Explained: blue hydrogen and what it means for Northern Ireland

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Blue hydrogen is often touted as a low-carbon energy source, and has recently been flagged by some about as a potential fuel source in Northern Ireland.

However, campaigners believe that it will result in an expansion of fracking and should not be included in the energy mix.

Environmental activists, including Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, and actor and anti-fracking campaigner Mark Ruffalo have been calling on Northern Ireland’s Executive to oppose the approval of petroleum licences and prevent ‘blue hydrogen’ from being introduced.

They recently took to Twitter to #BurstBlueHydrogenBubble, stating that the Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland promotes fracking under the guise of blue hydrogen. 

But what are the different “colours” of hydrogen and what do they mean?

Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen atoms usually don’t exist on their own in nature and typically latch onto other atoms, such as oxygen. It can be used to create energy for electricity, transport, and industrial processes, but to do so requires splitting it from other elements. This can be done using various methods, with each being assigned a colour (typically grey, green, or blue) to describe how it is created.

Hydrogen emits only water when burned, but depending on the method used, its creation can be carbon intensive. 

Grey hydrogen is the most common type, and arises from burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas to split hydrogen from other elements. It accounts for around 95% of hydrogen used today. During its creation, byproducts such as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, are formed. 

The “cleanest” form of the energy source is green hydrogen. It is generated through using surplus energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, to separate hydrogen.

Though it is currently very expensive and accounts for around 0.01% of hydrogen produced today, this is expected to grow as costs of renewable energy sources decrease. 

Similar to grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, typically natural gas.

However with blue hydrogen, the byproducts are trapped underground using carbon capture and storage (CCS). So if the byproducts generated during production are not released to the atmosphere, what is the issue? 

Though it was recently believed that using carbon capture and storage could lead to an emissions reduction of around 90%, a recent US-based report shows it may be much worse for the climate than previously thought.

Researchers from Cornell and Stanford University found that the carbon footprint of blue hydrogen is 20% greater than using natural gas or coal directly for heat, and only 18-25% lower than that of grey hydrogen. This is particularly due to the release of ‘fugitive’, or leaked, methane. 

The Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland, launched in December 2021, includes using renewables to produce green hydrogen but also includes trials of blue hydrogen. However, blue hydrogen can have negative effects in both local and global environmental contexts, as explained by professor of Engineering at Dublin City University, Barry McMullin. 

“Fracked natural gas is particularly problematic both in terms of direct local environmental degradation, but also so-called ‘fugitive’ releases of methane at the extraction site,” Prof McMullin told The Green News.

Methane is of course an extremely potent greenhouse gas in its own right, and the “upstream release of methane is very likely to outweigh any conceivable benefits of downstream capture and storage of carbon dioxide in producing blue hydrogen,” he said.

He added that due to Northern Ireland’s current access to already known and abundant resources of wind energy, producing green hydrogen would be a “much superior strategic fit” to its decarbonisation of its energy system.

Given all the factors, Prof McMullin concludes that “fracking in general, and blue hydrogen in particular, should be regarded as strategic dead-ends for Northern Ireland.”

A similar sentiment is held by Declan Allison of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland. 

“Blue hydrogen should play no part in Northern Ireland’s energy mix. It is a carbon intensive option that is produced using fossil fuels. We should start moving away from fossil fuels immediately, not find new ways to keep using them,” he said.

“Instead of wasting time and money on blue hydrogen we should be insulting homes and businesses, cutting our energy use, and investing in appropriate renewables. Blue hydrogen is a costly and damaging distraction.”

By Sarah Doherty

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