Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can enable early and cost-efficient hydrogen at scale. Low-carbon hydrogen produced from reformed natural gas with CCS can fulfil early hydrogen demand, giving more time to plan and build the infrastructure required to scale up renewable hydrogen.
For the European Union to meet its 2030 and 2050 climate targets, low-carbon hydrogen will be crucial to kick-start the EU hydrogen economy of the future and, to date, it represents one of few viable options for many energy-intensive industries and industrial operations relying on high temperatures to decarbonise in a cost-efficient way.
The production of low-carbon hydrogen is crucial to enable substantial reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and for the cost-efficient decarbonisation of energy-intensive European industrial sectors. Hydrogen can be used in a wide range of applications in many sectors of the economy. Combining hydrocarbon resources and/or residual process streams to produce hydrogen with CCS improves environmental performance.
Yet, there are misconceptions surrounding low-carbon hydrogen, previously referred to as ‘blue’ hydrogen. A 2021 study by Howarth and Jacobson discussing blue hydrogen states: “we see no advantage in using blue hydrogen powered by natural gas compared with simply using the natural gas directly for heat”.
However, this study and its conclusions are not applicable to the situation in Europe. The study makes inaccurate claims and assumptions when addressing the means of producing low-carbon hydrogen, for example:
- Upstream fugitive methane emissions are assumed to be 3.5% for natural gas. This number does not apply to Europe, nor on a global scale, where methane emissions are stated to be ten times lower.
- The study assumes that hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming (SMR) with a carbon capture rate of 76%. This is low when compared with purpose built low-carbon hydrogen production units in Europe, where low-carbon hydrogen will mainly be produced by auto-thermal reforming (ATR), where a capture rate of more than 92% is planned to be achieved. The EU regulations on the manufacturing of low-carbon hydrogen, such as the EU Taxonomy for Sustainable Activities, are based on full life-cycle assessment of GHG emissions and setting clear thresholds for CO2 emissions per unit hydrogen produced.
- The study assumes that the energy to run the hydrogen production is produced separately, requiring significant natural gas and generating corresponding CO2 emissions. In reality, proper system integration can result in hydrogen production with CCS with net-zero power demand.
I would recommend readers of this study to be very cautious, as this study and its results do not apply to the European context!
ZEP has published an academic paper “Facts on low-carbon hydrogen – A European perspective”, addressing the conclusions reached in the Howarth and Jacobson study. ZEP’s paper uses starting points and conditions that are relevant to Europe, demonstrating that low-carbon hydrogen is a technology that has a significantly lower climate footprint than natural gas combustion.
The EU Hydrogen Strategy states that both renewable and low-carbon hydrogen with CCS will play a role in achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and puts a focus on the role of renewable hydrogen in the long-term perspective. However, without low-carbon hydrogen, the 2030 hydrogen ambitions will not be met. Before the production of hydrogen from renewable electricity is widely available, competitive, and affordable, low-carbon hydrogen can be applied across many economic sectors, helping to decarbonise Europe, and several industrial decarbonisation projects including hydrogen with CCS are in the pipeline in Europe.
When discussing a European approach to the hydrogen economy, regardless of technology the entire carbon footprint must be considered, thus, it is of utmost importance to always take additionality into account. This means that for renewable hydrogen, only new renewable electricity is eligible.
CO2 transport and storage infrastructure will be instrumental to deliver early, large-scale volumes of low-carbon hydrogen – enabling the redesign of many industrial processes to avoid CO2 emissions. In the short term, hydrogen produced with CCS can be applied on a large scale as a climate-neutral energy carrier before 2030 as part of the energy supply for both heat-intensive and energy-intensive industries. This will deliver early emissions reduction across several sectors and allow for hydrogen produced from renewables to develop and scale up as renewable generation capacity increases.
In the long term, existing hydrogen infrastructure based on frontrunner projects will support and encourage the development of electrolysis-based hydrogen, underpinning the establishment of a European hydrogen economy.
Low-carbon hydrogen has a pivotal role to play in Europe’s journey to climate neutrality. It will safeguard and create jobs, support industrial activity, foster economic growth, and lead the way for electrolysis-produced hydrogen to scale up to a point where both, regardless of technology, can co-exist and compete on equal terms in a technology-neutral market.