Johanne WhitmorePrincipal Researcher, Chair in Energy Sector Management, HEC Montréal, and Paul Martinchemical engineer and expert in process development, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition.
With natural gas supplies under threat, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz plans to visit Canada in August to discuss new liquefied natural gas (LNG) deals. To help allies move away from Russian gas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the G7 in June that Eastern Canada’s LNG infrastructure could be expanded on the basis “that it could then be used to hydrogen export”, “keeping them consistent with Canada’s long-term future”. climate goals.
However, How realistic is it to reallocate LNG infrastructure to hydrogen exports?
Hydrogen is not an energy source, but rather an energy carrier similar to a battery. Its production is expensive and energy-intensive. Renewable (or green) hydrogen, which can align with climate goals, is typically produced from renewable electricity. “Clean” fossil hydrogen, also called blue hydrogen, is produced from fossil fuels coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Without CCS, a technology that has not been economically proven on a large scale, gray hydrogen of fossil origin is more polluting than the pure and simple use of natural gas.
As academics and engineers with decades of energy experience, we fear that Canada’s race to build new LNG infrastructure in hopes of exporting hydrogen will be not only without scientific basis, but risks locking Canada and Germany into an economy based on fossil fuels. We explain why, below.
Hydrogen-ready LNG infrastructure does not exist today – and is technically challenging
The perceived advantage of hydrogen is its resemblance to natural gas – it exists in liquid or gaseous form, flows through pipes, stores in tanks and burns in engines. Switching from one gas to another seems logical. However, hydrogen-ready LNG terminals do not actually exist today because the two gases have different properties that require different infrastructure. Repurposing existing infrastructure would require major modernization at great expense. Building new infrastructure will take years, which will not help Europe meet its short-term energy needs or reduce its emissions.
The export of liquid hydrogen is also technically difficult, with huge energy losses incurred from production to end use (30%, compared to 8% for LNG). Hydrogen should only be considered second to electrification and energy efficiency, which avoid intensive energy losses. The world’s first liquid hydrogen vessel is also under investigation after a serious fire was reported, underscoring the challenges of safely developing an export industry. Taken together, these factors mean risking billions on a solution that has yet to be technically and economically proven.
Clean hydrogen is not guaranteed to reduce emissions
The Canadian government is committed to “clean hydrogen”, placing fossil hydrogen with CCS at the center of its strategy. As CCS is not economically proven on a large scale and as fossil-based hydrogen is more polluting than the pure use of natural gas on a life-cycle basis, it cannot not be considered “clean” by default. Canada’s Shell Quest project, currently one of the few large-scale fossil hydrogen projects with CCS projects in the world, has emissions capture rates below 50%. This is well below the 90% often promised by industry, and this before taking into account emissions from the energy used for CCS, harmful fugitive emissions of methane, as well as hydrogen leaks whose the warming potential is two to six times higher than previously thought.
The economy does not stack
Some see repurposing infrastructure from LNG to hydrogen as a way to avoid stranded assets as we move toward a net zero economy. However, the production and export of hydrogen should not be economically viable without huge public subsidies. Experts claim that transporting liquid hydrogen would cost at least five times more than LNG. As the energy crisis in Europe intensifies demand for North American LNG imports, this will only increase gas prices and costs for consumers. A tight future market means that fossil hydrogen with CCS will not be a low-cost solution, even before the costs of scaling up CCS are factored in. By default, hydrogen will always be more expensive than the energy used to produce it.
Finally, the IPCC has estimated that hydrogen will represent, at best, 2.1% of total energy consumption in 2050. The Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, calls on Europe to focus on reducing gas demand. Promises of future hydrogen exports to justify significant LNG expansion only distract from truly profitable solutions. Directing investments and efforts towards energy efficiency, a circular economy and direct electrification is the fastest way for Europe to wean off Russian gas.
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