scotland, to not rely so heavily on vaccines, or to prioritise supply and reduce the cost of vaccines for poor countries, because these governments are locked into a system where profit trumps health. Yesterday’s top news was about Pfizer rubbing its hands as it suggested that annual vaccination was likely to be necessary – without mention of the financial and logistical implications of vaccinating eight billion people annually. Pfizer is relishing not only the prospect of a limitless market but also that it has outcompeted AstraZeneca both technically and in its propaganda.

Just as profit trumps health, so that the ruling classes allow the Covid virus to spread, it also trumps the devastating impacts of global heating which are unfolding for all humanity. COP26 has finally made it clear that neither wealthy governments nor the oil and gas corporations are going to take effective action in relation to global heating, despite being fully aware of and no longer denying the scale of the impacts which will result from their inactivity.

How can it be that one small fraction of human beings can inflict such suffering on the rest of their species? Andreas Malm and colleagues, in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel try to explain:

They are not perturbed by the smell from the blazing trees. They do not worry at the site of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink … After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.

The lake at Sweetwater Creek State Park Lithia Springs GA is one of the sources that Georgia residents are dependent on for drinking water Image by Global Water Partnership CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As we get our last call to take the stage in the climate crisis, what have we learned from the Covid rehearsal? What are our lines and what are our most critical cues?

The best approach to these questions may be to ask first what mistakes we made in the rehearsal, to avoid making them again. We should perhaps beware of:

  • Knocking politely on town-hall and parliament doors asking the politicians to do things few of them can even contemplate doing 
  • One-off marches and protests which aren’t part of a charted programme of resistance
  • Loosely knit coalitions, which dilute militancy with compromise
  • Hoping to build a social democratic party which could win at the ballot-box
  • Organising strictly within our political silos, whether parliamentary parties, or revolutionary groups, or single-issue institutions 
  • Underestimating the extent to which the ruling classes have stifled trade union power so that collective withdrawal of labour is no longer the readily available weapon it used to be 

How then can we organise, if not in these ways? First, the Covid pandemic is far from over – in fact it can be said to be at a critical point, with the prospect that vaccines may not protect us, and that relying on vaccines alone is not sustainable. We’ll only be able to overcome this pandemic through traditional public health measures, delivered through a greatly expanded and well-resourced public health service. This is what we can start turning our attention to and fighting for. Covid is offering us the experience of another rehearsal, the key changes needed to address both Covid and climate becoming more clearly the same – rolling out and investing heavily in existing technologies instead of switching to uncertain ones. Vaccination on its own becomes the equivalent of Carbon Capture and Storage, both of them profitable for the ruling classes but disastrous for the rest of us.

Second, COP26 has shown us that targeted and sustained direct action works. The Indian farmers, after a year’s disruptive presence in Delhi, during which 700 of them died at the hands of the police, have won a historic victory. The first thing Modi did when he returned from Glasgow was to announce that he was going to withdraw the three laws against which the farmers had been protesting. Two weeks later Shell announced that they are giving up their ten-year plan to extract oil and gas from the Cambo field. This is a huge victory for the Stop Cambo! campaign – a direct result of its persistent visibility in Westminster over the last year, then its strong performance at the COP in Glasgow.

Art, Pen and People by Randeep Mandoke CC0

But in the midst of our celebrations of these two wins, we can see that the farmers are continuing to swamp Delhi. They want to see the three laws actually withdrawn, not just hear a promise. It’s probable that even then they will continue their protest for further, more systemic changes. Stop Cambo! knows too that it must not relax. There’s still Siccar Point Energy to unseat (the majority partner in the development of the Cambo field), and there’s the UK Government to force into a decision that no extraction license will be granted. A win is the cue to increasing the strength of a protest, not to ending it.

Third, we would do well at this point to start discussing what so far we’ve shunned: how are we to oppose the state oppression which is bound to escalate in relation to increased direct action? Is XR right to remain adamant about non-violence? Or did Mandela have a point when he said “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”?    

Don’t let CCS dominate the climate action agenda in Scotland

Part of the coalition deal between the Scottish Greens and the SNP was the allocation of £500 million to support the creation of new sustainable jobs. There are indications that all of this funding may now go to CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage projects). One time chair of the Wood Group, Sir Ian Wood is a strong advocate of CCS and has been vocal in his criticism of the Westminster government’s failure to fund the Acorn CCS project in Scotland. The Wood Group lobbies and argues for CCS. Their website asserts that ‘If we are to achieve a net-zero world, carbon capture and storage infrastructure is a necessity and needs to scale up rapidly.’ Scot.E3 believes that CCS is a central plank of Oil and Gas UK’s strategy to continue the policy of maximum economic extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea. Choosing to spend the £500 million on CCS would constitute big step down a road that the Oil Industry wishes to travel and a setback for the campaign for a rapid just transition away from fossil fuels. There are many other projects that could be funded.

We are pleased to publish this post that has been submitted to the site. The author has asked to remain anonymous.

One of the SNP’s proposed solutions to climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This is very dangerous in our mission to decarbonise Scotland’s economy and provide other countries with the tools to do the same. On the face of it CCS may seem like another tool in the box to reduce carbon emissions, and that might be right if it weren’t for the very strong vested interests. 

There are very strong arguments that CCS can’t work for technical reasons – such as the inability to actually avoid the carbon being stored leaking. There are also strong economic reasons it can’t work – wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels in most markets, with plenty of scope for further reduction. Adding an additional cost to the production of fossil fuel energy makes it even less competitive. 

Image Pete Cannell – View from Cromarty – CCO

So why are fossil fuel interests so keen on CCS?

There are two reasons why CCS is favoured by fossil fuel executives who want to portray themselves as concerned about climate change. The first is that it allows them to continue extraction of the oil and gas that their company’s valuations are based on. The second is that it distracts from other clean technologies that will actually decarbonise energy, such as renewables and storage. It does this by ‘crowding out’ renewables investment.

So CCS will do two things, even if it isn’t viable. It will allow more drilling for fossil fuels and it will divert investment from renewables and storage.  

The argument put forward by Oil and Gas UK is that CCS means we can continue to drill in Scottish waters and that those resources can be made ‘carbon neutral’ through CCS. 

The danger particularly comes because the UK Government has chosen not to support the Scottish CCS project. This has created an opportunity for the vested fossil fuel interests in Scotland to argue that the Scottish Government should use the money set aside for a worker-led just transition from oil and gas jobs should be diverted to supporting CCS. The £500m negotiated by the Greens as part of the coalition deal for clean jobs to replace oil and gas is now at risk from a dead-end technology that exists mainly to prevent the end of fossil fuel drilling. 

This illustrates exactly how CCS will crowd out renewables investment, but worse it will rob workers of the jobs that they need in truly clean industries. 

The fossil fuel industry tried the same approach with fracking in the last decade. We urgently need a campaign to persuade politicians who have fallen for the CCS lies and greenwash that this is another wrong turn. At the moment, that means SNP ministers and backbenchers.

END

There are other posts relevant to CCS on this site:

Video on carbon capture

Briefing on BECCS

Articles here and here