Green Hydrogen Not a Blanket Alternative to Fossil Fuels?

Green hydrogen is increasingly being built up as the ideal clean fuel for a carbon-neutral tomorrow, but is it a viable replacement for the use of fossil fuels in cars or domestic heating systems?

In a recently published study conducted by Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), scientists have found that even though hydrogen, as an energy carrier, could play a central role in the restructuring of our energy industry towards climate neutrality, it would be wrong, at least in the medium term, to use the gas and the e-fuels made from it to drive cars.

The researchers recommend that hydrogen-based fuels should primarily be used in sectors such as aviation or industrial processes that cannot be electrified. In many other cases, producing these fuels is too inefficient, costly and their availability too uncertain, to broadly replace fossil fuels. For most sectors, directly using electricity- for instance, in battery electric cars (BEV) or heat pumps- makes more economic sense.

The study pointed out that the new hydrogen-based fuels could keep combustion technology alive longer, which in turn would ensure continued dependence on fossil fuels and thus further greenhouse gas emissions and endanger the climate targets.

Falko Ueckerdt, lead author of the study, said, “Such fuels as a universal climate solution are a bit of a false promise. While they are wonderfully versatile, they cannot be expected to replace fossil fuels on a large scale. This can only be achieved with direct electrification. Hydrogen-based fuels will likely be very scarce and uncompetitive for at least another decade.”

Co-author Romain Sacchi explained that the world is currently far from producing 100% renewable electricity – so making efficient use of it is key. However, if hydrogen-based fuels are used instead of direct electrification alternatives, two to fourteen times the amount of electricity generation might be needed. With the current electricity mixes, hydrogen-based fuels would increase – not decrease – greenhouse gas emissions.

Since Germany is still a long way from obtaining electricity from 100 percent renewable sources, there is also a lack of excess electricity for the climate-neutral production of hydrogen, especially since green hydrogen is used in other areas such as air traffic or shipping.

Due to rising CO2 prices, the PIK researchers believe that hydrogen-based fuels could become cost-competitive by 2040. However, given the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize our climate, 2040 would be too late for all those sectors in which direct electrification is possible, warns the institute.

The study comes at a key moment when governments and business organisations are pushing for a greater reliance on green hydrogen, without engaging in a nuanced reflection on its consequences. Efforts to construct an ecologically ideal energy mix should rise above media hype around apparent quick fixes like green hydrogen and focus on sustainable solutions with long-term benefits that are corroborated by scientific evidence.

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Soumya Duggal

Soumya is a master's degree holder in English, with a passion for writing. It's an interest she has directed towards environmental writing recently, with a special emphasis on the progress being made in renewable energy.

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