Analyst, Climate Policy and Ecological Transition
You’ve probably heard of hydrogen - there has been a lot of talk about it in recent years as an important new energy source. But with all the issues involved, the question of whether hydrogen can really help us transition away from fossil fuels is still unclear for many.
Quebec recently held public consultations on green hydrogen and bioenergy, and our team at Équiterre submitted recommendations.
Hydrogen has a prominent place in current discussions about our energy future, so it’s important for us all to understand the related issues.
Here’s what you need to know about hydrogen:
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is a gas that packs a big energy punch! It’s not a primary energy source, like fossil gas or hydroelectric energy - it must be transformed before it can be used. And there are different sorts of hydrogen, based on how it is produced.
Hydrogen is often referred to as a solution to help reduce emissions in sectors where electrification is difficult, such as heavy transportation, buildings and industry.
But be careful: this argument holds water only for renewable hydrogen. When hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, it’s an entirely different story...
The three hydrogen colours
Just like at the casino, we need to be careful not to put all our bets on hydrogen – but especially, to ensure that we put them on the right colour!To clarify, each type of hydrogen has been assigned a colour. Here are the three main types:
Grey hydrogen (which accounts for nearly all global production of hydrogen)
Grey hydrogen is produced by separating hydrogen from the carbon contained in fossil gas. This process (called steam reforming) releases CO2, a significant greenhouse gas. Clearly, not a renewable energy source.
Blue hydrogen (which accounts for under 2% of global hydrogen production)
Like grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen is derived from fossil sources. The difference is that the CO2 produced during steam reforming is captured, in order to be (in theory, at least) reused or buried in the soil. It’s important to note that this technology, which is far from perfect, does not capture all of the CO2 – plus it’s very expensive.
It also doesn’t address the many impacts of fossil gas extraction: infringement on the rights of Indigenous populations, harm to biodiversity and water and air quality, and the industry’s inability to rehabilitate gas wells. Blue hydrogen, with its reliance on fossil gas extraction and carbon capture, is clearly not a renewable energy source.
Green hydrogen (which accounts for barely 1% of global hydrogen production)
Green hydrogen is derived from the electrolysis of water (an electric current that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen) using renewable electricity. Now we’re talking about renewable energy! It should, however, be noted that a significant portion of the energy is lost in this process…
This colour code is not very useful, however, because it masks the true environmental impacts of blue hydrogen and therefore benefits the fossil fuel industry. At Équiterre, we believe that we should classify hydrogen simply as either renewable hydrogen (currently green hydrogen) or fossil hydrogen (currently blue and grey hydrogen).
So is hydrogen a viable solution to replace fossil fuels?
Hydrogen could be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, but only if it is renewable. Fossil (blue or grey) hydrogen is not a clean energy source and should not be considered a transitional energy source.It’s also important to note that renewable hydrogen is expensive and has a lower energy yield than electricity. Its use should therefore be limited only to scenarios where direct electrification is not possible and to the sectors that are the hardest to decarbonize, such as industrial processing or, perhaps, the aviation and maritime sectors.
Renewable hydrogen can therefore be but one of multiple solutions in the effort to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Équiterre is an active participant in the debate on hydrogen as a solution to the energy transition. Our experts recommend the following:
- Quebec should opt for renewable hydrogen only
- Renewable hydrogen should be used only when direct electrification is not possible
- Quebec should develop only those sectors for which the demand for renewable hydrogen is compatible with its production capacity
It is only by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources (including renewable hydrogen) and by using less energy (reducing our energy demand) that we can achieve the necessary energy transition.
For more information, have a look at our submission during the public consultations on the green hydrogen and bioenergy strategy for 2030 (in French)See document