Blue Hydrogen Is Billed as an Environmentally-Friendly Energy Source — Is It As Good As It Seems?

Leila Kozma - Author
By

Mar. 4 2022, Published 11:11 a.m. ET

President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, allocating $9.5 billion to the clean hydrogen industry.

The step garnered considerable criticism from the proponents of clean energy. As some commentators argue, the bill benefits the natural gas industry by putting an unnecessary amount of emphasis on blue hydrogen, which is ostensibly made using less environmentally damaging processes. But is blue hydrogen as good as it sounds?

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Blue hydrogen is frequently presented as the future of green energy. Will it live up to its reputation?

Like grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen is made using natural gas with steam methane reforming or SMR. As to the difference? Blue hydrogen, if the natural gas industry leaders are to be believed in, is made using a process eliminating less harmful gases.

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The fossil fuel industry bills blue hydrogen as an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective solution that can be adopted without extensively modifying the already existing pipeline infrastructure.

Frequently described as an alternative to green hydrogen — the green solution made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen — blue hydrogen allows the natural gas industry to avoid racking up colossal bills by investing into R&D and new machinery. As Justin Mikulka writes for DeSmog, switching to blue hydrogen also enables firms to avoid widespread scrutiny concerning their carbon footprint. However, blue hydrogen is not as green as it seems.

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Source: Twitter

Blue hydrogen might be worse than coal, a 2021 study has found.

Billed as a greener alternative, blue hydrogen is made using a modified version of steam methane reforming or SMR. Unlike in the case of grey hydrogen, here, the gas emissions are captured and stored underground in a process known as carbon capture and storage or CCS, according to the University of Aberdeen.

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However, according to Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobson, the researchers behind an explosive study published by Energy Science & Engineering in 2021, previous studies assessing the environmental impact of the production of blue hydrogen have failed to take into account the harm caused by what they refer to as "fugitive emissions." As Howarth and Jacobson argue, the fugitive emissions — such as methane — could be a great deal more disastrous for the planet than previously thought.

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"The greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat," Howarth and Jacobson prompt.

"Our analysis assumes that captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption. Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds," they write.

"Blue hydrogen is a nice marketing term that the oil and gas industry is keen to push but it’s far from carbon free. I don’t think we should be spending our funds this way, on these sort of false solutions," Howarth separately told the The Guardian.

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Basically, even though scientists initially thought blue hydrogen would be an efficient and renewable energy source, as noted by Smithsonian Magazine, newer research has made it clear that it is not one.

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