Plus: E-bikes with carrying power
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JUNE 15, 2022

Good morning from June-uary in Seattle.

Hope the rest of the U.S. is staying safe from a disturbing amount of climate change-fueled extreme weather: floods, wildfires and heat.

Anca tackles hydrogen with a colorful Explained article and a Data Dive on a fresh forecast.

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Why the hydrogen rainbow doesn’t tell the whole story

There’s one energy source the world is increasingly betting on in the race to decarbonize the economy: hydrogen.

The most abundant element in the universe could be a game changer in reducing emissions from steel, cement, ships and more.

While general agreement exists on that potential, disagreement is emerging on everything else: how to ensure it’s clean, how to prioritize its use and what policies are best to kickstart the industry.

The hydrogen debate has been…colorful. Grey, blue, green, pink and other shades have become a common parlance among energy experts in discussing hydrogen’s emissions profile.

To understand what hydrogen solutions make sense, we should look at the emissions profile of the wider hydrogen system. This is the latest Cipher Explained article, which breaks down complex topics and spells out what’s essential to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Using colors to label hydrogen is an approachable way to debate the future of a nascent industry—but it’s also rigid, oversimplified and doesn’t capture the whole picture.

“There is a whole system involved with making and using hydrogen, and the whole thing needs to be accounted for in assessing carbon intensity,” said Adria Wilson, a policy specialist at Breakthrough Energy with expertise on hydrogen. “We need to be doing lifecycle analyses instead of focusing on the point of production.”

Let’s first explain what the colors stand for then get to why they can fall short. The following is nearly all of them, but new ones regularly crop up in the debate.

Grey hydrogen refers to a process called steam methane reformation, which makes hydrogen from natural gas or coal gasification. It’s a dirty option because CO2 is emitted. Nearly all of today’s hydrogen supply is made this way and it mostly serves as an industrial feedstock.

Blue hydrogen is produced the same except the CO2 is captured and stored (how much is captured matters, as we explain below). This represents just 1% of hydrogen production today.

Turquoise hydrogen is produced through a process called methane pyrolysis, which generates solid carbon. It’s cleaner than grey hydrogen but dirtier than green. Production is in the experimental phase.

Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen produced with renewable electricity through a process called electrolysis, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Green hydrogen, which barely exists today, is what’s getting most of the attention lately. Gas-exporting countries like Norway and oil and gas producers support blue hydrogen, too. (See the below Data Dive for more).

Pink hydrogen follows the same path as green, except the process is powered with nuclear energy electricity, which doesn’t emit any emissions but does generate nuclear waste.

These last two types, together with another option that uses biomass through gasification, all result in near-zero greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 report from the Hydrogen Council.

These colors represent the energy sources by which hydrogen is made, but a lot more goes into making hydrogen usable in our economy. That’s how things get complicated.

Take transportation.

The European Union wants to import half of its 2030 estimated share of renewable hydrogen use. Germany, for example, is looking to import renewable hydrogen from Australia. This raises questions about how to consider the emissions arising from transporting the hydrogen on a long journey, including the cleanliness of maritime fuel.

Liquefying hydrogen, needed for transport by sea, is three times more energy-intensive than liquefying natural gas, according to CleanTechnica. Hydrogen could be transported as ammonia but reconverting it back would require additional energy.

Water access challenges can arise. Countries across Africa, for example, have plenty of sun but are surrounded by desert and don’t have abundant water access. Renewable hydrogen production in those areas would require desalinizing ocean and seawater, which is also set to drive up energy use.

Let’s turn to blue hydrogen. Supporters say that capturing and storing the carbon from the current dirty ways we produce hydrogen can be a good solution in the short term to reduce emissions. Critics say it’s a license for oil and gas companies to keep polluting.

How much carbon a hydrogen plant captures makes a big difference. For example, one plant could capture 45% of the carbon while another could capture 90%—and both be seen as “blue.” The EU is set to develop rules to better define this type of production.

Even a hydrogen plant that captures carbon at a 90% rate does not reduce emissions by 90% because additional energy is needed to power the capture and storage process.

Methane leaks also occur during the production of the natural gas used to make the hydrogen, though how much actually leaks differs depending on technologies used.

Concerns are also arising about whether the hydrogen itself escapes into the air. Depending on how it’s made, distributed and used, it could make climate change worse, according to research under peer review now by the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental nonprofit group. The research highlights the need to set up the hydrogen economy correctly from the start to prevent leaks, EDF said.

The best way to assess hydrogen’s carbon footprint is by spending a few more words being more specific about the entire process and meaningful differences in emissions, said Galen Hiltbrand, senior analyst at consultancy Rhodium Group.

Instead of saying blue hydrogen, we could refer to hydrogen from a plant with 90% carbon capture rate; or instead of green hydrogen, we could say hydrogen from electrolysis powered by offshore wind.

Editor’s note: Breakthrough Energy supports Cipher.

Lunchtime Reads and Hot Takes
Climate careers platform raises money, launches app Axios
Amy’s take: One of the most common questions I get from people is: “What can I do to help address climate change?” One of my answers: Work in the biz! Now I can direct them here.

A factory wants to reopen making ‘green’ aluminum. Now it just needs clean energy. — The Washington Post
Amy’s take: We’ll beat dead horses on foundational topics, and this is one of them: There isn’t enough zero-emitting electricity to go around. Also, ugh, crypto mining, talk about an unnecessary problem.

Key EU Parliament Groups Reject Green Label for Gas, Nuclear Bloomberg (paywall)
Anca’s take: Surprising plot twist in a heated debate that seemed to have fallen off the radar over the last few months. MEPs cannot modify the European Commission’s plan to treat investments in nuclear and gas as sustainable under the bloc’s so-called green finance taxonomy—but they can outright reject it. This week’s committee vote shows how controversial the move is in Europe.

Energy companies float new model to ramp up CO2 air captureE&E News (paywall)
Amy’s take: One scenario could see 70 (!) direct air capture plants built within the next 13 years.

In a Bid to Save Its Coal Industry, Wyoming Has Become a Test Case For Carbon Capture, but Utilities are Balking at the Price tag Inside Climate News
Amy’s take: Eye-opening to see the aggressive steps being taken to preserve coal primarily for its tax-revenue purposes. Also, as one expert quoted said, this story matters for Asia, too.

China ramps up coal power to boost post-lockdown growth Financial Times (paywall)
Anca’s take: Good analysis of China’s internal struggles to decarbonize. “China’s decarbonisation drive has hit a roadblock after the delicate balance between economic growth and environmental protection has started to tip in favour of fossil fuel-powered infrastructure stimulus.”

Carbon-Removal Industry Draws Billions to Fight Climate ChangeThe Wall Street Journal
Amy’s take: This article likened the advanced market commitments for carbon removal to investments in liquefied natural gas facilities. I guess that’s right, except LNG is a more proven technology.

Removing Lower Snake River dams offers best chance for salmon recovery — at steep price, report saysThe Seattle Times
Amy’s take: Timely news considering our Voices article last week.

More of what we’re reading:
Electricity-powered hydrogen to dominate by 2050: report
Source: DNV • The chart refers to global production of hydrogen and its derivatives, like ammonia and methanol. CCS stands for carbon capture and storage.


Hydrogen produced from electricity will be the dominant form of production by mid-century, according to a forecast released this week by Oslo-based consulting group DNV.

As noted in our main article, this refers to using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis.

DNV forecasts that grid-connected electrolysis (which takes electricity directly from the grid) and dedicated renewable electrolysis (which means connecting the electrolyser to the renewables plant directly) will represent 72% of total hydrogen output by 2050.

The rest will come from fossil-fuel-based production that captures and stores CO2.

DNV categorizes grid-connected electricity as any electricity from the grid, regardless of what type of energy it comes from. Over time, the amount of electricity on the grid will be greener as more renewables come online, but the share differs widely across countries.

The category dedicated to renewable electrolysis includes any direct connection to a renewables plant, not necessarily a new one.

Ensuring renewable energy hydrogen will be produced from new installations and not divert existing clean power from other decarbonization efforts has led to intense lobbying in the European Union, as we recently reported.

Public consultations on how to set up those rules, including the life cycle emissions of renewable hydrogen, end Friday.

E-bikes with carrying power
A Cipher reader in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, recently snapped this photo of a rentable electric-assist “bakfiets,” or cargo bike. Two- and three-wheeled transportation in lieu of cars can help lighten the load electric vehicles carry in net-zero goals, according to a recent BloombergNEF study, which studied reduced demand scenario for the first time.

Each week, we feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to

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