DeSmog

Ditch Hydrogen as ‘Poor Decarbonization Tool’, Citizens’ Committee Urges Edmonton

Jamie Smith Hopkins
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A sign for a hydrogen fuel station is in the foreground in front of infrastructure
A hydrogen fuel station sign. Credit: Bexim (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

This article by The Energy Mix is published here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.

A citizens’ committee appointed by the City of Edmonton is calling on Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and municipal councillors to reject hydrogen as a clean energy option for all but the most difficult sectors to decarbonize.

The city “has increasingly seen hydrogen offered as a solution and pathway to achieve Edmonton’s emissions reduction targets,” the Energy Transition Climate Resilience Committee (ETCRC) writes in a 14-page memo issued May 2.

But Alberta’s supplies of “grey” and “blue” hydrogen are both produced from methane gas — the only difference is that the blue variety promises to abate its carbon dioxide emissions with economically uncertain and technically questionable carbon capture and storage technologies — and “the evidence shows that blue hydrogen is a poor decarbonization tool that is unlikely to align with Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy emissions reduction targets.”

The ETCRC is a committee of 15 local experts set up to help Edmonton implement two strategic plans, its Community Energy Transition Strategy and its Climate Resilient Edmonton plan, the city says on its website.

The committee’s memo cites “serious concerns” with the impacts of blue hydrogen, including:

• Significant upstream methane emissions from venting, flaring, leaks, and methane gas used to power production facilities, “all of which are poorly quantified and monitored, and result in greater emissions factors than often reported”,

• Leftover “residual emissions” that aren’t picked up by the carbon capture process, or that enter the atmosphere when long-term storage facilities leak;

• Dependence on the carbon capture industry’s ability to scale up, meet performance targets, and operate cost-effectively — none of which producers have been able to demonstrate;

• “Significant, thermodynamically unavoidable energy losses” that make hydrogen an inefficient energy carrier, including or especially when its proponents talk about converting renewably-generated electricity to “green” hydrogen;

• Cost calculations that show hydrogen costing at least five to seven times more than natural gas per unit of energy delivered.

“This is a complex issue, but fundamentally it’s a marketing play by the fossil fuel industry,” ETCRC co-chair Jacob Komar told The Energy Mix Monday. “We just wanted to draw a line in the sand and show that this could be a really bad way to spend our money. So let’s use the solutions that work, instead of hoping for the industry to solve all of these massive problems and magically get us to net-zero in 10 or 15 years.”

Komar acknowledged the provincial government and the gas and oil industries won’t be pleased with the committee’s position. But “we have a duty to follow the science and make sure Edmonton doesn’t make bad decisions on something that the science says is a really dumb idea.”

The memo cites fertilizer, steel, biofuel, and petrochemical production as four hard-to-decarbonize industries where hydrogen may be the most realistic alternative to fossil fuels. By contrast, “the most inefficient applications for blue hydrogen include space heating, as well as short-distance and regional transportation,” it states.

“Converting these systems to hydrogen is a lose-lose scenario that will neither attain the emissions reduction targets in Edmonton’s energy transition strategy, nor chart a sensible economic course for the taxpayers of Edmonton.”

The ETCRC issued its critique just a week before the United Kingdom government pulled the plug on a third pilot project aimed at demonstrating hydrogen as a home heating fuel, in what the Guardian calls “the clearest sign to date that households will rely on electricity for low-carbon heating in the coming decades.” Months ago, a peer-reviewed meta-analysis of 54 independent studies by Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the UK’s Regulatory Assistance Project, reached the “unambiguous” conclusion that hydrogen has no significant role in home heating.

“Rosenow’s new analysis found that in the most cost-optimal pathways for heat decarbonization, H2 (hydrogen) took a median market share of just 1%,” Hydrogen Insights reported at the time. “Hydrogen heating raised energy system costs by a median of 24% compared to electrification (heat pumps and district heating), with a huge range of 0 to 400% across all 54 studies.”

The research also showed “that consumer costs would rise — by a median of 86% across all studies,” the industry news site added. “Rosenow’s review failed to find a single independent study supporting heating with hydrogen at scale.”

The UK government’s announcement “makes clear that all attention and investment should be focused on readily available clean heat solutions, like heat pumps and heat networks,” said Juliet Phillips, UK energy program lead at the E3G climate think tank.

“Discussions on hydrogen for heating are an unhelpful distraction that muddy the waters on the future of how we heat our homes,” she added. “Widespread use of hydrogen for heating is widely understood to be an extremely expensive and inefficient way to meet net-zero targets, which could exacerbate fuel poverty.”

But that analysis may have arrived too late for two major Canadian financial players, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and Brookfield Asset Management, writes Adam Scott, executive director of Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planetary Health, in a recent LinkedIn post. They’ve both invested in SGN, the UK’s second-biggest gas network, which Scott says has been “gesturing vaguely at hydrogen” in a bid to “deflect expert concerns that it faces a nearly certain ‘utility death spiral’ from electrification through heat pumps and induction cooking in coming years”.

In February, 2023, The Mix reported that the B.C. Investment Management Corporation (BCI), which manages the retirement savings of 715,000 British Columbians, had joined with Sydney, Australia-based Macquarie Asset Management to buy 60% of National Gas. The newly-formed company had just taken over operation of the UK’s 7,600-kilometre gas network and was pledging to build it into a hydrogen “backbone” for Britain.

“Hydrogen and other green gases offer the quickest and cheapest path to decarbonize home heating and key industrial processes, as well as strengthening the UK’s energy system through seasonal energy storage,” MacQuarrie spokesperson Will Price said at the time.

“If the price you paid [to buy into National gas] was driven by hydrogen for space heating, then this will end up as one for the history books — and not in a good way,” snarked back Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder Michael Liebreich, in an early February LinkedIn post aimed at Price.

The Mix’s coverage at the time went long on the formidable economic and technological hurdles that weigh against using hydrogen for home heating.

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