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Some Are Claiming Blue Gas Is A Tesla Killer. It’s Not.

Blue gas is an expensive shell game being promoted by the fossil fuel industry with help from automotive industry executives who are stuck in the sunk costs fallacy about their investments in internal combustion engines.

There have been a bunch of published pieces in recent months about something called “blue gas,” claiming that it’s the death of Teslas and EVs. So, what the heck is it, and how realistic are the claims?

Technically, blue gas is gasoline or diesel that is a hydrocarbon fuel manufactured from hydrogen and carbon feedstocks instead of being refined from petroleum.

This sounds interesting, but there are several questions you have to ask. The first is where the hydrogen and carbon comes from. The second is where the energy to extract and combine them comes from, and what else it could be used for. The third is what the CO2 emissions of the processes are. The fourth is what the costs of the end product are, and what the comparable costs of existing alternatives are.

I’ve read the studies, done the chemical processing assessments, done the cost assessments, and done the CO2 emissions assessments. I’ve asked and answered these questions. Allow me to provide a roadmap to the answers.

Hydrogen comes in several colors. Black hydrogen comes from coal gasification and has 20× the mass of CO2 as of produced hydrogen. Gray hydrogen comes from steam reformation of natural gas and has 8–10× the mass of CO2 as produced hydrogen. “Blue” hydrogen comes from gray or black hydrogen, where the excess CO2 in theory is captured and sequestered or used, and is being heavily promoted by the fossil fuel industry.

Green hydrogen is the only one worth considering as a viable hydrogen source, and it comes from using renewably generated electricity when it’s cheap to run water through proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis units to separate the oxygen and hydrogen.

The carbon comes from captured CO2 from industrial emissions or air-captured CO2 or manufactured CO2. The first is relatively efficient, and we will always have some industrial processes we can’t replace with low-carbon processes. The second is a complete and utter waste of time and energy, as exemplified by Carbon Engineering. The third is a shell game because the CO2 is manufactured by burning fossil fuels.

Note that both hydrogen and CO2 extraction require energy and have CO2 debts of their own. Then the processes for making a hydrocarbon fuel out of them have energy and CO2 debts. Then distributing them to cars have CO2 debts. And when you burn the fuel, you still get a bunch of CO2 from burning it, not a net reduction of CO2, and you get a bunch of air pollution in the form of nitrous oxides and unburnt hydrocarbons.

When I’ve done the math, the least offensive form of blue gas, with renewably electrolyzed hydrogen and captured CO2, is indeed lower CO2 end-to-end than petroleum-derived gas, but much higher for the same miles driven as just using the renewable electricity directly in battery electric vehicles.

Chart of CO2 and cost variances for fuel variants

Chart by author

Yes, just using renewably generated electricity — BC’s is 93% hydro, and at 12.9 grams CO2e per kWh, it’s not the lowest in Canada — is vastly cheaper and lower CO2 per mile, and doesn’t cause air pollution.

The same calculations and problems show why hydrogen vehicles are also terrible bets.

Now, there are existing commodity markets for hydrogen and carbon. The hydrogen market is about $120 billion globally every year. It’s used to make ammonia, in electronics manufacturing, and the like. That market is currently 99% served by black and gray hydrogen, and 85% of the hydrogen is manufactured onsite with no carbon capture, because transporting hydrogen is really expensive.

The CO2 commodity market is about 230 million tons a year, and is worth perhaps a $10 billion annually. It’s tiny. CO2 is used to make fertilizer, the biggest chunk, and then 70 million tons or so are used for enhanced oil recovery, which gets more oil out of tapped out oil wells, which produces more CO2.

You’re starting to see why the fossil fuel industry is pushing blue gas now, as well as blue hydrogen. They want to find new markets for their coal and gas. They want to keep supplying the existing markets for CO2 and hydrogen. They want to create transportation markets.

But it’s a shell game. It’s vastly inefficient. It’s very costly. And it doesn’t save that much CO2.

Blue gas is an expensive shell game being promoted by the fossil fuel industry with help from automotive industry executives who are stuck in the sunk costs fallacy about their investments in internal combustion engines.

Blue gas isn’t a threat to Tesla. It’s a delaying PR tactic by the fossil fuel industry and portion of the automotive industry.

Don’t get sucked in.

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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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