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The Importance of Minimizing Fugitive Hydrogen Emissions

Sylvia Zhu
Nov 18, 2022

GHI Blog

Amid a global effort to move toward carbon neutrality, hydrogen has been identified as a key enabler for decarbonizing hard-to-abate industries such as steel and industrial feedstock production, making it a rising star in the energy sector. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 further spotlighted hydrogen as an alternative energy supply to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian oil & gas. However, while replacing carbon-containing fossil fuels with hydrogen can potentially reduce our carbon footprint, hydrogen itself is an indirect greenhouse gas that could undermine the very climate benefits it is deployed to achieve.

Hydrogen’s Indirect Warming Impact

When released into the atmosphere, hydrogen alters atmospheric composition and exacerbates indirect warming. It reacts to form tropospheric ozone, breaks down into water vapor in the stratosphere, and decreases the tropospheric concentration of hydroxyl radicals, thereby prolonging the lifetime of methane. A research article published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics estimates that hydrogen’s indirect warming potency per unit mass is around 200 times that of CO2. Since, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 86 times that of CO2 on a 20-year scale, this estimate means that hydrogen is nearly 2.5 times more potent than methane in the short term. (While the IPCC standard is to look at GWP over a 100-year duration, some scientists argue for a focus on 20-year GWP, since some greenhouse gases, such as methane, have a strong near-term impact, which directly affects our climate goals.) For grey and blue hydrogen derived from natural gas through steam methane reforming, autothermal reforming, or partial oxidation, any upstream leakage will further increase the environmental cost of hydrogen production. Therefore, it is important to develop strong regulation as well as monitoring and verification protocols.

The European Hydrogen Backbone is an initiative that aims to meet the REPowerEU targets by accelerating hydrogen adoption for decarbonization and greater energy security. It envisions the emergence of five pan-European hydrogen corridors and the development of a 20.6 Mt European hydrogen market by 2030. Approximately 60% of the 53,000 km of pipelines planned by 2040 is expected to be repurposed from natural gas pipelines, which are more prone to leakage than newly built pipelines due to the potential for material fatigue and hydrogen embrittlement. A commentary published by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy points out that the lifecycle loss of hydrogen from integrated transportation and storage systems is approximately 2%. Based on the International Energy Agency’s net-zero emissions scenario, which predicts the total consumption of hydrogen-based fuel to be 528 Mt per year by 2050, this translates to more than 10 Mt of hydrogen leaked per year.

Leakage Mitigation Is Key

To mitigate the strong near-term warming impact of hydrogen, it is crucial to incorporate leakage detection, prevention, and regulation strategies into the development roadmap. Having advised on the discovery phase of the Digital Platform for Leakage Analytics and now advising on the alpha phase, Guidehouse is the key delivery partner for Cadent, in partnership with other gas networks including National Grid, SGN, Wales & West Utilities, and Northern Gas Networks, to develop a real-time methane leakage monitoring platform. With its expertise in selecting promising detection technologies, designing data-driven mitigation strategies enhanced by machine learning algorithms, and engaging Ofgem on regulatory framework options, Guidehouse is well positioned to provide insights on gas leakage prevention and management solutions.

With insufficient research on the atmospheric implications of hydrogen, the optimism that it will completely transform the energy landscape may be premature. Lessons should be taken from the existing methane system to conduct comprehensive assessments on this new energy carrier, develop strategic leakage mitigation plans for its transportation infrastructure, and facilitate policymaking to minimize the downsides of developing a hydrogen economy.