Scientists warn against overblown expectations

According to concerted opinion, hydrogen is now considered the new universal energy carrier that is set to take the place of fossil energy sources in gas heating systems, cogeneration plants, cars, steel works and the chemicals industry. This is also recognized by Scientists for Future. In a recently published policy paper they describe hydrogen’s essential place in the energy transition yet also point out that its use is inadvisable in many areas on technical, economic and environmental grounds. The key sections of this paper are set out here:

In principle, hydrogen can be transported in the same way as natural gas via pipelines or tanker vessels and stored in tanks or caverns. This suggests that green hydrogen, in other words decarbonized hydrogen that is produced electrolytically with renewable power, could act as a replacement in all situations where we currently use fossil-based raw materials such as crude oil and – above all – natural gas. This belief is deceptive since for many purposes the deployment of green hydrogen is much too expensive and is an inefficient use of energy. Ultimately we will only use green hydrogen in cases where natural gas and crude oil cannot be replaced by the direct application of electricity or where hydrogen is the base material, for instance in the chemicals industry or in the carbon-free manufacturing of steel.

A calculated optimism is clearly evident in some studies by natural gas network operators: The German gas and water industries association DVGW, whose membership includes over 2,000 utility companies, does not work on the basis that there will be a shortage of hydrogen. A study published by the DVGW calculates that high demand will be accompanied by an equally high degree of availability of more or less sustainable hydrogen (Gatzen & Reger, 2022). Underpinning this is the unsupported assumption that there will be an import rate of 90 percent, in other words the same level as today’s oil and gas imports.

“Just supplanting one fuel with another will not suffice for the energy transition. The energy transition inevitably requires a shift away from traditional technologies and habits.”

These optimistic assumptions on the availability primarily of imports are at the center of the argument that hydrogen would be available even for heat provision: “In contrast to the frequent assumption, hydrogen does not have to remain a scarce good. The demand for hydrogen can be more than covered from 2030 onward. The quantity exceeds all current demand forecasts many times over” (DVGW, 2022, p. 5). This strikingly optimistic supposition can be confirmed neither technically nor scientifically.

At least 10 years will pass before larger quantities can be imported. And what often goes unsaid in relation to desired hydrogen imports is that the transportation is so expensive that imported hydrogen will cost many times more than today’s natural gas or crude oil. On this point it makes no difference whether the hydrogen is transported in a compressed, liquefied or chemically bonded form.

The use of hydrogen is only wise if it is produced with renewable electricity (green hydrogen). In future this will also be the cheapest production method. Hydrogen manufactured from natural gas (gray or blue hydrogen) and hydrogen from methane pyrolysis (turquoise) are not carbon neutral due to the use of natural gas and the upstream emissions from methane; and excessive risks and long-term consequences are associated with the use of nuclear energy for electrolysis as an ecofriendly method of producing hydrogen (pink).

Analysis of individual application areas

The need to use hydrogen is already on the horizon in certain sectors. This affects, for example, iron and steel production as well as the chemical raw materials industry and hydrogen as an energy storage medium. At present, refineries require hydrogen for several processes, including the cracking of crude oil when manufacturing fossil fuels. This area of current hydrogen demand will disappear in the future. In other applications, hydrogen competes with other good solutions:

In vehicles, e.g., automobiles, electric propulsion is the most efficient and most practical solution. It is for this reason that manufacturers have practically given up on hydrogen propulsion for the future (Clausen, 2022). The situation for delivery vehicles, city buses and railroads can be said to be similar. Even when it comes to long-distance trucks, the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research points out that, should the first hydrogen trucks be available in 2027, the second generation of battery-electric trucks will already be on the road (Plötz, 2022). The window of opportunity for successfully launching fuel cell trucks onto the market would therefore be essentially closed and all that would be left for hydrogen trucks would be a small niche, namely the transportation of heavy loads to very remote locations (Plötz, 2022).

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