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Cracking the Hydrogen Egg! How can consumers understand where their Hydrogen has come from?

image credit: Courtesy of Unsplash.
John Armstrong's picture
Chief Operating Officer BPA

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry – giving him a front-row seat on the energy roller-coaster. He began his career constructing oil...

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  • Jun 6, 2022
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In a global interconnected system understanding where hydrogen has come from will become incredibly important. The temptation for some to make hydrogen from coal and release the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere may be too great. Whilst hydrogen projects remain small and directly linked this won’t be too much of a problem, however as international trade[i] develops the risk increases.

Already some have proposed using blockchain to verify hydrogen provenance and systems are already in production[ii]. How such a system is administered is incredibly important – too onerous and the cost burden of tracking will reduce the speed to technology uptake, too loose and public faith in hydrogen will be quickly shaken. The trust of the global public is incredibly important as has been demonstrated in the role out of other sustainability programmes – waste recycling in the UK is a fine example of where reality has the potential to undermine trust[iii] as plastics diligently sorted by the public have ended up in landfill along with unsorted waste.

It is inevitable that a certification scheme will need to be developed otherwise it won’t be long before hydrogen generates as much scandal as the carbon it saves.

The following would be key elements of a hydrogen carbon labelling system:

Validation of the source

End consumers will need to be sure about source. Although this feels simple in practice it could become incredibly complicated. In the Middle East hydrogen produced from solar could quickly be mixed with hydrogen produced from methane (hopefully with carbon capture). This cargo is then passed from owner to owner until it reaches it point of delivery. The cargo may have an average carbon intensity, but the person buying 100% green hydrogen will want to know that it is green hydrogen that they are getting. Source validation becomes incredibly important particularly given the economic benefits of just using methane and blasting the carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere.

Transportation and storage

Understanding carbon intensity won’t just stop at manufacture. How hydrogen is transported to its destination may have a significant impact on its intensity. Where energy is used to compress or liquify the hydrogen then the carbon intensity of that energy needs to be considered. If hydrogen is lost to atmosphere during transport, then the global warming effect of that hydrogen must be included in the carbon intensity calculation.

This makes carbon assessment incredibly complicated as it is not just a certificate of manufacture required but also a certificate of shipping.

Recognition of carbon intensity in the pricing

The system can’t just rely on goodwill. Somehow the carbon intensity of the hydrogen needs reflecting in the price. Whilst some are happy to pay more, this has a threshold where the additional cost is just too much. If the delta in cost between green and dirty hydrogen isn’t enough then there is a risk dirty hydrogen just replaces dirty gas.

Openness and communication

There needs to be a recognition that hydrogen isn’t perfectly green. Hydrogen lost along its journey adds to global warming and carbon, capture and storage isn’t perfect. Consumers need to be treated like intelligent buyers and given the information they need to understand.

A useful analogy is in the communication around eggs. Consumers are now much savvier in understanding the conditions of the birds producing the eggs we eat. There may be 11 billion eggs eaten in the United Kingdom each year, but with a strong communication system it is possible for consumers to understand what they are buying[iv]. This has been achieved through strong simple messaging.

Where this gets harder in both eggs and hydrogen is third parties. Whilst relatively easy to achieve in our homes it is less easy to verify in businesses that we visit. When they have a fried egg sandwich in a café, do consumers apply the same standards they would to a box of eggs they would buy from a shop themselves. Similarly, when you go to a supermarket, or fly on an airplane it is simply not realistic to expect consumers to be able to understand and influence the energy supply to all the businesses they use. Whilst some steps can be made to inform consumer choice, regulation will likely be needed in some sectors.

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 6, 2022

The analogy with the plastics recycling debacle is very apt.  You rightly point out how difficult it would be to guarantee that consumers get, for example, the Green hydrogen that they pay for.  And the «eggs» analogy (nice photo of eggs, by the way) illustrates the difficulty of ascertaining the color of hydrogen used to power, for example, the manufacture of steel and concrete used to build a building.  I think a brand new regulatory system will have to be established that can classify hydrogen with respect to carbon intensity at its point of use. 

Perhaps you could explain the broad outlines of how a blockchain based system would work in order to ensure that customers are actually getting gas with the greenhouse warming potential that they pay for?

In addition, a tax system would have to be in place to motivate consumers to make the greener choice when it is possible. It might be appropriate to compare it to the tax on alcoholic drinks that is based, in part, on ethanol content.

 

John Armstrong's picture
John Armstrong on Jun 6, 2022

Thanks Mark! All great points. Glad you like the picture! 

The analogy with the plastics recycling debacle is very apt.  You rightly point out how difficult it would be to guarantee that consumers get, for example, the Green hydrogen that they pay for.  And the «eggs» analogy (nice photo of eggs, by the way) illustrates the difficulty of ascertaining the color of hydrogen used to power, for example, the manufacture of steel and concrete used to build a building.  I think a brand new regulatory system will have to be established that can classify hydrogen with respect to carbon intensity at its point of use. 

I agree. Not all hydrogen is going to be equal. Great point on Steel. I suppose with Steel the transactions are larger and supply chains better knows so usually you can trace back to origin. 

Perhaps you could explain the broad outlines of how a blockchain based system would work in order to ensure that customers are actually getting gas with the greenhouse warming potential that they pay for?

I could see some kind of certification system for each element of the supply chain. As hydrogen is transferred onto the next step it picks up another element. The benefit of blockchain technology is that a distributed ledger is more transparent than a certification regime and also open to a lot more parties. Certainly not simple to implement!

In addition, a tax system would have to be in place to motivate consumers to make the greener choice when it is possible. It might be appropriate to compare it to the tax on alcoholic drinks that is based, in part, on ethanol content.

Yes.  Although that is much easier to enforce as you can measure alcohol content at point of use! Its interesting to consider with hydrogen how you'd do this. Do you tax at point of use or at each stage of the supply chain? 

 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 14, 2022

I just ran across this article that may be relevant:

"A technology services platform is in the works for carbon-emissions calculation, reporting, and collaboration across commodity supply chains. Trafigura, a group of physical commodity trading companies, and Palantir Technologies announced on 24 May their intent to develop a platform to calculate carbon intensity, beginning with crude oil and refined products, concentrates, and refined metals."

"The move combines the efforts of trading and digital technology to account for Scope 3 emissions—companies’ greenhouse-gas footprints indirectly attributable to the impact of shipping their commodities. The aim is to increase transparency of life-cycle emissions and to provide benchmarking against other market participants."

I think you will be able to access it. If not, I can send you the text.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jun 6, 2022

Great article - love the lead image 

John Armstrong's picture
John Armstrong on Jun 6, 2022

Thanks Audra! The picture sadly now my own work! I might set the kids on doing something similar...!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 7, 2022

I don't think it matters if the H2 is green. It is still just an energy carrier. The storage pressures of 10,000 PSI takes more energy than is you used that electricity directly. H2 can leak and is very explosive and burns. 

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