Welcome to this week’s Fix the Planet. It’s looking like a good year for hydrogen as a climate change solution. Assuming it isn’t scuppered by the new coronavirus, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be a big showcase for the gas, as it fuels the Olympic torch and hundreds of vehicles.

Hydrogen is famously the most abundant element in the universe, but acquiring it here on Earth involves a bit of effort. Japan is generating hydrogen for the Olympics using solar power, but virtually all the hydrogen that humanity uses today comes from fossil fuels, releasing annual carbon dioxide emissions on a par with Indonesia and the UK combined.

Lately, countries have been announcing plans to change that. This month, Germany laid bare its ambitions in a draft hydrogen strategy. And last week, the UK government confirmed £28 million of funding for five pilot projects to produce low carbon hydrogen, which ministers said was important to meet the country’s net-zero emissions goal.

Clare Aitken, Austin Brady, Steve Mayers and other Fix the Planet readers wanted to know how far off the dream of clean hydrogen is. So this week I have been speaking to some of the people trying to make it a reality.
Hydrogen produced from renewables will fuel the torch for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Alamy

How are we using hydrogen today?

“Right now, the vast majority of uses are in the petrochemical industry,” says Tifenn Brandily at research firm BloombergNEF. Most of the 64 million tonnes produced each year globally is a by-product of industrial processes, including those at refineries. Typically those facilities burn it to generate electricity with gas turbines, which doesn’t generate CO2 but can result in the release of nitrous oxides, which are powerful greenhouse gases.

And how is it produced?

“There’s a real disconnect between the vision people have, and the reality today of hydrogen production,” says Brandily. Just 4 per cent is made with electrolysers splitting hydrogen molecules out of water, as is being done in Japan. Much of the electricity for those electrolysers will be generated by fossil fuels. The rest of the hydrogen comes from steam methane reforming: 48 per cent from methane (natural gas), 30 per cent from oil, and 18 per cent from coal. In other words, virtually all hydrogen production today is dirty. It isn’t a Fix.

What do we need clean hydrogen for?

Hydrogen has probably lost in the race against batteries to be the future of cars. In the UK alone there are now hundreds of thousands of battery electric vehicles, and just 169 registered hydrogen cars. But hydrogen without the carbon footprint is still considered vital for decarbonising heating, industry and larger vehicles, like buses and trucks.

Okay, so how do we clean up hydrogen production?

Two ways. One is “blue hydrogen”, which is still produced using steam methane reformation from fossil fuels, but most of the CO2 is captured and stored, rather than released to the atmosphere. The other is “green hydrogen”, for which electrolysers are powered by renewables. The obstacles to both are those old bedfellows, cost and scale. The “dirty” hydrogen from fossil fuels today costs $1-1.75 per kilogram of hydrogen, with the stuff from electrolysis at $2.5-6.8 per kg, according to Brandily. Both blue and green hydrogen are more expensive.

But someone is riding to the rescue?

The University of Cranfield took a £7.5 million slice of the UK government’s funding for the next stage of its HyPER project. The scheme integrates the carbon capture into the steam reformation process, rather than having it tacked on afterwards, which reduces costs as there is just one set of equipment rather than two. The result is one stream of hydrogen and a separate one of CO2. Peter Clough at Cranfield says that, in the demonstration, the CO2 will be vented to the atmosphere – but if eventually used commercially it would be transported and stored, potentially underground in old oil fields.

How far off is this?

Clough says the technology is halfway between the lab and commercial use. The biggest challenge in scaling up is moving the solid materials in the machinery around at high pressures and temperatures of hundreds of °C, he says. The first commercial scale plant making hydrogen this way is probably at least a decade away, he thinks. Clough estimates the technology could produce hydrogen at about $2.41 a kilogram, about 20 per cent cheaper than steam reformation with carbon capture and storage tacked on at the end. Important caveat: these costs don’t include the expense of transporting and storing the CO2.
Offshore windfarms could have the scale to produce low carbon hydrogen. Photo: Orsted

What about the green hydrogen stuff then?

Danish energy firm Orsted thinks the answer is a massive windfarm off the UK’s east coast powering an electrolyser back on dry land, which pipes the resulting hydrogen to an industrial facility up the coast. The second phase backed with funding by the UK government last week is using 100 megawatts worth of electrolysers, 50 times the capacity of the first phase. “The price of renewable hydrogen can be on par with fossil-based hydrogen by 2030,” says Anders Nordstrøm at Orsted. But that will only happen if industry and governments work together, he adds.

Will it take off?

Nordstrøm reckons large-scale green hydrogen production needs large-scale renewable power production and says the company owns several offshore windfarms near industrial centres in Europe that could be powered by clean hydrogen. Brandily says it is very early days for hydrogen produced this way at scale, but the key will be using electricity from renewables that would otherwise be switched off by electricity grid operators. The UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers is one group backing the idea of using excess renewable energy to produce hydrogen. Oil giant Repsol says it plans to soon make hydrogen by taking advantage of times when renewables make electricity cheap.

Who will win out?

Blue hydrogen looks cheaper than green hydrogen in the short term. But carbon capture and storage projects have been slow to get off the ground in other sectors, so could struggle here too. Bodies such as the Committee on Climate Change and Royal Society in the UK say large scale, low carbon hydrogen production requires both approaches. “There will be need to be a combination of both. We can’t do it on either one or the other,” says Clough. He suspects the blue stuff will win out in the short term but falling electrolyser costs may change that in the long run.

Brandily says the dropping costs of Chinese-made electrolysers will be key, along with which technologies get government support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nordstrøm argues that green hydrogen will be the “technology to bet on”, not only because of falling costs, but because the world is moving to phase out fossil fuels.


More than 60,000 seed samples from hundreds of important crop varieties were backed up in the Arctic on Tuesday, at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. That won’t mitigate against climate change, but could help farmers adapt to it in the future. Justify Shava, who runs a Zambia-based seedbank, tells me that increasingly erratic rainfall in some African countries is already leading farmers to seek out more water-efficient varieties of sorghum. Svalbard is the ultimate backup of backups like Shava’s seed bank.

You probably know that eating less meat is one way to reduce your carbon emissions, but anti-meat sentiment is upsetting farmers, according to the head of the UK’s National Farmers Union, Minette Batters. “They feel hurt and demoralised,” she said at a recent briefing in London, designed to promote UK-produced meat as a lower carbon alternative to meat from other countries. The NFU gave the same briefing to several universities. It doesn’t seem to be working – this week the London School of Economics voted in favour of a ban beef across campus. Other UK universities have already banned beef on climate grounds.  

The US could get a fifth of its electricity supply from wind turbines within a decade, up from 7 per cent today. That’s the headline finding of a paper in the journal Scientific Reports this week, which suggests that it wouldn’t use more land than is taken up by windfarms now, because old ones could be repowered with newer, more powerful turbines.
The building on the far right here is the entrance to the Svalbard global seed vault. Photo: Adam Vaughan
I’ve been up in the Arctic this week, witnessing vital crop seeds being stored at the vault here in Svalbard, which is designed as the ultimate insurance policy in case those seeds are lost from other, smaller banks around the world. The international cooperation on display from conservationists here is inspiring. I can only hope that spirit is repeated in other key environment meetings this year, at a biodiversity summit in China in October, and a climate conference in the UK this November.

I’ll be back in a week for your next Fix. In the meantime, just email me on the address below to suggest a green technology or project you'd like to know more about. You can message me direct on Twitter and Facebook too. 
Adam Vaughan

Chief Reporter, New Scientist
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