Hydrogen for President?

7 Minutes

For hydrogen to truly stake its claim as the future king of fuels it must make an impactful actual contribution to the clean energy transition. Significant adoption is anticipated in sectors where hydrogen is currently almost completely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.
  • Hydrogen use today is dominated by industry, namely: oil refining, ammonia production, and methanol production. Virtually all of this hydrogen is supplied using fossil fuels, so there is significant potential for emissions reductions from clean hydrogen production powered by renewable energy.
  • In transport, the competitiveness of hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) cars depends on fuel cell costs and refuelling stations while for trucks the priority is to reduce the delivered price of hydrogen; for the consumer HFC’s offer greater range than electric vehicles with a refilling experience similar to what we are all used to with fossil fuels. Shipping and aviation have limited low-carbon fuel options available and represent an opportunity for hydrogen-based fuels particularly for long-haul.
  • In buildings, hydrogen could be blended into existing natural gas networks for the end-user purposes of generating both power and heat, with the highest potential in multifamily and commercial buildings (particularly in dense cities) while longer-term prospects could include the direct use of hydrogen in boilers or fuel cells.
  • In power generation, hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing renewable energy, and hydrogen and ammonia can be used in gas turbines to increase power system flexibility.

Green supply to meet demand

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) demand for hydrogen, which has grown more than threefold since 1975, continues to rise and is gathering pace – currently it is almost entirely supplied from fossil fuels, with 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal going to hydrogen production. As a consequence, current manufacturing production of hydrogen is responsible for CO2 emissions of around 830 Mt CO2 per year, putting this in context it approximates to the CO2 emissions of Germany. Fortunately, technology convergence and production efficiency are driving change. Danish catalyst manufacturer Haldor Topsoe has stated plans to build a large-scale facility to make electrolysers to be used for green hydrogen production. This can potentially reduce the cost of green hydrogen by 20%, achieving a price point at which hydrogen becomes cost-competitive when compared to fossil fuels.
Hydrogen, especially green hydrogen, has become the latest ‘strategic ambition’ among energy companies, including big oil and gas multinationals such as Shell, who see potential in developing and investing in the associated technologies.

Hydrogen refuelling stations and hydrogen pumps at traditional fuel stations are being piloted across the Europe as the transport fuel mix evolves and the downstream business models of these oil and gas multinationals follow suit. There are examples from the energy generation side of things too. Big wind turbine manufacturers such as Siemens Gamesa are trialling floating offshore wind platforms with integrated desalination and hydrogen production capabilities in order to create green hydrogen at source.

Eco-friendly competition with EVs

The evangelists of the early 2000’s thought that hydrogen would come to dominate the clean automobile market but their “hydrogen highway” hasn’t quite materialised as yet. Hydrogen power needed and broadly still needs a new infrastructure, whereas rival electricity battery cars can be charged off the near-ubiquitous electricity grid (with an easy assumption made for charging infrastructure – a particularly vibrant market). Additionally, the concept of high-powered batteries has been well advanced for some time with various uses prior to and in addition to EVs. HFCs do not match battery power as a well understood technology. However and as previously mentioned, this is starting to changing at pace with hydrogen pumps being retrofitted to traditional fuel stations across Europe.

As demand increases and hydrogen becomes more available consumers are more likely to adopt a ‘fast-refuel’ option over the time required by current EVs. Consider this in conjunction with the impending headache of what to do with EV end of life batteries and indeed the CO2 created in the manufacture of the average battery – according to research completed by the Swedish Environment Institute, up to 17.5 t of CO2 is emitted by the making of the average electric car battery.

Hydrogen could be the solution

The UK will need hydrogen to meet its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. According to the latest National Grid future energy scenarios hydrogen “could be the solution to many of the hardest parts of the transition to net-zero, particularly in long-distance freight, shipping and heavy industry”. Possible futures for the UK’s energy system and routes to net-zero all require large gains in energy efficiency, heavy electrification of transport, a level of societal change and variable reliance on hydrogen.

As we patiently await the UK Government’s Hydrogen Strategy we do so anticipating the rise of green hydrogen providing a super-clean form of energy. The expectation is that this will be driven by convergence between new technology, demand, business collaboration in order to finance increases in production capacity and a supportive regulatory framework. Hydrogen for President…

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Carbon net zero consensus vs the circular economy

16 Minutes

Two core concepts behind carbon net-zero (CN0) are carbon reduction, which focuses on lowering negative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and carbon offsetting, where negative emissions are counterbalanced through activity and investments that theoretically net-off their impact.

Policy and public consensus leave the impression that achieving ‘carbon neutrality’ or CN0 through this reduction and offsetting is the one (or two) stop-shop solution to addressing the world’s climate change and sustainability challenges. Perhaps a bit more constructive challenge to this consensus is required.

Up in the trees

The majority of carbon offsetting is conducted through reforestation or afforestation. There are other more esoteric activities such as targeted investments in developing nations that facilitate reduced GHG emissions, e.g. gifting fuel-efficient stoves to specific communities. However, at present there is particularly limited agreement on the timing of offsetting activities; organisations can theoretically report outcomes years ahead of their implementation.

A guessing-game

Whilst meaningful calculations of CO2e emissions are plausible, arguably the calculation of carbon offset is a guessing game. Using reforestation and afforestation as examples: The lack of scientific consensus on the calculation of carbon capture, the finite lifetime of trees, failure to account for existing flora being displaced by trees being planted, the global-warming impact of light absorption by dark forests (especially in previously white, tundra regions) and the insulating impact of organic aerosols released by trees all serve as strong challenges to the generally accepted carbon-capture benefits.

The organisations promoting empirically precise carbon offsetting activities are inevitably motivated to deliver the most significant carbon-capture for a given cost, often driving them to plant fast-growing trees to generate the speediest carbon sinks. Studies, however, have shown that rapid tree growth directly correlates with short life-span, after which the dead tree is either decomposed naturally or burned. This releases the “captured” CO2 and accelerates the point at which carbon capture is permanently reversed. Careless tree-species selection creates further challenges around habitat preservation, for both flora and fauna, with major knock-on consequences for local ecosystems.

Even more fundamentally, the term CO2e may acknowledge the net warming effects of GHGs, but when it comes to carbon capture, it risks oversimplification. Photosynthesis captures CO2, but the remaining GHG groups including nitrous oxides, hydrofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons are not part of the equation; they continue being generated and released unabated and ignored.

It’s all about timing

There are various accounting methods for assessing the impact of timing with respect to money: Discounted Cash Flow, Net Present Value and Internal Rate of Return, are calculations that recognise the importance of timing in financial decision-making. No such calculations exist for carbon offset: Organisations can produce GHGs today, and have a ten-year-plus plan for when these will be offset, without addressing the damage or reduced benefit of the delay. The urgency of action on sustainability is unquestionable, acknowledged but still not fully understood.

Regressive macro-behaviours

The prevalence of the CN0, Sustainability and ESG agenda certainly highlights a widely shared intention. However, albeit perhaps being deliberately extreme in reference points, some of the large-scale actions being marketed highlight branding exercises that deflect from the critical need for more fundamental change in our approach.

Take the whole concept of carbon credits as an example? It can be humorously (and dramatically) argued that these are reminiscent of the medieval Catholic practice of selling “indulgences”; a financial penalty to reduce the religious penance required by heaven for forgiveness. The wealthier you were, the lesser the repercussions for sinning!

However, their regressive macro-behaviours are no laughing matter. Reforestation for example typically takes place ‘behind closed-doors’ and this can have disastrous results. Since 2009, the Kenya Forest Service, backed by EU funding for reforestation, has been forcibly removing and dispossessing the Sengwer people of the Embobut Forest, burning more than 1500 homes in the process, and killing one Sengwer man. This humanitarian disaster, highlights just one facet of the overlooked, problematic underbelly of our approach to CN0.

The BBC and Greenpeace have run articles highlighting the level of waste being exported to Turkey, with estimates of 40% of UK plastic ending up there. In theory, this plastic is exported to be recycled, but the reality is that once those responsible have pocketed their payment, it is simply dumped. Simplistic recycling targets, and an acceptance of devolving accountability is at the root cause of these issues: The National Audit Office was damning in its findings stating in July 2018 that “[The UK’s recycling system] appears to have evolved into a comfortable way for government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues. The government has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or make it easy to recycle. And it relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled, and without consideration of whether other countries will continue to accept it in the long term.”

Carbon offsetting opportunities are a finite resource

There is a limit to how much reforestation and afforestation can be conducted, both in terms of absolute capacity, or more challengingly, due to financial constraints. The largest and longest-lived type of commercially grown fauna is fruit trees (the largest major group being cherry trees) which typically grow no more than 15m tall, whereas as an example, most pine species consistently grow to 50m or more. Broadly speaking, the taller the tree, the denser the carbon capture for a given area. What this means is that optimal carbon-sink solutions have severely limited meaningful commercial benefit so the land must be procured for offsetting projects, and maintained at cost.  At present, there are large swathes of suitable low-price land available, but as these options are exhausted by initial offsetting ventures future projects will have to procure land with commercial uses at much higher costs. Developed nations will likely purchase the majority if not all of the cheap land, leaving developing nations with few or no options available.

Used cooking oil is commonly re-purposed in the UK, burned as biodiesel in lorries, which once again, in isolation is a positive step. However, such is that the appetite for cooking oil derived biodiesel in the UK, that businesses have begun importing it from overseas. Burning marine diesel to transport cooking oil to be burned as biodiesel (which still emits GHGs) all to save on lorry diesel usage? This has a net detrimental environmental effect compared to burning biodiesel at or near its origin and raises obvious questions.

CN0: A single, over-simplified metric

Putting aside carbon off-setting practices, measuring CO2 emissions as the sole metric for success in the sustainability battle means that other negative consequences become fair game. Resource depletion, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, water poverty and human suffering at times go unchecked.  There is particular cause for concern around “green” technologies with a focus on energy generation and energy storage.

  • Dependence on cobalt: At present, the highest energy-density commercially available batteries are lithium-ion (Li+) with cobalt-based cathodes and they form the mainstay of almost all consumer electronics where battery size and weight are critical selling points like phones and laptops. More than 55% of the world’s cobalt is mined in DR Congo, where Amnesty International estimate 40,000 child workers are at risk of contact dermatitis, Hard Metal Lung Disease, lethal mine collapses, atrocious working conditions and modern-day slavery.

  • Lithium remains a problem: Manufacturers of larger applications of Li+ batteries such as battery-electric cars, have more recently been moving away from cobalt cathodes, such as Tesla in September 2020, but the lithium remains problematic. Lithium is found in three forms in the earth’s crust; in solution (brine) and two mineral formats (pegmatite and sedimentary). Lithium brine forms the majority of global reserves, and is predominantly found in low purity form of 4-6% in deep aquifers (subterranean water reserves) often underneath unique salt-flat habitats. Lithium brine is pumped onto vast plastic sheets to evaporate the water and leave behind lithium salt deposits. Extraction of mineral forms means mining, whilst purification requires sulphuric acid, releasing atmospheric CO2. Modelling by LUT and Augsburg universities suggest earth will exhaust its lithium reserves between 2040 and 2100 dependent upon battery technologies, battery electric vehicle (BEV) manufacturing, lithium recycling and global population variables. This modelling assumes the appetite to destroy virtually all of the world’s largest salt-flat ecosystems.

  • Water: Water vapour is part of a positive environmental and atmospheric feedback loop. Unfortunately, due to some of the aforementioned CN0 related activities there are some serious ramifications for water on the horizon. Making full use of global lithium reserves requires (along with rock extraction) removal and evaporation of subterranean lithium brine. Much of this supply is in the form of nonmeteoric aquifers; meaning they are not replenished during the course of the hydrologic (water) cycle, instead consisting purely of water formed by geological events early in the earth’s history, from evaporated seas and volcanic activity. These supplies are not renewable. Further still, this removal and evaporation causes the water tables to drop in the associated surrounding areas which has a resulting detrimental effect on wildlife, farming, etc. Lithium brine is typically found beneath evaporated sea-beds which are almost exclusively located in deserts with no viable alternative water source.

  • Solar power comes at a price: At the core of solar-power (photovoltaic) technologies is high-purity silicon, extracted from quartz (silicon dioxide). Quartz is mined world-wide, with the greatest concentrations in developing nations, where labour conditions are poor and miners are exposed to carcinogenic respirable-sized quartz, responsible for the diseases silicosis and pulmonary fibrosis. Initial quartz purification requires heating with carbon (often using fossil-fuels) to 2000°C to remove the dioxide component, released as atmospheric CO2. Further purification uses hydrochloric acid, by-producing the incredibly toxic compound silicon tetrachloride, responsible for several environmental disasters in China. Construction of a large solar-power installation (200+ Megawatts) requires upwards of a billion litres of water, and can consume more than 20 million litres per year to keep it sufficiently clean.

  • Wind-farms: Wind-farm turbine-blades are typically constructed from varying combinations of glass-fibre, polyester, epoxy and carbon-fibre, the sourcing and processing of which involves significant quantities of volatile organic compounds a class of environmental pollutant compounds hazardous to human health. They have a designed lifespan typically of 25 – 30 years, with first-generation wind-turbines now being decommissioned. In March 2021, New Civil Engineer published an article highlighting the CO2 reduction initiative of re-purposing worn-out wind turbine blades in lieu of steel rebar for construction concrete. Definitely innovative and any diversion from landfill or reduction of carbon is a success. However, as well as being clear on the implication of down-cycling in this manner it is important to seize upon the opportunity to push further and scale such initiatives. For example, contrasting wind-farm turbine blades with other turbine blade types highlights the opportunity for a more holistic approach: Aviation propellers have planned life-cycles, defined by flying hours, and are designed with erosion-shields and sacrificial high-wear parts made of readily-recycled steel and aluminium replaced at scheduled intervals to keep the blades operational, and prolong the lifecycle of the core components.

What to do?

Carbon reducing activities are and must remain a key focus for all. BEVs, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), biodiesel all make the headlines, and the public are provided with easily accessible solutions like re-usable shopping bags and recycling whilst it seems that the real difficult changes are yet to come.

Perhaps there is a need for a fundamental overhaul of sustainability reporting and metrics to offer real insight. The ‘balanced scorecard’ concept may feel slightly dated or like clichéd management-speak, but a more complete solution to the climate crisis that we face is going to need to be multi-factorial in its application and management, and certainly needs to go beyond the current CN0 status-quo.

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