Poorly Researched Hydrogen-Hype Article from CDN
Over the years, I have corrected many tech articles, and based on the recent article about hydrogen, published in Cascadia Daily News, I need to again provide some guidance and clarify some issues. Here is an overview of where we’re really at with hydrogen and why it isn’t even close to a silver bullet energy solution or, in most cases, even practical.
There is no question that we need to get away from fossil fuels. In fact, we probably never really needed them. Electric cars grew up almost in tandem with gas powered vehicles at first. In fact, by 1900, electric cars made up about a 1/3rd of the American car fleet. The history of how we ended up with petroleum is a mixture of technological glitches, Ford’s initiation of mass production, and the discovery of oil in Texas making gas cheap. Gas stations spread across the U.S. while battery technology lagged behind. Unfortunately, hydrogen may be a modern form of the same problem: a wolf in sheep’s clothing where a seemingly benevolent fuel is covering up an impractical, dirty, and unsustainable production and distribution process.
According to the book “Hot Mess” by Matt Winning, “It takes about four times as much electricity to make hydrogen as it does just to use the same electricity to charge a battery or run a heat pump.” Since most of the energy used in structures is for heating and cooling, and since heat pumps help with both, hydrogen doesn’t make sense when compared to just using electricity directly.
When it comes to cars, charging a battery from a renewable energy power source is about 80% efficient, while using hydrogen can be 40% efficient or less, depending on which part of the Hydrogen Rainbow your hydrogen came from.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is also considered a “very clingy gas,” and is often found bound to other elements like the oxygen in water (H2O). In order to get the hydrogen out of water, you must electrocute it in a process known as electrolysis, which requires electricity generated from some source. The source that is used is what creates the “Hydrogen Rainbow.”
The Hydrogen Rainbow - a 12 minute video.
Gray Hydrogen - This is hydrogen made using fossil fuels, usually natural gas. The vast majority of hydrogen made today, about 90%, is Gray Hydrogen. This process actually produces more emissions than just burning the natural gas directly.
Blue Hydrogen (aka greenwashing hydrogen) - This type of hydrogen production hypes itself as environmentally friendly. Blue Hydrogen again uses fossil fuels to break out the hydrogen, but the technology used to store the excess CO2 often produces even more emissions. According to Cornell’s Dr. Robert Howarth, “Turns out the greenhouse gas footprint of Blue Hydrogen is actually worse than if you just burned the natural gas directly instead… The goal is to keep selling fossil fuels to the world while pretending it’s going to get better.” Blue Hydrogen isn’t environmentally friendly at all.
Green Hydrogen - This is the only type of hydrogen production that may make sense. In this scenario, renewable energy is used to make hydrogen. However, in almost every case it makes more sense to use the electricity to simply run a heat pump or charge a battery instead of trying to make hydrogen. And even though the devices that split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen are getting cheaper, at the same time, the technologies around batteries and heat pumps are also getting better.
Hydrogen is a small atom. This makes it difficult to work with, especially when being transported long distances. As with all of our pipeline systems, efficiency will be negatively affected by leaks and other losses during transportation. Like with natural gas, we can expect leaks to worsen over time.
Fossil Fuel Companies Love This Idea
A big red flag to everyone should be that fossil fuel companies love the idea of hydrogen. BP is even considering a hydrogen facility of their own at Cherry Point. Remember the Cherry Point coal terminal?
Another Canadian Company?!
Just as our “leaders” are considering an unnecessary and toxic Canadian owned waterfront metal-recycling facility that will exude poisonous forever chemicals for years to come, according to the CDN article, “AtlaGas, a gas utility company based in Canada” would like to do the same. If a hydrogen plant comes to Whatcom County it will be owned by another Canadian company. Apparently word is out in Canada that Bellingham/Whatcom County is the place to go if you want to work with a government that has loose environmental regulations and values profit over the wishes and health of its citizens.
And, of course, all of this is taking too long. Most of the projections for being able to use this technology in a significant way, are for mid-century. Unfortunately, this is about 20 years after we actually need it to work, which is by 2030.
Three Suggested Solutions
These things are available to us now and make sense for the future.
- All new public buildings must have solar, batteries, and be part of Virtual Power Plants (VPPs are alliances of local generating units, such as wind or solar, that form networks capable of monitoring, forecasting, optimizing, and sharing surplus power. This includes schools.)
- Insulation (the reasons for this seems self-evident)
- Heat Pumps not AC. Heat pumps can be run directly off renewables and will help cool and heat buildings. Remember that until recently, buildings here were built without AC because we didn’t need it.
Electric Vs. Hydrogen
In Transportation: For passenger vehicles there is no doubt that electric vehicles are better. The main argument against purely electric vehicles is charge time. However, the charge time for batteries has gone down greatly and continues to do so. It currently costs an average of about $3 to $5 to charge your electric car at home; the equivalent in hydrogen (if you even had the infrastructure) would be about the same as the cost of gas today. Using batteries in semi-trucks, buses, and other large vehicles will make more sense than hydrogen by the time it is ready for prime-time. It will also save us the enormous complexities of building a hydrogen system.
Aerospace? The jury is still out on this one for me. It seems more important to get electric trains and buses into use, like France has done, targeting high-speed rail to replace most short and mid-range flights.
In Steel Production: With 8% of CO2 emissions being linked to steel production, I’ll admit hydrogen seems like an alluring solution. However, you can also run electric smelters directly from renewables.
In Shipping: Container ships could easily incorporate renewables, like solar panels and batteries, into the containers themselves. Hydrogen does take up less space though, so the jury is also still out on this one as well.
So Why The Big Push for Hydrogen?
Hydrogen will allow wealthy special interests to maintain control of the distribution of a critical resource, like they do now with petroleum products. Hydrogen is complex to make, transport, and distribute just like petroleum products. So the wealthy and powerful and politically connected see a way to invest in a new fuel that will allow them to maintain the same stranglehold on our civilization as the old fossil fuels.
On the other hand, renewables and Virtual Power Plants allow us to decentralize the production of power, which is, in fact, significantly better. While PSE has a natural gas plant that is about 60% efficient, they also have up to 50% transmission loss getting that energy to you. VPPs allow us to eliminate many electrical transmissions losses and become individually energy independent. The powers that be want us chained to a profit center they control, so they push for a complicated system like hydrogen.
No Energy Is Really Green
We should all remember that no energy is truly green. Even the renewable energy technologies I discuss here have both an environmental and human impact. For instance, 70% of the battery material used in rechargeable batteries comes from economic-slaves in the Congo.
Local politicians who are backing hydrogen production for Washington include Governor Jay Inslee, Representative Alex Ramel, County Executive Satpal Sidhu and PUD Commissioner Atul Deshmane.