By Morgan Rote
Governments and industry around the world are wagering big on hydrogen to solve the climate and clean energy challenge.
But woefully insufficient global progress toward establishing strong climate, safety, social and sustainability standards is threatening to compromise the hydrogen market before it has a chance to get started.
With the looming threats posed by a rapidly warming climate, it’s a gamble of both time and money that we can’t afford to lose. It’s not just a matter of squandered resources; get it wrong enough, and we could even make the climate problem worse. Which means that before we roll these dice, it’s critical to have a set of commonly accepted standards to weigh our bets.
How it’s made and used impacts benefit
Hydrogen has important potential to decarbonize some of our thorniest energy uses. But to be an effective climate solution, it must be produced cleanly and used wisely.
There are several different ways to do so — each with their own challenges. For example, achieving climate benefits from blue hydrogen made from natural gas requires upstream methane emissions to be minimized (< 0.2%) and the vast majority (>95%) of carbon released during production captured and permanently stored away — all of which add cost and difficulty.
Maximizing the climate benefits of green hydrogen from renewables avoids these front-end emissions issues. But a limited supply of clean electricity does pit hydrogen against competing uses that might yield bigger climate benefits sooner.
Moreover, hydrogen itself also has powerful warming effects when released into the atmosphere — a fact largely overlooked until recently. Current research suggests the warming power of hydrogen in the atmosphere is two- to eight times higher than previous estimates. That’s an issue because hydrogen is a very small molecule that’s highly prone to leak, regardless of production method. Preventing it from escaping is essential (and difficult) — particularly across complex supply chains.
If a hydrogen boom is going to deliver promised climate benefits, decisionmakers need to know exactly what is being produced, delivered and used.
Several certification systems are underway to assist with classifying hydrogen according to its climate impact. Several European countries use CertifHy, a private certification body, to meet EU Commission guidelines. TÜV SÜD is a German-based tool specifically for green hydrogen, while Australia is developing its own national certificate of origin. Many others are in the works. Efforts by the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy to harmonize and build transparency provide key first steps toward reducing confusion.
But the standards underpinning all of these systems — or the guidance on what types of hydrogen will or will not be allowed — are all over the map. This lack of clear standards risks undermining the hydrogen market, while eroding the climate benefits. Moving forward, there are three broad areas of concern that need to be addressed.
Ensuring climate benefits
The main impetus behind hydrogen’s build-out is its decarbonization potential, but current and proposed standards don’t do much to set the bar. Shortcomings include:
Carbon Intensity Targets: Several countries lack definitions for what constitutes as clean hydrogen eligible for public support or market entry. Others set carbon intensity thresholds that are far too loose. For example, the Clean Hydrogen Production Standard proposed in the U.S. sets a threshold of 4 kgCO2e/kgH2, which would allow carbon capture efficiency as low as 65% or methane leakage rates higher than 3%. Countries should strive for clear and ambitious carbon intensity targets in line with our global climate goals.
LCA Methodologies: Lifecycle assessments are the most popular tool for quantifying climate impacts, but most versions today ignore certain critical inputs. LCAs should encompass the full hydrogen value chain, from the upstream energy used in its production to the midstream stages (like storage and transportation) and downstream end uses. They should also include all climate and air pollutants — not only CO2 and methane, but hydrogen emissions as well — and reflect both the latest data and location-specific measurements. Finally, LCAs should reflect both long-term and short-term global warming horizons, as relying exclusively on a 100-year timeframe obscures the near-term potency of methane and hydrogen.
Consideration of Alternatives: Hydrogen is more energy intensive than using electricity directly. For example, EDF scientists estimate that replacing fossil fuels with green hydrogen for home heating and road transportation requires three-to seven times more energy than electrification. Hproject should be considered alongside alternative decarbonization options.
Renewable Sourcing: There are serious concerns that hydrogen made using renewable energy could divert limited sources of clean electricity, leaving the gap to be filled by fossil fuels and increasing overall emissions. To prevent this, green hydrogen standards should require facilities to source new, deliverable and hourly matched clean energy resources.
Avoiding safety risk
Hydrogen is 10 times more easily ignited than natural gas. Faster flame speed makes it more likely to burn backward into pipes, generating high-pressure explosions. This is particularly worrisome if hydrogen is used in homes and buildings, or sent through leak-prone local utility pipes, as many companies are proposing.
Currently there is no unified global framework for hydrogen safety. For example, while U.S. hydrogen pipelines are regulated by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, existing standards don’t cover certain risks like blending hydrogen with methane gas and repurposing existing gas pipelines to transport hydrogen.
Additional research and standards are needed to ensure that hydrogen is being safely produced, transported, and utilized. This likely includes requiring hydrogen transportation systems to implement best practices for leakage prevention, detection, and mitigation; to develop inventories of current infrastructure and potential risks; to assess the integrity of different pipeline materials; and to improve reporting standards around hydrogen blending.
These projects could have serious impacts on communities, including the potential to compete for limited land and water resources, worsen local air quality through NOx releases and solidify continued reliance on fossil fuels.
Policymakers and industry should establish standards that position communities at the center of planning efforts — including proactive and early community engagement, the use of community benefit agreements, air quality monitoring and attainment requirements and transparent reporting protocols.
Hydrogen has the potential to fill in critical gaps on our decarbonization pathway, but to do so, it needs to be climate-friendly, safe and sustainable. This requires establishing certification systems that are transparent, comparable and harmonized between countries. But more importantly, it must be backed by strong standards and regulations that dictate where the market heads and what potential it reaches.