The Hydrogen Rainbow Is So 2021—It’s Time to Get Over It

When it comes to hydrogen energy, the industry typically differentiates the final product in classes that correspond to the carbon intensity with a focus on “the colors of the rainbow,” such as gray, green, purple, and blue. According to The New York Times, the oil and gas industries are promoting blue hydrogen because (at the moment) there’s not enough renewable energy to power green hydrogen electrolysis. However, no single color of hydrogen is the solution for the energy transition, and studies show that blue hydrogen may deviate from global decarbonization goals. It’s time we moved away from the colors to a system that evaluates all hydrogen by the same merits and metrics.

The hydrogen color wheel is vast, as demonstrated by the concise, yet specific, rundown from André Nascimento and his team at H2 Bulletin. Most desirable for the decarbonization of the industry is green hydrogen. It is produced through water electrolysis powered by renewable electricity, such as solar and wind. Blue hydrogen is sourced from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, with the CO2 is captured and stored underground (known as carbon sequestration, or carbon capture, storage, and utilization).

More polluting methods for making hydrogen include gray, brown, and black hydrogen. All use fossil fuel as an energy input, and release CO2 and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Black or brown hydrogen is produced from coal.

Turquoise hydrogen, which most people are unfamiliar with, can be extracted by using the thermal splitting of methane via methane pyrolysis. The experimental process removes the carbon in a solid form instead of CO2 gas.

Purple, pink, and red hydrogen use nuclear power to split water. At the same time, white hydrogen refers to naturally occurring hydrogen made by Mother Nature. Alan Alder of Freightwaves mentions that yellow hydrogen is a “solar-exclusive output of electrolysis.”

Rainbow Exclusivity

In an industry moving as fast as hydrogen, no one has the time or attention span to keep all of these colors straight. Beyond green, there is really no connection between the method of hydrogen production and the color designation. And, when a new method of making hydrogen comes into play, who is the arbiter of what color it should be?

As an example, Technica PR client Mote, covered recently in the MIT Tech Review by James Temple, aims to use California’s agricultural and forestry waste to transform it into hydrogen and sequester the CO2 underground. Based on the descriptions above, this sounds like “blue hydrogen” since the CO2 is being captured and sequestered. But, it doesn’t use fossil fuel as the power input; its source is renewable in a sense. There’s no mining required. This woody waste is often burned in the open air, sent to a landfill, or rots in the field. That means it releases its CO2 back into the atmosphere.

By using it for hydrogen and sequestering the carbon, it could be argued that Mote is reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture and forestry. Does this mean it could be greener than green, with a possibility of achieving even a net decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG)?

Beyond the Rainbow Is Carbon Intensity

To avoid confusion, the hydrogen industry gets to level up its message and concentrate on the main goal, reducing overall carbon emissions. As a solution, leaders within the clean energy space, specifically those involved in policy and communication, have the opportunity to shift the conversation from hydrogen’s colors of the rainbow to carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon by weight emitted per unit of energy consumed (CO2/energy or CO2/Btu), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

This shift is already starting to happen globally. In the UK, the Weighted Average Carbon Intensity (WACI) is the preferred metric for assessing the carbon footprint of an investment portfolio, as recommended by the Bank of England. The WACI calculates the average carbon intensity of a portfolio (GHG emissions measured relative to gross domestic product), weighted by the relative size of the investments in that portfolio. Rita Wadey, deputy director of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy for the UK government, shared in S&P Global that despite all of the colors, what source they come from, and the accessibility, the reduction of carbon intensity needs to be the focus.

In Canada, there is a move to support global efforts to create standards for certifying carbon intensity, including blue hydrogen (favored by some as a new use of natural gas). Brent Jang at The Globe and Mail reports that Natural Resources Canada is “striving to establish standards for what constitutes low carbon hydrogen as it holds discussions with two governmental groups: the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, as well as the global Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative.”

Jessica Verhagen, CEO of Hydra Energy, states in an article in H2 View that the color designations need to be discarded, and the industry should take a more data-driven approach to the actual carbon intensity of the end product. Sustainability-focused policymakers, industry marketers, promoters, and media members have the power to lead the discussion around how to evolve the conversation around low-carbon hydrogen. Such a shift in message could encourage end-users and buyers of hydrogen to favor production methods that provide the lowest possible carbon intensity.

Media Influence

The oil and gas industry produces most of today’s hydrogen using coal or natural gas. Quick, which colors are those? By shifting the conversation from color swatches to the specific and measurable carbon intensity of the hydrogen in question, we can encourage all producers to focus on making the lowest-carbon hydrogen possible and incentivize developers to put their efforts toward more sustainable methods. It could encourage these big players to clean up their hydrogen manufacturing operations and allow them to pivot their business toward the hydrogen economy.

Moreover, green hydrogen projects would also have to count their carbon intensity. Just because these facilities do not emit carbon during their operation doesn’t mean CO2 is not produced during their installation or the manufacture of the components. Requiring carbon assessments for hydrogen production that uses renewable energy might reveal that shipping solar panels across the ocean incurs so much CO2 that it would be better to establish manufacturing more locally. Or, perhaps, developers would have more of a demand for zero-emission transport trucks to deliver the goods they need for a site.

If we, as publicists, could work with journalists at new and growing publications to focus more on the carbon intensity lifecycle, we could help put pressure on society as a whole to level the playing field for all sources of hydrogen. However, such a shift in focus is up against some powerful and often invisible adversaries. It’s well-known that public relations firms and the media carry influence that can direct the public’s perceptions.

This is why big oil companies hire massive firms like Edelman (globally) and FTI Consulting (in Europe) to improve their public image. They know these campaigns work, even if Edelman is now scrambling to save its own reputation as more than 450 scientists called it and other firms to fire their oil and gas clients. FTI, meanwhile, is under fire by Justin Mikulka at DeSmog for pushing the hydrogen agenda in Europe to sell the idea of “utilizing existing gas infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) for hydrogen.” The 450 scientists said media campaigns “represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency.”

As of the publishing of Steven Mufson’s article on the subject in The Washington Post, Edelman had not severed ties with any clients. However, it did stop representing tobacco companies in 1997, rejected firearms in 2012, and in 2015, dropped coal companies or “other companies that denied that climate change was real or that human activity was contributing to it.”

Suppose large, international oil and gas companies lose their media support and connections and are forced to compete on carbon intensity. In that case, the discourse around which hydrogen color is best for sustainability efforts could dissolve for a more fact-based approach. Members of the media have a critical responsibility to highlight this new perspective as the focal point to solving clean energy challenges.

The path toward low-carbon hydrogen is not a pot of gold found at the bottom of the H2 rainbow. It’s found in the hands of the industry’s storytellers, influencers, and change-makers to focus our attention on data-driven approaches and measurable, comparable metrics to fulfill the vision of our future that runs on clean, renewable hydrogen.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton is founder and CEO of Technica Communications.