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Ted Smout Bridge. Photo by Majella Waterworth and David Waterworth.

Policy & Politics

Green Hydrogen Needs To Actually Be Green — It Ain’t Easy Being Green

There is a lot of talk about green hydrogen, but to be really green, the feedstock needs to be water (not so called “natural gas,” aka fossil methane) and the energy used for electrolysis needs to come from renewable energy (not coal or gas). In high school, we did an experiment where we ran a current through water and collected the hydrogen and oxygen that was produced. This is how green hydrogen is produced, but on a much more massive scale.

Based in Western Australia, Strike Energy’s hydrogen is purported to be green, but is it? Sure, the plant will be powered by geothermal and renewable energy, but the feedstock is 98% “lower carbon” gas. Only 2% will be green! It might produce low-carbon urea as a fertilizer, but its hydrogen is not green. Strike Energy is a gas company.

In every jubilant article about green hydrogen, we need to ask the question: “What is the feedstock?” It’s like the difference between an “electrified” vehicle (like Toyota produces) and an electric car (with a plug). Read carefully and see if an article mentions: water, desalination plants, and electrolysers. Calling the hydrogen green when it is produced from methane is just not cricket.

Be careful with the misleading term “renewable hydrogen” as well. This appears to refer to hydrogen produced from methane with renewable energy. Certainly that’s somewhat greener than hydrogen produced with power from coal, but is it green enough? No. That’s like a petrol/gas station being powered by renewables rather than coal. The petrol’s still petrol.

Currently, the economics of green hydrogen don’t stack up. “According to a presentation by global energy giant Iberdrola at the Ammonia Energy conference in Australia last week – the cost of wind and solar will need to fall by around 30-40 per cent, the cost of electrolyser technology (which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen) will need to fall by at least 50 per cent. The efficiency, or load factor, of electrolysers will need to lift by 10-20 per cent.” Those are major, major requirements needed to get green hydrogen competitive.

It is still cheaper (and more politically palatable) to produce hydrogen from fossil fuel gas or coal gasification than water. Also, an unintended consequence of producing hydrogen from water could be the worsening of scarce water resources in parts of Australia that are far from the coast, as some of these projects appear to be.

Could hydrogen replace the current LNG export industry? Prime Minister Morrison hopes so … but will our export partners (Japan especially) buy it if it is not quite green?

 
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Written By

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He owns 50 shares of Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

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