What is blue hydrogen? Does Japan's answer to coal weaken the climate balance?
Earlier this year, Japan and Australia opened a joint project in the state of Victoria to turn a type of coal called lignite, or brown coal, into hydrogen
Most of the hydrogen made today is from natural gas or coal. However, it produces lots of greenhouse gases but if you capture and bury them in the ground, you get "blue hydrogen".
This is exactly what Japan is going to do.
Earlier this year, Japan and Australia opened a joint project in the state of Victoria to turn a type of coal called lignite, or brown coal, into hydrogen. The hydrogen is then liquified to minus 253C, then piped into a specially built ship that carries it to Japan.
Currently, Japan faces intense pressure regarding its coal use. The Japanese answer is to switch to burning hydrogen or ammonia, not shutting down old coal plants and switching to renewables.
So, the Japanese government decided to build 22 new coal-fired power stations, to run on cheap coal imported from Australia. Economically it made sense. Environmentally, not so much. Japan is now under intense pressure to stop using coal.
What happens to the greenhouse gases produced at the site?
Right now, they go straight up into the atmosphere. But Japan and Australia are promising that, at some point in the future, they will begin capturing the greenhouse gas produced at the Latrobe Valley site and inject it into the seafloor off the coast.
These plans are horrifying to climate change campaigners. According to critics of the technology for capturing and storing greenhouse gases, Japan will have to continue digging up vast quantities of brown coal for decades to come.
Is it environmentally sound?
"The investment made by electric power companies in coal-fired power plants would suddenly be useless without value in their balance sheet," says Prof Tomas Kaberger, an expert on energy policy at Chalmers University in Sweden.
"And it would create financial difficulties for electric power companies and then for banks and pension funds. And that is the challenge for Japan."
According to Kaberger, the Japanese government opted for blue hydrogen ten years ago when renewables were expensive, and they are now stuck with a strategy that does not work.
He said that Japan needs cheap electricity to compete, and it needs clean electricity to have international credibility. The Japanese economy will suffer if this development is delayed.
The plants can be quite easily converted to burning hydrogen or ammonia, neither of which produce any carbon dioxide. So this seems like a good solution.
But Japan's government has much bigger ambitions than that. It wants to be the world's first "hydrogen economy".
As of yet, construction continues on Tokyo Bay's edge. In 2023, a giant new coal-fired power plant will be operational. Approximately 40 years are expected for it to run.
Activist Hikari Matsumoto, 21, said she is ashamed of her country.
"It's so frustrating," she said, adding, "While young people protest in other countries, Japanese youth remain silent. Our generation must speak up."
Leaks weaken the benefit for the climate
A joint study published last August by researchers at the US universities of Cornell and Stanford came to the conclusion, however, that even when carbon capture and storage (CSS) is used, blue hydrogen for heat generation is not better for the climate, but overall can be well over 20 percent worse than using natural gas directly as an energy carrier.
The main reason, according to the authors, was the leakage of natural gas into the atmosphere along the entire supply chain – from its production at the borehole through to transport by pipeline or ship, then on to the hydrogen production plant. Since the greenhouse gas effect of natural gas, or rather its main component methane, is around 30 times stronger than CO2, even leakage of a few percent can severely weaken the climate balance of the hydrogen produced.
In addition, the steam reforming of natural gas produces CO2 emissions if not all the carbon dioxide is captured, allowing some of it to escape into the atmosphere rather than being stored underground.
With inputs from agencies
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