Hydrogen has shot up the European legislative agenda in recent years, with politicians of all stripes touting its potential to help countries meet their climate goals.
The UK government’s Hydrogen Strategy, launched in August, promises to develop a “thriving low carbon hydrogen sector” as a “key plank” of its climate plans, and the fuel was given pride of place at a “Hydrogen Transition Summit” hosted in Glasgow during the recent UN climate talks.
But not all hydrogen is created equal, and environmental experts have raised concerns about the type of hydrogen being advocated – as well as which sectors of the economy it is best suited for.
The fuel comes in a variety of “colours”, depending on how it is produced, with almost all hydrogen currently created using fossil gas and termed “grey”.
“Blue” hydrogen is also derived from natural gas but combined with the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and is being heavily promoted by the gas industry as a “bridge” fuel to a low-emission future.
Experts dispute this climate-friendly branding, however, given the problem of methane leakages through the production and transportation process, and doubts about the efficacy of CCS.
Juliet Philips, senior policy advisor at the thinktank E3G, described it as “a bit of a red herring as a low-carbon solution”.
And a recent study by US academics Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobson estimated that carbon emissions from blue hydrogen are only moderately lower than for grey. When taking into account methane its climate footprint is “more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat”, they found.
“Green” hydrogen is created using electricity generated from renewables and could play a key role in decarbonising heavy industry such as steel and cement production. It’s also seen as essential to replacing current hydrogen production and could be a useful option for energy storage.
At the same time, many experts say sectors such as transport and heating should be electrified as much as possible instead of being switched to hydrogen, even if it’s green, given the quantity of electricity required to produce it.
An in-depth article by the website Carbon Brief argues that the fuel is unlikely to be taken up universally, particularly as “the volume required to satisfy all the possible applications for low-carbon hydrogen would likely far exceed the amount available, even if production is significantly scaled up.”
So, how has hydrogen gone from being a fairly obscure industry to a critical part of Europe’s green plans?
DeSmog has mapped the sprawling network of fossil fuel companies, trade associations, PR firms and other organisations behind the push for hydrogen, which offers some clues.
Credit: Gaia Lamperti.
Hydrogen is now considered a central aspect of Europe’s “Green Deal” strategy, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating earlier this year that clean hydrogen could “power heavy industries, propel our cars, trucks and planes, store seasonal energy, heat up our homes” – all with “almost zero emissions”.
The fossil fuel industry has managed to secure significant financial support from governments through Covid recovery funds, successfully lobbying for increased funding for hydrogen.
Research by the European Network of Corporate Observatories and the Fossil Free Politics campaign group revealed earlier this year how at least €8.3 billion had been made available for hydrogen and renewable gas projects across Italy, France, Spain and Portugal alone.
One of the key groups behind this success is Hydrogen Europe, whose Secretary General spoke at the Hydrogen Transition Summit during COP26 alongside government ministers from countries such as Chile, India and Portugal.
Hydrogen Europe represents the European hydrogen and fuel cell sector, comprising over 260 companies, including Shell, Equinor, Air Liquide, BP and EON, as well as 27 National Associations “who support the delivery of hydrogen and fuel cells technologies”, covering the entire hydrogen value chain.
Hydrogen Europe participates in the EU’s IPCEI (Important Projects of Common European Interest), an EU funding scheme allowing state aid rules to be relaxed for “key strategic value chains”, enabling member states to fund industry projects from public money.
An industry-dominated “Strategic Forum” on IPCEIs, which included Hydrogen Europe and Italy’s Confindustria, the country’s main body representing manufacturing and service companies, was instrumental in identifying hydrogen as a “key strategic value chain”.
Last December, 22 EU countries and Norway signed a manifesto “paving the way for a cleaner hydrogen value chain” and committing to launch hydrogen IPCEIs, which will be implemented from next year and include private financing from the beneficiaries.
Hydrogen Europe boasts of its influence on the EU’s Hydrogen Strategy in a video highlighting the opportunities for its members in meeting Europe’s target of generating 80 Gigawatts of green hydrogen in 2030.
The group overlaps with other European lobby groups including the Hydrogen Council and the Clean Hydrogen Alliance. Behind all three organisations are companies including Shell, Equinor, Air Liquide and EDF.
Hydrogen Europe has welcomed EU targets and regulations that promote hydrogen across the economy, guaranteeing ongoing business for fossil fuel companies that produce the hydrogen and natural gas for electricity grids.
This is a key concern for Dr Richard Lowes, senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project, which works to support the clean energy transition, who says the use of hydrogen on this scale will “increase the demand for gas even though it’s supposed to be offsetting gas”.
“Because it increases demand for gas, it basically creates an ongoing investment cycle and if people think there’s continued demand for gas for the production of hydrogen, then people will keep investing in fossil fuel infrastructure production,” he adds.
Lowes argues hydrogen is a distraction that is delaying investment and the scaling up of other decarbonisation options that are already available. “The biggest concern I’ve got is that it just delays action. If an organisation or group of organisations are successful at getting hydrogen onto some sort of political agenda or legislative train, it just moves attention away from other solutions.”
One of the main pieces of EU legislation targeted by Hydrogen Europe is Fit for 55, a package of policies aimed at meeting the EU’s commitment to cut its emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.
Hydrogen Europe regularly meets key individuals within the commission, holding meetings 46 times since 2015, including to influence Fit for 55 policies. On 14 October, for example, the group met with Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights in Brussels to discuss Fit for 55.
Part of the Fit for 55 Energy package released in July reflected measures pushed for by Hydrogen Europe, such as hydrogen receiving targets and free carbon credits in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), the EU’s carbon market.
Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary general of Hydrogen Europe responded to the announcement by saying: “The EU has come one step closer to becoming a global leader in hydrogen development. By putting targets on the use of hydrogen in industry and transport, the EU stands a real chance to achieve climate objectives, create thousands of jobs and protect its industry.”
In April, Hydrogen Europe published the “Hydrogen Act”, a “vision paper” intended to ensure that “the ambition of the European Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy is translated into concrete actions” between now and 2050.
The publication was launched at an event organised by the Portuguese presidency, at which João Galamba, Portuguese deputy minister and energy secretary, said: “we need a collective focus and drive to accelerate the implementation of a hydrogen market, create a full hydrogen value chain in Europe… The Hydrogen Act, prepared by Hydrogen Europe, represents a strategic collaboration effort, giving an excellent contribution to that vision”.
Hydrogen lobbying has been so successful in Portugal that the CEO of oil and gas company Partex, António Costa Silva, was appointed to draft the “Strategic Vision” for the country’s national covid recovery plan as well as preside over the commission that will supervise its implementation.
The resulting recovery plan – which prioritises hydrogen but only allocates 18.4 percent of funds to the climate transition compared to the 37 percent expected by the EU – has been criticised by environmental groups.
Groups connected to Hydrogen Europe contain members who want to use hydrogen to maintain countries’ dependence on the fossil fuels that are integral to their current businesses. For example, GERG – the European Gas Research Group, a partner of Hydrogen Europe, is made up of major gas companies such as Snam and GRT Gaz.
E3G’s Juliet Phillips argues that hydrogen “provides a bit of a get-out-of-jail card for certain industries, enabling them to keep using some of the same assets and infrastructure which they currently are from the fossil fuel supply chain – in the case of blue hydrogen with CCS.”
Hydrogen in the UK Parliament
Lobbying at the national level has been successful at promoting hydrogen for the fossil fuel industry too.
All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) in the UK can offer lobbyists access to politicians – they are informal groups with no official status within parliament but often contain powerful coalitions of key decision-makers.
The APPG on Hydrogen was established in July 2018 as the conversation around hydrogen began to take off.
A coalition of fossil fuel companies sponsor the group via PR and public affairs agency Connect, which aims to link its clients with policymakers in order to achieve their aims.
Fossil fuel, manufacturing and engineering companies Baxi, Bosch, Cadent, EDF, Equinor, EUA, Johnson Matthey, National Grid, Northern Gas Networks, SGN and Shell together pay Connect to administer the APPG, at an annual cost of £64,501-66,000.
The APPG describes its focus as “raising awareness of, and building support for large scale hydrogen projects – such as conversion to a hydrogen domestic gas grid – that will enable the UK to meet decarbonisation targets.”
Minutes from the APPG’s recent meetings show representatives from some of the companies that fund it have been given the chance to speak alongside government representatives and discuss the government’s Hydrogen Strategy prior to its release.
The fossil fuel industry has significantly greater resources to spend on generating attention around hydrogen than smaller parts of the renewable energy industry, according to Lowes, and they are willing to spend it on such lobbying because they are “under threat from decarbonisation” – as a form of “protectionism”.
The APPG is chaired by Jacob Young, Conservative MP for Redcar, a constituency that is set to hold the UK’s first “Hydrogen Hub” in a move designed to create jobs and transform the deindustrialised area. In a meeting in June, Young invited guest speakers to outline what they would like to advise the government on in the then-upcoming Hydrogen Strategy report.
Vice Chair of the group is Conservative MP Alexander Stafford who before being elected to Parliament worked for Shell, one of the APPG’s funders, and also sits on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee.
In a meeting in April, the APPG discussed the role of hydrogen in decarbonising heat in homes.
Speakers from government, parliament and industry attended, including Clive Betts MP, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee; Jeff House, head of external affairs at Baxi Heating; Martyn Bridges, director of marketing and technical support for Worcester Bosch; and Daniel Newport, head of heat and buildings strategy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Energy and engineering company Bosch, which says it is investing a billion euros in hydrogen from 2021 to 2024, funds the APPG while also receiving government support from BEIS.
Martyn Bridges stated during the meeting that his company “now employs over 20 engineers solely focused on hydrogen work, with BEIS investment in their hydrogen work being matched “four or five-fold” by Worcester Bosch themselves.”
‘Blue Hydrogen for Heating is a Trap’
Despite the optimism expressed in the meeting about the potential for hydrogen to heat homes, experts such as Lowes are less than enthusiastic: “blue hydrogen for heating can basically be discounted, it locks in fossil fuels” and has “all the typical hallmarks of a trap.”
As well as a seat at discussions with a BEIS representative, Baxi’s managing director also spoke at the COP26 Hydrogen Transition Summit where she called for measures to speed up the introduction of hydrogen to decarbonise heating.
At a meeting in March to “examine how the Government can work with industry to progress the role of hydrogen in powering industry”, speakers included Dan Arnold, head of hydrogen for industry at BEIS; Rebecca Rosling, head of smart customers, research and development at EDF; Andrew Marsh, corporate affairs business partner for gas transmission at the National Grid; and Chris Gent, policy manager at the Carbon Capture and Storage Association.
Jacob Young told Dan Arnold the APPG appreciated that BEIS had adopted a dual approach by backing both blue and green hydrogen, which he said the group viewed as the right approach.
During the discussion, Andrew Marsh said that the National Grid also acknowledges that blue hydrogen may serve as a bridge to green hydrogen in the long-term and become a transitional technology in around 40-50 years’ time. He also explained that hydrogen “blending”, whereby hydrogen is mixed with natural gas, would enable areas to increase their use of the fuel incrementally.
Both Rebecca Rosling and Chris Gent agreed that blue hydrogen was necessary and should be encouraged.
The APPG minutes show a strong alignment between government and industry on the use of fossil fuel-based blue hydrogen as a transition technology, with implications for the UK’s climate goals.
Juliet Phillips argues it is “dangerous” to wait around to see if “silver bullet solutions” succeed, instead of focussing on scaling up already available renewable technologies.
“It feels like government’s really being led by industry, rather than the other way around, on this one,” she says, calling for a “much greater role for scientists, local authorities, workers and civil society organisations”.
Future of Hydrogen
There is a clear tension between the optimism of hydrogen lobbyists who see a place for it throughout the economy, and the scepticism of climate experts who point to electrification as the better option in many contexts and highlight the potentially significant climate footprint of blue hydrogen.
Efforts by the industry-funded hydrogen lobby have succeeded in persuading European countries to throw their support behind both green and blue types, and across multiple sectors.
That’s a cause for concern for those who say the fuel risks being used as a trojan horse that could lock in polluting gas infrastructure.
Hydrogen Europe, the APPG on Hydrogen and Jacob Young did not respond to a request for comment on this story.