Hydrogen, a molecule being considered key to get to a net zero society, is in its natural form a colourless gas. Yet, suddenly, hydrogen is of many colours. It is a light and storable energy carrier that can be produced ‘clean or dirty’, and the colour code developed in the market is to distinguish the respective production methods and relates climate impact. Green hydrogen clearly represents the ultimate 'net zero' goal, and as such it is part of all eight European Commission scenarios to get to net zero by 2050.
Here lies a huge opportunity for the Netherlands: the country has the knowledge, geographical location and existing (gas) infrastructure to excel in the European hydrogen economy. However, at this early stage in the energy transition we will not get there by solely focusing on green hydrogen. In line with various case studies, for example from CE Delft, blue hydrogen is an essential step to help build up the necessary infrastructure in order to create a mature European hydrogen market. This market shall gradually (and ultimately) be turned 100% green, through an energy transition that is currently set in motion. Taking this transitional ‘blue step’, allows for the needed scale-up of the complex hydrogen infrastructure and for the green hydrogen market to become cost-effective and economically viable.
The hydrogen colours explained
The climate impact of hydrogen depends on its production process. Colours are used to indicate the different types of technologies and energy sources used to produce hydrogen – just as energy suppliers may offer green and grey electricity. As said, there is a rainbow of colours: ranging from grey, brown and black, to green, blue and turquoise, to purple, pink and red. And that's not even the full spectrum. Here, we explain hydrogen's primary colours: green, blue and grey.
- Green hydrogen is fully climate neutral, and produced from the electrolysis of water powered by renewable energy sources, mostly wind and solar. For hydrogen to be truthfully green according to the European Commission, it should meet two primary requirements. It must be made by way of electrolysis from surplus renewable energy sources. Also, there should be a temporal correlation between the production of hydrogen and the electricity consumption. In order to enable a higher renewable energy consumption, we must ensure that it is covered by an increase in renewable capacity, as according to Hydrogen Europe.
- Blue hydrogen is categorised as carbon neutral or low carbon as no CO2 is emitted directly in the atmosphere but captured in the process. Although blue hydrogen is produced with natural gas, a fossil fuel, the CO2 released during production is captured and stored permanently underground or used, for instance as a fertiliser in greenhouses. Carbon capture, storage and utilization (CCUS) technology is sometimes challenged as costly and not inherently carbon free; other low-carbon and lower cost hydrogen technologies are being developed.
- Grey hydrogen, just like blue hydrogen, is obtained from fossil fuels. However, no CO2 is captured during production and the CO2 gets released in the atmosphere. Although it is currently the most common form of hydrogen being produced mainly as a feedstock for industrial use, it is clearly not a climate-friendly option.
Going green while being blue
Projects around the world promise new opportunities to use renewable energies to produce hydrogen. And ultimately, if we want to serve the 'climate-neutrality' goal effectively, this is the way to go. For instance, Iceland has an ambition in using geothermal plants, while in the Swiss Alp region hydropower might be the future. In the Netherlands, we can harvest large amounts of wind energy in the North Sea and use the surplus to produce green hydrogen. Tidal and wave energy may perhaps also become suitable sources one day. In the meantime, in order to scale up now and help tackle the pending energy crisis, the import of hydrogen and hydrogen carriers will be key.
A climate neutral source of energy is an objective anyone concerned about the current climate crisis would support. However, focusing on green hydrogen only – and neglecting the other hydrogen colours in the spectrum – creates a huge risk of causing serious delays in accomplishing the much needed transition of our energy supply systems in Europe. Paving the way to green hydrogen is a story of 'AND/AND’. We cannot throw fossil fuels away in one day. We need them now in order to abolish them later, as also put forward by climate change specialist Lucian Peppelenbos.
Building a hydrogen infrastructure takes time and requires significant investments from all stakeholders. If we wait until green electricity production has increased to a surplus, it will be just too late. In fact, if we do not create sufficient energy storage facilities using hydrogen for instance, it may be that clean energy production facilities like solar and wind farms need to be shut down regularly. This is simply in order to manage an oversupply of electricity which our electricity networks are unable to handle, we need clever storage in hydrogen solutions to create the necessary buffers to avoid that. In other words, an ’EITHER/OR’ hydrogen scenario allowing green hydrogen only, doesn't do justice to the more complex reality. We better start investing as soon as possible, also if this means that blue hydrogen will be part of the process for the time being. A 100% switch to green hydrogen can just be introduced gradually and only where made efficient and cost-effective of time. A 100% switch to green hydrogen must be gradually introduced and developed in an efficient and cost-effective way.
Cooperation is key
Cooperation will prove to make or break the hydrogen economy. As a law firm, we contribute by helping to tackle the legal challenges as we build a future-fit hydrogen and CCUS infrastructure together in Europe. Are you interested in also becoming part of the transition from grey to green energy, by participating in this hydrogen economy? We look forward to catching up with you soon.