Nuclear boosterism and “hydrogen hype” mustn’t distract countries from the renewable energy technologies that can actually deliver on a 2050 target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, @Forum4theFuture founder Jonathan Porritt argues in an opinion piece last week for The Guardian.
“Now that the whole world seems to be aligned behind the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nuclear industry is straining every sinew to present itself as an invaluable ally in the ambitious aim,” Porritt writes. But while “energy experts remain starkly divided” on whether net-zero is attainable without nuclear, the industry’s proponents have a hard sell on their hands.
“The problems they face are the same ones that have dogged the industry for decades: ever-higher costs, seemingly inevitable delays, no solutions to the nuclear waste challenge, security and proliferation risks.”
But there’s also a new challenge on the industry’s immediate horizon. “The drawbacks to nuclear are compounded by the burgeoning success of renewables,” Porritt says. “Both solar and wind are getting cheaper and more efficient, year after year. There is also a growing realization that a combination of renewables, smart storage, energy efficiency, and more flexible grids can now be delivered at scale and at speed—anywhere in the world.”
For the “significant minority” of environmentalists who’ve swung around to support nuclear, he adds, the motivation is the “sheer scale” of the challenge of bringing an entire economy to net-zero by mid-century. In the United Kingdom, that connection is getting a big boost from a national government that will also be looking to hydrogen for some of the heavy lifting.
But there, too, Porritt isn’t convinced.
“For those prayers to be answered, there will need to be a complete revolution in the way in which hydrogen is produced,” he explains. “As it is, 98% of the 115 million tonnes used globally is ‘grey hydrogen’, made from natural gas or coal, that emits around 830 million tonnes of CO2 per annum—2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond that, there’s a tiny amount of so-called ‘blue hydrogen’—essentially grey hydrogen but with its CO2 emissions captured and stored—and an even tinier amount of ‘green hydrogen’ from electrolyzing water, both of which are much more expensive than the climate-wrecking grey hydrogen.”
The “gulf between that current reality, one rarely mentioned by hydrogen enthusiasts, and the prospect of readily available and affordable green hydrogen that could help us get to net-zero, is absolutely vast,” he writes.
Porritt agrees there will be significant need for green hydrogen, and he says he supports ambitious government targets to bring its cost down by 2030. “But we need to be clear about what that green hydrogen should be used for: not for electricity; not for heating homes and non-domestic buildings; and not for cars, where electric vehicles will always be better,” he stresses. “Instead, we will need it for what are called the ‘hard-to-abate’ sectors: for steel—replacing carbon-intensive coking coal—cement, and shipping.”
But often enough, that’s not the story hydrogen boosters tell.
“Much of the hype for hydrogen is coming from the oil and gas sector, in the hope that gullible politicians, seduced by an unattainable vision of limitless green hydrogen, will subsidize the vast investments needed to capture the emissions from gas-powered hydrogen,” he writes. “Their motivation couldn’t be clearer: to postpone the inevitable decline of their industry.”
That means the combination of nuclear boosterism and hydrogen hype adds up to “a disastrous techno-fix,” Porritt concludes. “Low-carbon nuclear power will always be massively more expensive than renewables and we can never build enough reactors to replace those coming offline over the next decade. We also know that producing hydrogen is always going to be very expensive. The truth is, you need a lot of electricity to produce not a lot of hydrogen. All of which makes pipe dreams about substituting hydrogen for conventional gas in the UK’s gas grid, or of producing millions of tonnes of blue hydrogen, look almost entirely absurd.”
He urges boosters of both options to “hold back on both the hydrogen hype and the nuclear propaganda, and concentrate instead on ramping up what we already know is cost-effectively deliverable: renewables. We need to do it as fast as we possibly can.”