Sooner or later, somebody is going to call BS on that whole thing about “blue” hydrogen. The US has been backing off from the blue hydrogen cliff, but it looks like Scotland may beat it to the punch. Although the newly announced Scottish H2 plan includes some wiggle room for fossil sources, the main thrust is on deploying offshore wind and tidal energy to produce green hydrogen — wait, what’s the difference?
Green Hydrogen vs. Blue Hydrogen
For those of you new to the hydrogen topic, almost all of the world’s hydrogen comes from natural gas or coal. Sustainably speaking, that’s a bad thing. Hydrogen is a widely used molecule in industry, agriculture, food production, and consumer goods, in addition to its use as a fuel.
And now for the good news. The global hydrogen supply chain is finally transitioning to renewable resources, and several different renewable pathways have emerged. For now the front-runner is electrolysis, which involves “splitting” hydrogen from water with the help of electricity and a catalyst.
Water-splitting may sound inexpensive — after all, it’s water — but until recently the cost was not competitive. Electrolyzer systems were expensive, and so were catalysts. For that matter, so was electricity from wind or solar power.
Well, that was then. The cost of electrolyzers, catalysts, and renewable energy is falling, and a new hydrogen roadmap from the International Renewable Energy Agency indicates that renewable hydrogen could compete with fossil hydrogen globally by 2030.
IRENA also notes that green hydrogen is already competitive in some markets, and that is giving fossil stakeholders the willies.
In order to maintain their grasp on the hydrogen supply chain, they have been pitching something called “blue hydrogen.” What they mean is the same old fossil hydrogen from natural gas, but dolled up with carbon capture systems.
The New Scottish Hydrogen Plan
Some blue hydrogen fans have already seen the writing on the wall. They are beginning to pitch blue hydrogen as a temporary, transitional solution until green hydrogen becomes more cost-competitive.
That brings us to Scotland, where an awful lot of green hydrogen activity has been going on. The country has been tapping into its offshore wind resources for electrolysis, and it has just begun a pilot electrolysis project that involves tidal energy and a flow battery.
Scotland’s new hydrogen plan builds on its previously announced “Green Hydrogen for Scotland” initiative, which involves scaling up a new sustainable hydrogen facility to hook up with Glasgow’s net zero plans.
Nevertheless, the new Scottish hydrogen plan does provide a toehold for fossil-sourced H2, at least over the short term.
In the interests of transparency, Scotland is using the term “low carbon” instead of “blue” to describe fossil hydrogen with carbon capture. Scotland’s Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse has also made it clear that Scotland’s decarbonization plans are open to fossil-sourced hydrogen.
That is reflected in the full Hydrogen Policy Statement, which confirms that “both renewable and low-carbon hydrogen will play an increasingly important role in our energy transition to net zero in 2045 and the importance of establishing low-carbon hydrogen production at scale by the mid-2020s, linked to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).”
More & Better Green Hydrogen
On the plus side, low-carbon hydrogen could also refer to hydrogen sourced from waste gases and other industrial wastes, rather than from virgin natural gas or coal.
So all in all, it really looks like there is more wobble than wiggle room for blue hydrogen in the Scottish plan.
“Scotland has, in abundance, all the raw ingredients necessary for the production of low-cost hydrogen as well as one of the largest concentrations of offshore engineering expertise in the world that can harness Scotland’s renewable energy potential in technologies like wind, wave and tidal power, to produce green hydrogen,” Wheelhouse explained in a press release.
In the same breath, Wheelhouse also hinted that Scotland could help drive blue hydrogen out of the market in the rest of the EU.
“Scotland is one of the best placed nations anywhere in the world to develop competitively priced hydrogen for our own economy’s needs and to generate a surplus in supply to export to other European nations with emerging demand, but insufficient supply to meet their own needs,” he said.
Hydrogen industry stakeholders in Scotland are also on board with the green push.
The Chief Executive of the Scottish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, Nigel Holmes, pointed out that the industry has already amassed a portfolio of green hydrogen projects in Aberdeen, Fife, Orkney, and the Western Isles.
“Islands and ports will be hubs for energy innovation, bringing together large scale renewables for green hydrogen production,” he said.
More Green Hydrogen For The US
The EU isn’t the only market that may feel the power of the Scotland hydrogen plan. Last winter, just before the COVID-19 outbreak hit in full force, CleanTechnica noted that officials from the US Department of Energy and the state of Maine hopped over to Scotland for an offshore wind “mystery” tour.
Floating wind turbines were apparently on the menu, which is a significant area of interest in Maine’s renewable energy plans. Green hydrogen is also beginning to surface on the state’s radar, partly as a means of overcoming grid bottlenecks without having to invest in expensive new transmission lines.
Putting two and two together, we find that plans are in the works to build a 2-megawatt floating wind farm off the Aberdeen coast, with the aim of desalinating seawater for hydrogen production. The timetable calls for completion by 2024, with another 10-megawatt platform to be online in 2027.
The project could surface on the US radar, so don’t be surprised if you find a similar hydrogen plot hatching off the coast of Maine.
Maine is just for starters. If the infographic from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the top of this article is any indication, blue hydrogen is not necessarily in the picture for US energy policy Spoiler alert: there are no fossil inputs in this version, though other versions of the same Energy Department image include fossils. If you can figure out which version is more recent, drop us a note in the comment thread.
My money is on green hydrogen. In the weeks running up to the 2020 general election on November 3, the US Department of Energy unleashed a series of programs aimed at juicing the green hydrogen economy all over the US.
The announcements did clash with the fossil-friendly energy policy favored by outgoing US *President Donald J. Trump. However, that was par for the course for the Energy Department, which has continued to support next-level decarbonization programs all throughout Trump’s term in office.
In one of life’s little ironies, the Commander-in-Chief himself actually has a history with Aberdeen that involves offshore wind activity. It also involves a golf course, environmental damage, accusations of money laundering, and a lawsuit, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image: Hydrogen production without fossil sources via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.