Originally posted on EVANNEX.
by Charles Morris
Reasonable minds may differ on the question
of whether hydrogen fuel cells have a place in the clean-energy
future. However, it’s a fact that the fossil fuel giants have been
heavily hyping hydrogen, and it’s not hard to see why, as the vast
majority of hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas.
Oil companies (which now want to be known as
“energy companies”) are keen to be seen as green these days. Shell,
BP, and Total are investing large sums in EV infrastructure, at all
levels of the charging value chain. They also present their hydrogen
business as a tool to reduce carbon emissions. However, recent
comments by an oil industry lobbyist concerning the industry’s efforts
to undermine climate regulations indicate that Big Oil’s
double-dealing strategy — butterflies and grandchildren for the press,
lobbyists and campaign cash for policymakers — hasn’t changed.
Michael Liebreich, the founder of BloombergNEF (originally named New
Energy Financing before it was purchases by Bloomberg), presents some
new thoughts about the issue in a recent interview published in
Liebreich (who is no tree-hugging liberal, but a pro-business
supporter of the UK Conservative Party, and an advisor to Norwegian
oil giant Equinor) isn’t against hydrogen per se, but he believes (as
do many in the clean energy field) that it makes sense only in certain
“In an attempt to guide governments and industry players away from the
[oil industry-sponsored] spin, Liebreich has created what he calls his
Hydrogen Ladder, a simple chart showing which use cases for H2 are
uncompetitive, which are unavoidable for decarbonization, and which
sit somewhere in the middle,” writes Recharge’s Leigh Collins.
At the top of Liebreich’s ladder lie
applications such as ammonia-based fertilizer and oil refining, which
currently use highly polluting grey hydrogen produced from fossil
fuels, and are responsible for 3–4% of all global carbon emissions. In
the middle are use cases in which hydrogen might make sense, such as
seasonal power storage, steel, chemicals, shipping and long-haul
aviation. At the bottom “uncompetitive” end of the ladder are
light-duty vehicles and domestic heating, applications in which
hydrogen fuel cells clearly make no sense (battery-electric vehicles
and heat pumps are far more efficient, and already well established in
In Liebreich’s view, the logical course would be to replace polluting
grey hydrogen with green hydrogen produced by electrolysis in the
applications at the hydrogen-friendly top of the ladder, and to cease
futile attempts to make hydrogen work for cars and other applications
at the bottom of the ladder.
However, that’s not the approach that the oil companies are taking.
They’re pouring money and lobbying efforts into convincing politicians
to direct public investment to building a “hydrogen economy,” with
considerable success, notable in Canada, Germany, and the UK.
This is not because oil company execs are ignorant of the science —
you can bet they’re as well informed as you and I, if not more so.
Liebreich believes that leaders of fossil fuel firms know that
hydrogen is a poor choice for cars and home heating, but are pushing
it as a solution in order to slow the pace of electrification.
“If you’re an oil and gas company, in a way,
talking about hydrogen is kind of a two-way bet because if it works,
then you’re embedded in the hydrogen industry — but if it doesn’t
work, you’ve delayed the transition to the thing you don’t make, which
is electricity,” he tells Recharge. “So why wouldn’t you promote
hydrogen for inappropriate use? For the things that are not at the top
of the ladder, that are fairly down — local trains, local buses, cars,
delivery vehicles — why not promote it? Because at worst it creates
confusion, which is great [for them]. And these companies have an
interest in this [electric] stuff not moving too fast, I’m afraid —
for all their good words.”
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