Twelve colors and counting. The terminology associated with hydrogen—specifically, the use of color descriptors such as green, blue and gray—has become widespread in discussions about renewable energy and decarbonization. While this color-coding system helps to differentiate the feedstock and the methods used in the production of hydrogen and an implied environmental impact, it is not without its problems.
The color-coding of hydrogen, although seemingly straightforward, can obscure the complexities of hydrogen production and its end-to-end impact on the environment. For a comprehensive understanding and effective communication within the clean energy industries, it’s essential to scrutinize the shortcomings of these color-coded hydrogen descriptions.
Moreover, new technological advancements have blurred the lines of the color-coding process and made the differentiation method moot.
Oversimplification And Miscommunication
One of the primary issues with the color-coded system is the oversimplification of complex realities.
For instance, green hydrogen is typically viewed as a production by electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources, while blue hydrogen is typically produced from natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) implemented. However, the details—such as the end-to-end carbon intensity of each method, the source and environmental impact of the energy used, and the environmental impact of the production technology itself—can significantly vary and are often lost in the color coding.
Moreover, this oversimplification can lead to miscommunication and misinformation. Given the lack of universally agreed definitions for each color descriptor, there is a risk of misinterpretation. What one might classify as green hydrogen, for example, might not meet another’s standards for renewable energy sourcing or carbon emissions.
Limiting The Scope Of Decarbonization Strategies
Further, the use of color-coded hydrogen descriptions can inadvertently limit the scope of decarbonization strategies. By focusing on the method of hydrogen production, the system overlooks the importance of the end-use applications of hydrogen and their impact on decarbonization. There is often public debate about “green” being preferred over “blue” without understanding the specifics of the particular situation.
Toward A More Comprehensive Hydrogen Classification
Addressing the problems associated with color-coded hydrogen descriptions requires a shift toward a more comprehensive, universal and quantifiable classification system. This system should not only consider the method of production but also account for factors like end-to-end carbon intensity, life-cycle emissions, energy source and energy use efficiency.
Such a comprehensive classification would enable more precise communication about different types of hydrogen, their environmental impacts, and their roles in the energy transition. This would ultimately support the informed decision-making necessary to advance the role of low-carbon intensity hydrogen as a key pathway on the journey to decarbonization.
Future Outlook: Beyond Color Codes
The ongoing advancements in low-carbon intensity hydrogen production methods as well as its increasing prominence in energy and climate discussions underscore the need for moving beyond color codes. The focus should be on the intrinsic properties of the hydrogen produced—its carbon footprint, its energy efficiency and its compatibility with renewable energy sources. This is especially important in supporting the effective drafting of government policy to incentivize different hydrogen production solutions more fairly and avoiding the pitfalls of using poorly defined color codes.
As the narrative around hydrogen evolves, it is vital that the language we use to describe it evolves with it. Transitioning to a more detailed, descriptive language can help ensure that the critical nuances of different hydrogen production methods and their impacts are not lost in translation.
Reevaluating Our Color-Coded Descriptions
While the use of color-coded descriptions has been instrumental in initial discussions around hydrogen’s role in our energy systems, it is time for a reevaluation. As we strive to understand hydrogen’s potential to help decarbonize more deeply, particularly in terms of carbon intensity, it is crucial to recognize and address the problems associated with these simplified descriptions.
By embracing a more nuanced and comprehensive classification system for hydrogen, we can better assess its role in decarbonization. Not only can this facilitate clearer communication and understanding within the industry and with the public, but it can also ensure we fully leverage the potential of hydrogen in our path toward a sustainable energy future.