December 21, 2023, 4:47 Dec

Hydrogen stupidity op-ed

I wrote this with the intention of sending it to the Brussels Times. In the end I didn't, since CBA. Anyway, here it is.

Hydrogen has been hyped up recently as a key enabler for the energy transition. To quote Frans Timmermans, the former Vice-President of the European Commission: "One of the most exciting journeys into the future, I believe, is clean energy coming from hydrogen." Or better yet: "‘hydrogen rocks' and today, it's a rock-star ready to go mainstream and become, alongside renewable electricity, a must-have in our economy." Timmermans is one of the more radical voices for climate action in Europe. So why do I and many others disagree with him enough to disrupt the EU's Hydrogen Week conference?

We disrupted it because the EU's hydrogen strategy is plagued by its silences and injustices. Some of the bollocks being peddled by lobby groups is so stupid that it's not worth addressing in detail. For example, anyone trying to sell you a hydrogen boiler to heat your home is either an idiot or a charlatan (or both). However, there are more fundamental and more interesting issues that are not widely discussed. I'll talk about just two of them here: the potential for greenwashing and the creation of neocolonial trade relationships.

While green hydrogen (hydrogen produced using renewable electricity) is being sold to us as a sustainable fuel and chemical feedstock, it simply isn't at the currently proposed scale. You need land for the wind turbines and solar panels, fresh water for the electrolysis, and a host of metals and other resources for the technology required to produce it and the infrastructure to transport it. Its use should, therefore be as limited as possible, as with pretty much any other technology. However, the targets for hydrogen production in the REPowerEU plan are double that of Paris agreement-aligned scenarios.

Why? Because the hydrogen lobby is the fossil fuel lobby. The same companies and regulated monopolies that today are extracting, refining, and transporting fossil gas are now pushing for green hydrogen or other, even less sustainable forms of hydrogen. They are desperate to cling to their old business models no matter the cost. They are re-selling gas pipeline projects as hydrogen pipelines or fantasizing about retrofitting the entire gas grid to accommodate hydrogen. This would come at enormous costs since you cannot use the same pipelines for methane (fossil gas) and hydrogen. Having a mixture of the two is an even stupider proposition. Stupid ideas that require extravagant amounts of cash also need corrupt politicians to turn a blind eye, as the recent example of Portugal shows. All of this risks locking us into hydrogen dependency at a time when we really cannot afford additional delays and inefficiencies.

More problematic are the neocolonial dynamics at play. In order to import 10 million tonnes of hydrogen by 2030, EU members states and institutions are (planning to) invest in green hydrogen production in formerly colonised countries such as Chile, Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are countries with poor access to electricity (e.g. 50% in Namibia), which export-driven hydrogen production would not alleviate; often the production sites are in water-scarce areas; and often, indigenous people are to be driven off their lands to enable this. These are the same dynamics at play during the colonial era: extracting resources in a colony to serve the (fossil fuel industry-driven) demand of the coloniser.

The EU narrative is that electricity or hydrogen production will serve local populations first and be exported second, creating jobs and prosperity in the process. Perversely, the CEO of Hydrogen Europe (the lobby group that essentially dictates EU policy), Jorgo Chatzamarkakis, seems convinced that this trade will actually help atone for the colonial legacy of some EU member states. It requires quite some optimism to believe that, given the history of exploitation of these countries peoples and their resources, developing hydrogen production for export could achieve this. Furthermore, while these countries are constrained to payback unjust debt obligations, it is impossible for them to enter into an 'equal partnership'. Then there is the technical inefficiency of producing hydrogen to be consumed on the other side of the worl. Finally, let's not forget that all of this trade serves to satisfy a hydrogen demand which could probably be satisfied within Europe if energy sufficiency measures were taken seriously.

There are many other issues with how hydrogen is being sold to us. For example, the blind acceptance of hydrogen's current use to produce environmentally damaging nitrogen-based fertilisers should be challenged. However, the bottom line is this: green hydrogen will almost certainly play a role in the energy transition but, given all its issues, that role must be as limited as possible.

Feedback on this version

  • Did I really need another quote from Frans Timmermans?
  • I probably shouldn't swear
  • I shouldn't call something stupid before the end of the article
  • I don't mention the inefficiencies / losses associated with hydrogen (fair enough, probably should)
  • There doesn't seem to be a link to hydrogen in the Portugese corruption case yet

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