By Fenna Swart, Maarten Visschers en Johan Vollenbroek

Energy company Vattenfall likes to present itself as an environmentally conscious company. The new commercial with a facial spray made from wastewater fits into this strategy. But appearances can be deceiving, say Fenna Swart, Maarten Visschers and Johan Vollenbroek.

This summer, the energy company Vattenfall launched a new sustainability campaign starring model and actress Cara Delevingne. The British Delevingne normally appears in commercials for luxury brands such as Chanel or Yves St. Laurent, but in the Vattenfall commercial she walks past enormous tanks through a power station while spraying herself with a Vattenfall facial spray.

Not spectacular at first glance, but the spray consists of waste water from a Vattenfall power plant. “Industrial emissions – clean enough to spray in your face,” said Delevingne. In the accompanying text on the Vattenfall website, she indicates ‘that this will get people talking’. It certainly does. The question is whether this happens in a way that the actress and Vattenfall had in mind. Hydrogen for energy is anything but ‘clean’ and certainly not harmless.

Hydrogen as sexy and clean
‘Fossil-free in a generation’ has been the Vattenfall Group slogan for many years. The group aims to reach net zero by 2040. A new campaign is being launched for this purpose, which aims to sell hydrogen as sexy and clean and anything but boring or polluting. Delevingne also repeatedly talks about fossil-free hydrogen in the new commercial.

With this, Vattenfall pretends to be the first to recognize green hydrogen as the energy of the future, although politicians and the energy sector are talking about it. It also sounds nice and promising: hydrogen does not release CO2 and it can be produced with electricity from simple water. However, there is a problem: hydrogen is only climate-friendly if it is generated entirely from green energy. And there lies the catch.

Sewage facial spray
Most hydrogen production still comes from fossil fuels or as a byproduct of chemical processes, such as heavy oil processing. In addition, there is so-called gray hydrogen, which is extracted from natural gas using steam, which is just as harmful as extraction from heavy oil. You probably wouldn’t spray your face with a facial spray made from this wastewater.

But ‘green’ hydrogen, which unlike hydrogen from fossil fuels does not emit any carbon, also has major disadvantages: the enormous amount of renewable energy required to produce it. Hydrogen is only an energy carrier: it must first be produced and is therefore inefficient and expensive. Vattenfall also ignores the fact that more than 90 percent of the hydrogen consumed worldwide is produced with fossil energy. To be truly green and clean, renewable energy must be applied immediately.

Children’s shoes
Vattenfall’s website states: ‘Hydrogen has the potential to reduce CO₂ emissions in industries such as refining, petrochemicals, steel and transport.’ However, the idea is still in its infancy.

In addition to large-scale gas combustion, Vattenfall’s core activity is and will remain focused on increasing the combustion of forest biomass. Burning biomass sounds green, but emits more carbon than coal-fired power stations and twice as much as gas. In addition, biomass is causing an increase in forest and clear-cutting in Scandinavia, the Baltic States and the US, among others.

‘We don’t do anything that society doesn’t want’
In the Netherlands, Vattenfall has been litigating against Dutch nature NGOs at the Council of State for 2.5 years to win its biomass case. The CEO of Vattenfall has indicated that he does not want to do anything without support from society. In the meantime, the battle continues to build the largest biomass power plant in the Netherlands in Diemen, paid for by Dutch taxpayers with 395 million government subsidies. The aim is to achieve a significant increase in energy production through biomass combustion. Not only in the Netherlands, but also in Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

On closer inspection, the new commercial seems to be nothing more than a PR stunt, intended to profile Vattenfall as a green and climate-conscious company. However, it is an image with a boomerang effect. The public awareness that Vattenfall – like many other energy companies – abuses hydrogen for its own gain and a clean image was certainly not the goal of the campaign.