103 – Renewable hydrogen production

In 102 – Arctic and subarctic renewable energy resources we outlined several renewable energy storage methods including batteries, pumped storage hydroelectricity (PSH), thermal storage and hydrogen electrolysis and storage.

Batteries are great for short term storage but only PSH and hydrogen are viable options for large volumes of seasonal (long term) energy storage.

Out of these options, hydrogen is the most versatile as it can be transported by truck, rail, ship or by pipeline. It also has the highest energy density at over 15,000 times smaller volume per kWh stored than PSH, making it a much more environmentally friendly option.

Hydrogen can be produced renewably or non-renewably from fossil fuels:

Renewable hydrogen

Encompasses various “green” and “brown” hydrogen processes including:

  • Water electrolysis using renewable electricity (“green hydrogen”)
  • Methane collection from landfills with steam reformation and carbon capture and storage
  • Direct organic biomass gasification with carbon capture and storage

Hydrogen from fracking

Methane that is fractured out of the ground (at least the part that is captured) is converted to hydrogen by the steam reformation process.

Currently, the waste CO2 from this process is not captured and is simply released, causing global warming.

Fossil fuel companies are proposing to capture CO2 and re-sequester it underground to fit their fracking operations in to a nominally “carbon neutral” future.

But the history of the fossil fuel industry indicates that fugitive methane and CO2 emissions, including from supposed “safe storage” underground, will continue to be a massive problem in the future.

The already high concentrations of methane in the air above fracking operations shows that they are not interested in capturing greenhouse gases when it is not profitable to do so.

Fracking also induces earthquakes, and pumps large volumes of toxic chemicals into the water table.

About 60c of every dollar spent on imported fossil fuels in the Yukon leaves the territory. (Source: Yukon Government, 2016). This is unlikely to change if the fuel of the future is fracked hydrogen instead of renewably, locally made hydrogen.

Current H2 Market Statistics:

95% of current global hydrogen is made using (fracked) natural gas, primarily methane, via steam reforming (“grey hydrogen”). If and when this is combined with carbon capture and storage (see below), it is considered “blue hydrogen”.

The remaining 5% is made using renewable electricity (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal etc.) to electrolyze (split) water into hydrogen and oxygen gases (“green hydrogen”).

Biomass-to-hydrogen (“brown hydrogen”) is not yet deployed at a significant scale.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS):

CCS is a perfect example of a beneficial technology that is being used by oil and gas extraction companies as an “excuse to pollute” instead of as a real vehicle for change.

Instead of looking at how we can create a zero-carbon-emission future, they are using CCS as an excuse to continue oil and gas extraction because they blindly believe that CCS can and will be deployed at enough scale to stop climate change from happening.

CCS is at a very early stage and the primary current use of waste carbon dioxide (CO2) is Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) which is used to rejuvenate depleted oil and gas wells so that more fossil fuels can be extracted from them.

We support CCS, especially injection into concrete and direct air capture technologies, but we strongly advise against believing that CCS will save us from climate change without having to change fossil fuel extraction habits as well.

That is exactly what the fossil fuel companies are trying to sell CCS as a solution for.

Even in a carbon-neutral future, current drilling and fracking techniques release much more than just greenhouse gas pollution. Groundwater contamination is a massive risk to the health of nearby residents, and induced seismicity (earthquakes) are an unavoidable reality when injecting high pressure water to forcibly split apart shale rock formations.

Fully alleviating all human health and ecological risks from legacy fossil fuel extraction methods will prove incredibly costly.