The European Commission will present its new hydrogen strategy today. As renewables run into the thermodynamic sands, desperate Net Zero advocates are invoking hydrogen as saviour of the EU’s green energy agenda.
Hydrogen is dangerous; hydrogen is safe; hydrogen is cheap; hydrogen is very expensive; hydrogen is old hat; hydrogen is the future. Hydrogen is… all things to all men, and every one of these contradictory claims is more or less true from some perspective. Whatever hydrogen is, it is a very buoyant gas and makes for the perfect climate political football. Indeed, the authentic promise of hydrogen is rapidly becoming the victim of failing green policies.
As renewables run into the thermodynamic sands all over the world, desperate advocates are covering up their disastrously bad advice by calling for still more ambitious, Net Zero emissions targets. To make these extreme demands look plausible hydrogen is invoked as an energy carrier for those sectors where it is most difficult to create the appearance of decarbonisation.
The United Kingdom is a good example of the emerging European approach. The UK is planning to burn hydrogen rather than natural gas to generate electricity to balance and secure the unstable wind and solar system created by $12 billion a year in subsidy. Hydrogen will replace diesel for agricultural traction and for trucks, and will supply almost all industrial process heat. Converted to ammonia, hydrogen will replace bunker fuels for marine transport. And to ensure that domestic households don’t resort to resistive electric heating when their Ground and Air Source Heat Pumps fail to deliver on the coldest days of the year, every house will have a back-up hydrogen fuelled boiler.
For climate policy makers suffering from Net Zero headaches hydrogen is the universal aspirin. Take as many as you need, and lie down in a darkened room until the news cycle moves on.
But this desperate face-saving haste means that hydrogen must be generated by two relatively unsophisticated commodity production processes, namely the electrolysis of water and the chemical reforming of natural gas using steam (Steam Methane Reforming). Both processes are acceptable if hydrogen is required for niche and non-energy purposes, but it is a plain foolish to suggest using them for the production of hydrogen as a society-wide energy carrier. There are four principal disadvantages.
Firstly, the costs will be huge. Steam Methane Reformers and electrolysers are expensive to build and to run, and electrolysers at least do not have long plant lives, implying a short capital refreshment cycle. To this we can add the replacement of end conversion devices and the establishment of hydrogen infrastructure, pipelines, and storage systems ranging from tanks to salt caverns.
Secondly, due to conversion and storage losses, hydrogen from electrolysis and SMR can never in principle compete economically with its own input fuels. The consumer will always be better served by using the electricity and natural gas directly. Consequently, there will be substantial competitive advantages for economies that do not hobble themselves with hydrogen.
Thirdly, Steam Methane Reforming emits large quantities of carbon-dioxide, compromising any Net Zero target unless the SMRs are equipped with Carbon Capture and Sequestration, which is expensive and currently unavailable at scale. Indeed, what the current hype around hydrogen reveals is that the global Net Zero targets are in fact critically dependent on methane – the UK plans to derive 80% of its annual 270 TWh of hydrogen from SMRs – and are therefore a gamble on Carbon Capture. But if CCS becomes viable, which is possible, it will be more effective to use the methane directly in Combined Cycle Gas Turbines with CCS, and supply the consumer with electricity, and there would be no reason to make hydrogen, with all its attendant costs, problems and dangers.
Finally, the production of hydrogen from both electrolysis and SMRs uses large quantities of clean, fresh water. The UK’s current hydrogen target would increase national water consumption by between 1 and 2 percent at a time when climate policy advisors are themselves predicting a constrained fresh water supply, with deficits in a quarter of the country’s resource zones towards mid-century.
This is clearly bad hydrogen. Is there a good hydrogen? Perhaps. As long ago as the early 1970s the physicist Cesare Marchetti, then EURATOM, persuaded the Japanese government that hydrogen might have a future as a universal energy carrier if it was generated from a very high quality energy source, such as high temperature nuclear reactors, and through the thermal decomposition of sea-water in the presence of a suitable catalyst. Japan continues to work quietly on this. But the nuclear and chemical engineering problems are of the first order, and results will not come quickly. But at least the concept has authentic physical promise.
Indeed, it is perhaps the only fossil-free energy future that also preserves human well-being. Those jeopardising that future by forcing rapid and sub-optimal adoption of hydrogen in order to prolong the current mal-engineered renewables farce should hang their heads in shame.
For more information about the cost, benefit and limits of hydrogen see John Constable’s new report Hydrogen: The Once And Future Fuel (pdf)
Dr John Constable is the energy editor of the London-based Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF)