Hydrogen has a perception problem. If I conducted a ‘vox pop’ street survey of attitudes to this, the simplest element in the universe and a key component of water, plants and much more besides, it might well confirm that the word most associated with hydrogen is a four-letter one: bomb. Some respondents might tell me hydrogen caused the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. A few might know it underpins the process by which the Sun produces energy. But surely only a tiny minority would be aware that, here on Earth, it can offer a safe, clean energy option with huge decarbonisation potential.
Yet this is precisely the task facing hydrogen: the need to convey a positive energy message that dismantles misconceptions and secures not just public trust but also that of politicians, investors and industry who could be ‘spooked’ if a climate hostile to hydrogen takes root among stakeholders and shareholders. At best, failure in this respect would be a serious drag on hydrogen energy’s development; at worst, it could totally torpedo hydrogen’s hopes. Salutary examples abound: here in the UK, both nuclear power and fracking have felt the icy wind of public distrust and even renewables have regularly been buffeted by not-in-my-backyard NIMBYism.
For hydrogen energy, the issue of image goes to the heart of its future prospects. But in a world where the word of experts seems increasingly distrusted and sometimes derided – and where ‘alternative facts’ gain alarming traction – can hydrogen’s perception problem be tackled? If so, how?
The safety case
How safe is hydrogen? The answer is, at least as safe as other flammable fuels such as petrol or natural gas. (Don’t take my word for it! Have a look at this entertaining and enlightening piece on the Washington State University website.) Certainly it has the highest flammability range and lowest required ignition energy of any fuel, but it tends to burn up and away very quickly – resulting in a relatively limited threat in the event of any potential incident resulting from a tank or pipeline rupture, for instance.
Of course, like all flammable fuels, safe handling consistent with its physical, chemical and thermal properties is key. But hydrogen is a well-established industrial feedstock, so huge experience has been built up in its production, storage, transportation and utilisation. Furthermore, the track record of safe energy applications is both extensive and expanding. For example, as the WSU piece points out, thousands of hydrogen fuel cell-powered forklifts are already in service worldwide. And if further reassurance is needed, safety continues to be a core priority for hydrogen energy: it was a key goal in the Hydrogen Declaration signed by EU Energy Ministers last year and continues to be a focus for initiatives such as the US Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program and the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.
But is this enough to defuse fears? Hydrogen’s Achilles heel might even be its outstanding versatility. There are so many roles it can play in an energy context (e.g. in fuel cells or through injection into natural gas grids) that, from a public reassurance perspective, an awful lot of bases need to be covered. Potentially, it might only take concerns to surface in one area – perhaps due to a single ‘incident’ that triggers bad publicity and sows doubt in people’s minds – to unleash a domino effect that undermines hydrogen’s whole reputation. In today’s often cynical 24-hour-news, social-media-driven world, can we be confident that any problem wouldn’t be sensationalised or seized on to run scare stories that also ruthlessly exploit the historic ‘baggage’ that hydrogen has to bear?
Questions of confidence
On the positive side, many technologies have overcome misrepresentations and misconceptions to take root in the mainstream. Think of how microwave ovens survived a terrifying torrent of ill-informed publicity to become a vital fixture in countless millions of homes. Prejudice and ignorance were overwhelmed by basic facts and the sheer weight of the benefits that microwaves delivered. Could something similar happen for hydrogen?
Naturally, nothing will build support for hydrogen energy like a successful track record of safe utilisation. In many cases, such as the introduction of hydrogen-fuelled buses and trains, incremental advances may be the best way of building confidence, and a drip-feed of developments like last week’s announcement about a UK hydrogen train design (based on upgrading ageing Class 321 ‘electric multiple unit’ rollingstock to hydrogen-powered units) could help gradually attune people to a new energy landscape. This approach could also avoid the potential pitfalls of (dare I say it!) a ‘big bang’ approach that triggers a grass-roots backlash in the form of protests about ‘risky’ technologies imposed on unwilling consumers. Nor should the reassurance value of robust standards and regulations be underestimated.
But with a carbon crisis confronting the world, can we really afford to wait for such incremental approaches to bear fruit? Isn’t part of the answer to vigorously engage people and catalyse them to take an active rather than purely passive role in a hydrogen energy revolution? I’m not simply talking about ‘positive branding’ and classic PR tricks to change perceptions. (Although we can imagine the potential impact on people’s attitudes and purchasing decisions were James Bond to drive a ‘cool’ hydrogen-fuelled car!) I mean the need for a relentless, credible, evidence-based information campaign contributed to by everyone with a stake in the growth of hydrogen energy – a campaign focusing not just on ‘public’ benefits relating to climate change, air quality and energy security, but also on the ‘private’ benefits that hydrogen energy can deliver for individuals, companies and communities.
These ‘private’ benefits need to revolve around two key criteria: cost and convenience. To truly win hearts and minds, hydrogen-for-energy must tick both these boxes. Financial incentives such as tax breaks (e.g. for hydrogen-fuelled cars) could certainly help. But the fundamentals must be right too. Every component of the ‘hydrogen energy chain’ – including combustion technologies – must deliver (alongside safety, reliability and efficiency) easy use (or, where relevant, complete unobtrusiveness) and cost-attractiveness. This is the challenge if hydrogen is going to secure a major role in the global energy mix.