The ‘coal of the future’
Hydrogen is an invisible, tasteless, colourless, gas that constitutes the most abundant chemical element in the universe. Hydrogen is highly reactive, which means that it bonds quickly with other elements—such as oxygen, to form water—which makes it a key element in a variety of industrial processes, yet it is by definition a non-polluting gas (Hoffmann 2012). It is facts like these that probably set off Jules Verne’s imagination in a passage about the future of hydrogen from Mysterious Island (1875).
Water […] decomposed into its primary elements, and decomposed doubtless by electricity, which will then become a powerful and manageable force. […] Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable.
This passage is not merely a figment of Verne’s imagination. In the early nineteenth century, the application of electric current to chemicals for the purpose of decomposing them into their primary elements, a process known as electrolysis, was an immensely popular experimental setup among chemists (De Levie 1999; Partington and McKie 1939; Snelders 1979). The electrolysis of water, by which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, has been variously experimented before this time, but it was not until the year 1800 that Volta’s battery provided a stable electric current that a number of practical problems had been solved and ‘water splitting’ was controlled and understood (De Levie 1999). History marks the experiments of William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle, carried out around the year 1800, as the birthplace of water electrolysis (Kreuter and Hofmann 1998).
Hydrogen is of primary interest in refining industries and the production of fertilizers as well as combustion at extremely high temperatures. Due to an increased demand for cheap hydrogen in heavy industries, hydrogen producers gradually abandoned water electrolysis and turned to fossil fuels (LeValley et al. 2014). Hydrogen can be produced very efficiently—and thus at a relatively low cost—by using natural gas or other fossil fuels as feedstock. It was not until the end of the twentieth century, triggered by the oil crisis in the 1970s and the increased policy push for the decarbonization of industry, that R&D turned back to water electrolysis, rerailing to Verne’s timeline as it were. In the 1990s, the science of the materials used in electrolysis were not much different than four decades earlier, ‘this lack of consistent development’ being attributable to the producers’ preference of the cheap and reliable use of fossil fuels for the bulk production of hydrogen (Carmo et al. 2013). The lock-in of fossil-fuel technologies for hydrogen production is still visible today: the hydrogen demand ‘is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal’ and this production is ‘responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined’ (IEA 2019, p. 14).
As a result of these separate developments, the following terminology gradually emerged:
Importantly, the status of hydrogen in the energy transition is ambivalent. On the one hand, the use of fossil fuels and the emission of CO2 make hydrogen an antihero; on the other hand, the environmental gains that could result from cleaning this production, as well as hydrogen’s use as an energy carrier, place hydrogen as one of the main heroes in the energy transition. As early as 1972, the term ‘hydrogen economy’ was coined envisioning an economy that is fully dependent on hydrogen from households to air travel and heavy industry (Bockris and Appleby 1972). Some delay notwithstanding, Verne’s prophecy is starting to materialize, but the hydrogen economy is not without its hurdles.
The Colour Conflict in Hydrogen R&D
To illustrate the application of an agonistic approach, we will focus on one aspect of the hydrogen economy and place it in a concrete socio-economical context: the choice of technology for hydrogen production. We will refer to this as the ‘colour conflict’ following the aforementioned tradition in the energy sector to use colour labels for specific technologies. The colour conflict forms a good case in point for studying agonism for several reasons. First, it is a conflict on value judgements. Despite some technical terms appearing sporadically in these discussions, the conflict rests on value judgements on what is wise or strategic to do as a matter of energy policy (production, distribution and consumption of energy). The choice of hydrogen technology is thus, at least in part, a choice in how society wishes to approach the decarbonization of industry and what values stakeholders prioritize in carrying out this transition. The parties cannot therefore calculate their way out of the conflict. Second, the colours are mutually exclusive: one cannot easily (e.g. daily or monthly) switch from production of blue hydrogen to green hydrogen or vice versa. The commitments are therefore momentous and there is therefore little chance of a middle-way consensus. Third, with the exception of grey hydrogen, which everybody dislikes, none of the ‘good’ colours are wholly bad or wholly good. There are, as we will see, plenty of arguments on both sides to keep all options alive and hence the colour conflict slowly simmering. Let us briefly review the cases brought on both sides.
The advantages of blue hydrogen are primarily economic and technical: blue hydrogen is much cheaper than green hydrogen and the technology, while ‘not often used’, still ‘has a high technology readiness level (TRL)’ (Hers et al. 2018, p. 32). The high TRL meaning that the technology is almost ready to be implemented on a large scale wherever the necessary fossil resources are available. Another economic advantage of blue hydrogen is that, given its availability on short term, investing in blue hydrogen now can develop the market and infrastructure for green hydrogen later paving the way and accelerating the transition towards carbon neutral hydrogen production (ibid., p. 42). The urgency of undertaking to clean the industry sooner rather than later is often quoted as a reason why blue hydrogen might in fact not be just a ‘satisfactory’ temporary cleanup. The advantages of green hydrogen, in contrast, are primarily environmental: because electrolysis can work with renewables, meaning that resource depletion is avoided, and it can produce hydrogen with no CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen is heralded as ‘clean and safe energy carrier that can be used as a fuel in transportation and electricity production or as an industrial feedstock’ (Northern Netherlands Innovation Board 2018). Additionally, green hydrogen produces hydrogen of high purity and the electrolysis plant is a well-known construction with relatively low maintenance needs (H2Future 2020). The arguments for green hydrogen are thus primarily ecological and practical.
In the case of blue hydrogen, the technology of CCS forms an additional barrier. This technology is needed to turn the grey hydrogen in to blue one by capturing the resulting CO2 and thus preventing its emission into atmosphere. However, CCS comes with its own socio-ethical background of safety risks (Wennersten et al. 2015) and social resistance to these risks (L’Orange Seigo et al. 2014). Additionally, for countries that do not have large in house fossil fuels resources, the price of the main resource is projected to rise in the coming decades. Another cited disadvantage in the deployment of blue hydrogen is technology ‘lock in’, i.e. the ‘blue’ technology might end up being with us longer than we would like, whereas green hydrogen would be the preferred end result (International Energy Association 2020).
The persistence of the blue vs. green debates at the time when green hydrogen projects were launched can also be seen at a global scale. In Germany, for instance, the debate was made public as the ‘blue vs. green dilemma’ at the beginning of February 2020 when the Merkel government turned out to be divided on the blue vs. green matter: the minister of economics and energy confronting ministers of both science and environment on the issue (Radowitz 2020). Peter Altmaier, the ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy included blue hydrogen in the list of subsidized technologies arguing that blue hydrogen ‘will also have to play a role, above all for economic reasons’; in response to this, Anja Karliczek, the German minister of Education and Research, said in an interview that ‘the future belongs to green hydrogen alone’ (Radowitz 2020, italics added). In addition, the discussions mentioned in the previous section—Syversen’s defence of blue hydrogen in response to the EU Hydrogen Initiative which favours green hydrogen exclusively—were still very much on the public agenda, both in The Netherlands and worldwide (Gasterra 2019).
From Immunization to Vulnerability
The risk of the conciliatory approach consists in the occurrence of immunization techniques. In the blue/green discussion, there is no shortage of strong statements that are presented as knock-down arguments that leave no room for continuation. Importantly, in illustrating these interactions we do not seek to evaluate the strength of these arguments or their persuasiveness. Nor we are claiming that the immunization strategy was effective, meaning that the immunized claims were indeed, as a result, seen as self-evident. Rather, we are merely noting the contributions that frame the discussion and the identity of the participants. Let us look at some examples.
In a February 2020 interview for the specialized UK magazine Recharge (Collins 2020), the chief executive of a UK-based electrolyzer manufacturer, Graham Cooley, presented his case as follows:
I’m worried that governments have been sold a pup with blue hydrogen and CCS. Not only is it more expensive than green hydrogen over the medium term, it does not help you with energy storage or assimilate more renewables on the network, and is not a net-zero [emission] technology.
To be ‘sold a pup’ in colloquial British means to be tricked into buying something that is of lesser value than you might have been made to believe. Cooley continues:
Blue hydrogen will always require a methane pipeline, which will always leak. The problem with blue hydrogen is that not only do you need a hydrogen pipeline, but you’ll need a methane pipeline, then you’ll need a CO2 pipeline. […] And the only commercial application [for using captured CO2] is improving the efficiency of oil wells, which creates more CO2. So it’s utter rubbish. […] What I don’t understand is how the oil & gas industry has been able to convince governments [about the value of blue hydrogen]
The message in Cooley’s contribution is not only that green hydrogen is in some ways better than blue hydrogen (a claim that might in that form find broad acceptance amongst stakeholders). Cooley’s contribution is that stakeholders in the blue hydrogen community have nothing to show for themselves (‘utter rubbish’) and are hiding this by using tricks and stratagems (‘sold a pup’). The case of blue hydrogen is so weak that their lobbying power towards governments remains a mystery. For Cooley, the case is closed. This contribution illustrates how in the public discussion on a certain technological path, doors can be closed by claiming incontrovertibly that the case has been won. It is not the weight of those reasons in absolute terms that makes them good illustrations of discussion stopping—it is their packaging as the final nail in the blue hydrogen coffin.
Discussion stoppers also appeared on the proponents of blue hydrogen. The following example will be taken from a blog post on the website of the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP). The IOGP is an industry association that is committed, amongst other, to ‘ensure that Europe remains open to oil and gas imports from other producing areas’ (IOGP website). In a blog contribution about the compatibility of blue and green hydrogen, the author, Olav Aamlid Syversen, gives various reasons why the blue trajectory should be pursued and concludes:
Importantly, this is not a game of playing a technological catch up with other regions of the world, but one of solidifying our leadership and reap long lasting jobs and growth opportunities. This is what should make blue hydrogen a no brainer for Europe. (italics added)
No brainers are not discussed, because it requires little or no mental effort to see who is right. Also, in a context where no other reasons for green hydrogen are mentioned, nor counter-arguments against blue hydrogen, the more ingenuous reader will be excused for thinking that green proponents only push their agenda because they are playing their ‘technological catch up’.
In contrast with immunizers, we can now turn to some examples of vulnerability, where the criticizability and thus fallibility of choices is brought to the fore (TKI Nieuw Gas 2020). An illustrative example of conflict-fostering through the maintaining of the discussion can be found in a report on hydrogen published by TKI Nieuw Gas, a Dutch industry association in the field of energy. In presenting the hydrogen case, the document manages not to undertake any clear commitment for either blue hydrogen or green one, nor does it shy away from the discussion of alternatives. The authors mention the debate openly and serve some ‘standard moves’ that are made on both sides, for example:
Blue hydrogen can be used as a step towards green hydrogen. However, it is important to note that opinions differ around the use of blue hydrogen as a trailblazer for green hydrogen. Some stakeholders are of the opinion that green hydrogen is fast enough in order to scale up the necessary adjacent technologies and if necessary, large quantities of green hydrogen can be imported which makes blue hydrogen superfluous (TKI Nieuw Gas 2020, p. 27).
In the quote example, the proposal of blue hydrogen as a good means to ease the way towards green hydrogen is posited with significant conviction. Yet immediately afterwards, the matters are relativized, showing its vulnerability and allowing the discussion to continue living. Additionally, the problem of a low hanging fruit that comes with technological ‘lock-in’ and in fact the report ends with a series of questions such as the following: ‘What is the role of blue hydrogen in relationship to green hydrogen, including aspects of timing/fasing, capacity, available stocks and cost perspectives? How does transition look like without the blue option? What is the role of grey [steam reforming without CCS] in this?’ Questions are, of course, discussion starters par excellence but it is their suggestion regarding the status of the conflict that can also be highlighted: through questions, the discussion is maintained as open, ensuring that the parties keep looking for answers that either satisfy both parties or trigger new discussions.
From Standstills (‘Agree-to-Disagree’) to Contestation
A second risk identified in Sect. 2 in relation to the constructive approach was the appearance of standstills or ‘agree-to-disagree’ situations. In a standstill, all the parties involved maintain and defend their points of view without tackling what the other party has to say in the discussion. As a result, standpoints are defended and maintained—with or without immunization strategies—but there is no response to the other party’s contributions, no interaction of moves and counter-moves, but still the intention to continue or have a constructive approach to the conflict. Methodologically speaking, standstills are more difficult to illustrate because their essence consists of what parties are not doing, namely they are not tackling the other party’s counter-claims. It might thus be better to distinguish two variants: the full-blown standstills in which a stakeholder ignores both the other stakeholders’ claims and their argumentation and a ‘mild’ standstill in which a stakeholder acknowledges the other stakeholders’ claims but does not engage with their argumentation.
A standstill of the first variant can be found in the discourse around a project started in February 2020. The project, named NortH2 and initiated by a consortium of companies led by Gasunie (a Dutch state-owned gas operator), Groningen Seaports (operator and authority of various ports in Northern Netherlands) and Shell Nederland (Dutch-British oil and gas company) joined forces to build the country’s biggest green hydrogen facility (Gasunie 2020). The project has been widely received with much support from various stakeholders and is seen, as one regional newspaper called it, a ‘push in the right direction’ (Geijp 2020). On the project website, Gasunie benefits of green hydrogen are reiterated: its use in the decarbonization of industry, its effects on air quality, the repurposing of the gas infrastructure and so on (Gasunie 2020). In an online video posted the same day as the announced kick-off of NortH2, the representative of the regional government spoke highly of the consortium’s plans and refers to green hydrogen as ‘the missing link’. Footnote 1The blue vs. green discussion is not mentioned in any of the communication outputs of these endeavours. In the Netherlands, at least, the green deal appeared to be sealed once and for all. This is then an example of the variant we called the ‘full-blown’ standstill where the discussion is simply left behind. To be sure, the project’s choice to not stir up a hornet’s nest in its starting phase is fully understandable from a practical point of view. Yet, the convention of starting a project with complete confidence about one’s commitment (to green hydrogen) is after all just a convention and we should not assume that a more reflective, questioning attitude would necessarily have negative practical effects.
The second variant of the standstill, the one in which, unlike the previous variant, the other party’s standpoint is acknowledged, yet their counter-claims are left aside, can be identified in the following example. Just several months before the NortH2 project, a project called H-Vision published its final report. The H-Vision consortium, which also included Shell and Gasunie, promoted blue hydrogen as a trailblazer for green hydrogen: the infrastructure developed now for blue hydrogen can be used later for green hydrogen and the market created now by blue hydrogen can be a landing board for green hydrogen later (H-Vision 2019). Unlike the previous example, where the blue colour was fully ignored, this report contains a section called ‘Comparison with alternatives’. Yet, in this section and throughout the rest of the report, the authors do not engage with the known attacks stemming from the green community, such as the claims that that blue hydrogen is not emission-free, that it creates technological lock-in, maintains dependence to fossil fuels etc. Rather, the green hydrogen turns out to be not so green after all:
It is important to note that green hydrogen is in competition with other decarbonization technologies for a renewable electricity energy supply, whereas blue hydrogen is not. This means that every megawatt of renewable power used for green hydrogen production cannot be utilized for other decarbonization applications, such as power-to-heat or E-mobility. Therefore, green hydrogen is only considered sustainable if produced from surplus and cheap renewable electricity. Currently, surpluses of green electricity do not exist – in the Netherlands, the share of renewable electricity is only 15% of the total electricity generation (H-Vision 2019, p. 77)
The conclusion is not spelled out explicitly but the reader is helped until just about the very last step: given that there is no surplus of green energy in the Netherlands and that green hydrogen is only sustainable if made by surplus green energy, it would follow that green hydrogen made with electricity that could be used directly (‘for other decarbonization applications’) is not sustainable. Similar arguments against green hydrogen are advanced later, such as the fact that green hydrogen cannot decarbonize refinery fuel gasses (since it is not made from gases to start with). From an agonistic point of view, the mild standstill is significantly more beneficial than the full-blown one—the other stance is at least recognized and some moves are made in the direction of fleshing out the conflict. However, from an agonistic point of view, the optimal form of contestation is that where ‘agonistic respect’ is exercised, meaning that not only the other party’s standpoints are taken into discussion but also the other party’s arguments against one’s own standpoint.
In any one of the standstills illustrated above, whether the full-blown variant or the mild one, an agonistic approach would be an impetus for contestation. In contestation, parties seek to constantly refer back to the existing conflict, re-shaping that conflict with new contributions and in this way keeping the Others in the game. Contestation, in this regards, is nothing more than creating the textual and institutional space for responsiveness to the other’s claims, critique, and values. Contestation in this case is not only possible, it has in fact been exercised outside the two mentioned projects. Thijs den Brink, a Dutch consultant and freelance writer on the energy transition, has been particularly active in the hydrogen discussion, all but refusing to accept the many standstills that were reached among stakeholders in the Netherlands. Two examples will illustrate the point. First, writing in a period where many embraced the idea of green hydrogen produced from surplus renewables, den Brink reacted with a piece in which he sought to show that green hydrogen from surplus green energy is not a viable business case.Footnote 2 Importantly, the resulting text was not a quick dismissal of the idea of green hydrogen from surplus energy but rather a ‘tough long-read’ (in the author’s own words) in which the topic is painstakingly considered on technical, economic and environmental matters. Even though his conclusion was written in no ambiguous terms, referring to the idea of green hydrogen from surplus energy as a ‘worthless idea’, the conclusion is arrived at through agonistic respect—that is, a thorough consideration of the claims made by his adversaries. The phenomenon of others supporting such a ‘worthless idea’ is not explained away on the basis of their partisanship or bias, but rather explained through an in-depth analysis based on publicly available data, estimations and scenario-building. In a period where green appeared to be dominating the discussion, contestation appeared to be both possible and reasonable. A second example of contestation appears in a later piece by Den Brink, when the discussion was crystallized as we have seen into supporters of green and supporters of blue, den Brink reacted with a piece in which as much as 15 colours of hydrogen are distinguished (Den Brink 2020).Footnote 3 These are then two examples of contestation that breach standstills and all but ignore signals that the discussion is resolved or settled. The effects of these contestations on the R&D community are difficult to gauge, particularly since much interaction between stakeholders takes place behind closed doors, but the examples show that contestation was possible and in fact a highly fruitful approach in the same period where others took matters to be settled for good.