Synopsis: The broken dream of the big business solution to climate change.
It is like big ‘fossil’ and big automotive are royalty in a world on the brink shifting to a democracy.
The dream was that hydrogen is the fuel for the future that can promise a path to maintaining the royal families and continue the tradition of wealthy empires built by those who can control the supply of energy.
The reality is that renewable energy is everywhere and can potentially literally offer “power to the people”, and any window for hydrogen as a mainstream fuel carrier has passed.
Alan Finkel, the former chief scientist and author of Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, has admitted that hydrogen cars are unlikely to be sold in great numbers because they simply can’t match the convenience and performance of the battery electric car.
Finkel is uniquely placed to make such a judgement, as the author of the landmark hydrogen strategy, and as an owner of both an EV, and one of the few owners in Australia of a hydrogen electric car: He drives a Toyota Mirai.“Nothing can compete:” Finkel concedes battery electric beats hydrogen cars
The result can be battle between economists fearing lower-cost solutions mean that even if more work is done when that work is measured in monetary value it will measure as less economic activity, and science and technology people orientated advocates who want efficiency and the avoidance of scarcity.
There are many uses for hydrogen other than as an energy carrier, and even some cases where, although now only exceptions, hydrogen as an energy carrier still can just maybe make sense.
The principle is that instead of simply transmitting clean electrical energy over a grid to consumers, the electrical energy can be converted to hydrogen and then shipped to consumers, and consumer equipment can have integrated “fuel cells” to convert the hydrogen back into electrical energy.
Converting the electrical energy to hydrogen and back results in the loss of around 2/3 or the energy, and means consumers need more complex equipment that incorporates a system for converting hydrogen back into electricity.
Yes, even cars and other equipment with motors such as cars, convert the hydrogen to electricity and use electric motors, because otherwise they are even more expensive to operate and require even more enormous, huge fuel tanks.
At one time, the use of hydrogen did make some sense for equipment that could not be connected to the electric grid and needed to operate on batteries. Back in 2008, when Honda first released the Honda Clarity hydrogen car and batteries were $1,400 per kWh, hydrogen cars had their best chance to be competitive, but the Nissan Leaf EV that launched two years later in 2010 sold in far higher numbers that the clarity.
It was not just battery prices.
Back in 2008, when batteries had an energy density of 0.055 kWh/litre compared to the 25 time higher 1.4kWh/litre energy density of 700 bar hydrogen, hydrogen was the better solution for all but energy application with a very small energy requirement.
But by 2020 with the difference down to a factor of 3 and the extra space required by the high-pressure hydrogen cylinders eliminated that previous advantage, and batteries in newer EVs can now provide more energy in the same space. The time of key advantage of hydrogen has passed.
Given the hydrogen car could not compete in 2008 or in 2010, it would be almost a miracle for a hydrogen car to compete in 2023 with batteries available below $100 per kWh, charging speed and convenience becoming widespread that exceeds what is possible with hydrogen refueling, and greater range than from hydrogen. Hydrogen is an element and does not change, while the construction and ingredients for batteries has changed, and continues to evolve.
Maintaining the hydrogen dream for energy use is mostly about refusing to want to accept the reality of battery cost reductions, or the loss of being able to control the distribution of energy.
Motives for Hydrogen Fuel: The dream and avoiding the nightmare.
The dream: $$$.
To understand the hype around hydrogen, it may help to understand the promise of hydrogen. Hydrogen has to potential to:
- maintain the order of world economics and keep economic wealth in “traditional” hands.
- provide a future for the fossil fuel industry protect the wealth high value corporations.
- protect employment and sustain the motor vehicle industry.
- increase economic activity, and potentially technically boost economies at the expense of living standards.
- protect government taxation base and political parties’ key donors.
Hydrogen and the preservation of the world order of wealth.
In a world with as history of fortunes built from the control of resources that can be burnt to produce energy: first coal, then natural gas and then oil, and more recently natural gas, hydrogen enables the dream of f to be the new high-tech step to continue the tradition.
Protect and provide a future for the fossil fuel industry.
All those extremely valued reserves of natural gas and oil that would be wasted in a renewable energy future, can remain as assets while there is even the possibility of one day having carbon capture and storage allowing “blue hydrogen” to be considered a clean fuel of the future.
protect employment and sustain the motor vehicle industry.
The labour and number of parts in an EV is dramatically reduced from comparable IC vehicles, reducing employment and as EVs pass price parity over the next few years, reducing total revenue for car brands.
Many of the largest automotive empires are struggling, as like any disruption, the previous leaders are those most threatened.
increase economic activity, and potentially technically boost economies at the expense of living standards.
Hydrogen costs consumers more, as any increase in consumer spending increases economic activity even if consumers get less for their spending.
The fallback plan: blocking disruption and anarchy of a nightmare electric future.
For the incumbents of fossil fuel and automotive industries, hydrogen it the big hope to avoid industry disruption, and disruption always threatens industry leaders.
The world of the 20th century was transformed by the fossil fuels and automobiles, and this established a new order, with wealth and power to those with fossil fuel reserves, those who extracted and distributed the fossil fuels, and another new major industry of vehicle manufacturers.
Those who enjoy that wealth and power, face the threat of measures to limit climate change will completely disrupt their continued wealth and power. Every industry disruption poses the greatest threat to the incumbent leaders.
This means the leaning oil producing nations, leading fossil fuel extraction and distribution companies, and leading vehicle manufactures all face the greatest threat, and for each step in the chain, hydrogen provides the closest path to “business as usual” and allows least possible disruption of all available alternatives.
This is all because hydrogen is a fuel, just as fossil fuels are fuel, and you can control the supply of a fuel, in a way that is not possible with electrical power which is simply a form of energy.
As an example, consider how hydrogen cars are only refuelled at refueling stations, like gasoline and diesel vehicles. But if you have a car powered by electricity, you can charge it at home, not just from the electrical grid, but even from your own solar power, or you could even generate electricity by pedalling a bicycle! Granted, it takes a lot of pedalling to charge an EV, but the point remains that it is not possible to control people’s access to electricity.
Hydrogen as fuel is different, largely due to the compression required to make it into a fuel. Just as no one could ever produce their own gasoline at home, no one can produce hydrogen at home compressed to extent required to make the hydrogen viable as a fuel. If the world runs on hydrogen, the whole concept of a fuel distribution and supply system is intact. The supply of fuel can even be taxed. For governments and fuel supply companies, everything can be under their control and there is order.
Electrical power from can be sourced from solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, nuclear, coal, gas, or even just pedalling which means people can even generate their own electricity, which makes monopolies and cartels impossible, and represents anarchy for those seeking to control energy supply.
However, while an EV or electric heat pump or induction cooktop can be powered by that that ubiquitous electricity which can even be made at home, a hydrogen car or hydrogen heater or hydrogen cooktop can only be powered by hydrogen, which requires expensive equipment that restricts supply to very large-scale operations one the entire process of not just electrolysis, but also the compressing and storage are considered.
While a multitude of operations including people at home with their own solar panels can produce electricity, ensuring that people require hydrogen returns control over energy to those who either can operate ‘green hydrogen‘ plants, or promise to sequester their CO2 emissions in producing grey or ‘blue hydrogen’ from ‘natural gas’.
If people own vehicles or appliances that requires hydrogen fuel, then even if those people have home solar or other sources of energy, they still require hydrogen, and authorities and suppliers of hydrogen are able to remain in control of fuel distribution. All it takes is to have vehicles and other equipment requiring hydrogen in widespread use, and the world remains very much like the world of the fossil fuel era. Anyone with an interest in the current power balance being maintained has a good reason to want consumers dependant on hydrogen.
All this explains how the fuel industry can see hydrogen as a possible future, but what about the automotive industry?
The automotive industry can also have far less disruption if people would just buy hydrogen vehicles instead of EVs!
Although it would be the least disruption for the incumbent leading car makers if they could just combust or “burn” the hydrogen in internal combustion engines, and they have tried and some even keep trying, even the use of fuel cell which significantly raises vehicle complexity, at least keeps the number of parts and manufacturing processes for more similar to that needed for today’s internal combustion vehicles.
EVs are disruption, and hydrogen is seen as a way to avoid disruption, which is why there are new emerging EV companies such as Tesla, Rivian, Lucid, BYD that we have not previously heard of, but hydrogen vehicles all come only from the largest established car makers, such as the largest of all: Toyota.
The more a carmaker has to fear from the disruption of EVs, the more likely that they will invest in promoting hydrogen.
For vehicles the pitch is along the lines of the view from BMW:
“Experts agree that hydrogen is the only source of energy with the potential to replace fossil fuels in road traffic”.BMW Hydrogen press kit.
I once had someone express that it seems crazy to go to all the trouble to transition to EVs, only to then later transition to hydrogen. Just to be clear, even the staunchest hydrogen advocates do not have a scenario where people would move from EVs to hydrogen vehicles, after a successful transition to EVs. The pitch for hydrogen, is that hydrogen comes to the rescue as the only solution as EVs with batteries will prove to be unworkable. Sadly for hydrogen vehicles, battery EVs seem workable for most people, and it seems the higher cost, slower and more complex hydrogen refueling together will lower maximum range in a passenger vehicle will ensure hydrogen has only niche applications for consumer motor vehicles.
There is little logic to justify using hydrogen for distribution of energy.
Yes, every car and home could have its own hydrogen fuel cell to convert the hydrogen into electricity, but why? Because power lines are not viable anymore? Even if some energy is stored as hydrogen, why have equipment that required all energy to be converted by having vehicles and homes that require hydrogen in order to generate their own electricity?
At least, hard to find logic beyond the argument that it creates economic opportunities for big influential industries that currently supply oil and gas to continue to earn profits by making energy distribution more expensive and less efficient.
Or perhaps the logic that because adding hydrogen to the equation means that 2x to 3x as much renewable energy is required before fossil fuels become obsolete?
How else can these companies possibly continue their current profits in the face of the prospect that energy might become less expensive for consumers?
Background: The hydrogen myths.
Hydrogen as the New Snake Oil? Selling the myth: “hydrogen for energy is the future”.
When someone starts with ‘hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe’, be suspicious, if they then do not go on to explain there is basically zero available hydrogen here on Earth.
The there is so much hydrogen out there in space is no more relevant to us one Earth than most of the universe being at temperature of below -250 degrees, and a near vacuum. All three are true: The universe is mostly a near vacuum, almost all the universe is below -250°C (-418°F) and contains more hydrogen than anything else. But none of the 3 are relevant on Earth. We can see a lot of the universe, but only on Earth have we found life, which suggests Earth is very different than most of the universe.
Unlike the universe, Earth has basically zero hydrogen, although it is possible to extract hydrogen from one two main sources of hydrogen:
- fossil fuels.
Since no one has been ever able to use water as an energy source, the only energy source here are the fossil fuels.
If we extract hydrogen from water, that requires more energy than we can get back from the hydrogen but does not create greenhouse emissions, or we extract the hydrogen from fossil fuels without needed another energy source, but that creates more much greenhouse gases than simply burning the fossil fuels.
The only energy source here is the fossil fuels. The snake oil pitch of ‘abundant clean energy’ is all smoke and mirrors. The moment anyone says, ‘hydrogen as an energy source’, run.
Outside of energy from nuclear fusion, hydrogen is never an energy source.
Hydrogen is not an energy source, so always ask “Where is the energy coming from?”.
When it is suggested, hydrogen is the energy source, someone is being scammed.
Where is the energy really coming from? Often, when you hear words like “abundance” and “energy source”, the person speaking has been scammed, and does not think to ask, “where is the energy coming from?”.
You always have to start with an actual energy source and convert the actual energy source to hydrogen. For ‘green hydrogen’ you start with ‘green’ electricity, but in the real world so far, for almost all hydrogen ever produced, your start with fossil fuels and produce more CO2 for each joule of energy, than you produce by burning the fossil fuel.
If a green energy company, or someone else who really does have at least genuine plans for green electrical power, talks about green hydrogen, then they may be genuine. Credibility in green energy, and the production of excess wind and solar, is what needed for green hydrogen.
The bottom line.
Hydrogen is not a source of energy, usually a very poor choice for storing energy, an even worse solution for transporting energy.
There are valid uses for hydrogen, they just do not relate to energy.
There are many proposed uses for hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuels, and while hydrogen can be produced for use as a fossil fuel replacement, it is just not competitive on price or logistics as a solution and the main appeal for energy use is to natural gas providers seeking to greenwash their product.
There are appropriate uses of hydrogen, just not as fuel.
As discussed in detail below, there is significant misinformation from the fossil fuel lobby aiming to promote hydrogen, but once obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuel and emitting CO2 in the process is ruled out, the business case for energy applications always favours alternative solutions.
The Facts vs Myths of the different colours of hydrogen.
The H2 Science Coalition: Exposing the myths.
No, I am not a member of the H2 Science Coalition, and I believe they came into existence after I published this page, but having found an article about the coalition on cleantechnica, and wishing to endorse their goals, I updated this page to provide links.
Hydrogen Is Not A Source Of Energy, The Energy Source is either Solar/Wind or Fossil Fuels.
There are basically two ways for us to get hydrogen on Earth:
- From water, which is combined hydrogen and oxygen (H2O).
- Use (hopefully renewable) electricity to separate the water, producing O2 as a biproduct.
- From An ‘Alkane’, such as natural gas (CH4), which is combined hydrogen and carbon.
- Use energy to separate the alkane, producing CO2 as a biproduct.
Our planet does not have enough gravity to hang on to raw ‘unattached’ hydrogen, and it floats off into space so, unlike the Sun, or giant planets like Jupiter where hydrogen is the most abundant element, most of the hydrogen on Earth floated away, and the hydrogen left is that which is combined with other elements.
Hydrogen is still the 16th most abundant element on Earth, and you just need energy to separate it from other elements. You can get some of the energy used to separate hydrogen back, by letting it reattach to oxygen and form water. Just like a battery: put energy, in so you can get some of it back later.
- With method 1, if you use renewable energy for separating the water, you then have ‘green hydrogen’.
- With method 2, the production of the CO2 provides the energy for separating the methane, but this process is starting with stored chemical energy (methane) and ending with less stored energy in the hydrogen than you started with as methane, and producing CO2 in the process.
So you always need an energy source to produce hydrogen. the hydrogen isn’t the energy source, it requires energy to make or ‘extract’ hydrogen. Just like a battery, you store energy by using it extract hydrogen from what it it combined with, and you can get back a percentage of the energy back when allow the hydrogen to re-combine.
Again, you need an energy source to start. Ideally you use ‘green electricity’ as the energy source to avoid emissions. You can also use coal as the energy source, but 95% of production uses natural gas, because natural gas is a single source of the hydrogen, and the energy to extract the hydrogen. But you have more energy if you just leave the natural gas as natural gas.
There is a full page exploring this, but it turns out, as explored below, hydrogen can are feasible, and they can provide an emission free transport solution, but hydrogen cars simply not competitive anymore.
Hydrogen cars were never more desirable than fossil fuelled cars, or more economical to operate the fossil fuelled cars, but they did provide a viable green alternative long before electric cars were viable beyond small niche markets.
Then battery technology made huge advances, and electric cars became not just viable even for the mainstream where hydrogen cars were previously the only “green” solution, battery cars became a better solution than fossil fuelled cars.
Electric cars now not only answer all niches, they provide something hydrogen cars never did, they are desirable. The main appeal of a Tesla plaid is not that it is “green”.
Unlike hydrogen cars where the only real benefit is being “green”, electric cars are bring real benefits than results in many people buying electric cars because of what they can do, not only because they have zero emissions.
The result is the automobile industry transitioning to electric vehicles far faster than the industry was prepared for, because unlike with hydrogen cars, many buyers are switching not just because the cars are “green” but because they are more desirable the fossil fuelled cars.
All the plans for hydrogen cars? “No, hydrogen is green!” they claim, or “EVs are fine for ‘toy’ cars, but they will never deliver what people really need”, because at one time, that was true, and confirmation bias leads to some people interpreting the new information in a way that confirms what they believed before.
Most People Are Honest, Even In The Fossil Fuel Industry.
In this “age of outrage”, there is a tendency to assume those on “the other side” are all evil, rather than just have different beliefs. While I label most hydrogen projects as “scams” that does not mean people promoting the projects intend to be scammers. I think most of the backers of hydrogen projects feel they have found a solution to replacing fossil fuels, and having found a solution, they stopped looking. Then, confirmation bias sets in, as they have a solution, it doesn’t matter to them that others have a better solution.
Hydrogen is very often a solution to replacing fossil fuels, the questions is whether it is ever the best replacement for applications requiring a fuel.
Then, there are those who will endorse and promote any project involving hydrogen, without regard for the viability of the project.
The Hydrogen Mistake and the Law the of the Hammer.
For almost every use of fossil fuels, it is possible to move to a green hydrogen alternative that is both fully workable and solves the emissions problems.
The trap is that while there may be hydrogen solutions that either will work, or at least sound like they should work, that does not make hydrogen the best solution, or even an affordable workable solution for moving from fossil fuels. The trap is very much the law of the hammer problem, with every problem becoming something solvable with hydrogen, when there are many other tools in the toolbox. While a hammer can get screws into wooden surface there is a better tool. Similarly, with hydrogen:
- There are often a far better solutions, or far more environmentally sound alternatives.
- When there are alternatives, usually electric alternatives, hydrogen is usually the least viable choice economically, and also usually the worst choice for the environment.
- Some hydrogen solutions sound good, but in the end even increase emissions, but are still heavily promoted by ‘big oil and gas’ interests, in the hope of promoting fossil fuels or related technologies, either in the interim, or even in the long term.
- Many hydrogen ‘solutions’ are simply unworkable, but are still heavily promoted by ‘big oil and gas’ either because ‘non solutions’ will prolong the use of oil and gas, or because the ‘solutions’ are seen as opportunities to promote products and technologies of oil and gas industries.
While sometimes promoters are knowingly using delaying tactics, probably far more often they are drawn to hydrogen solutions by confirmation bias, because they want hydrogen solutions to be adopted either for their gain or familiarity to how things work now.
The big trap is to an area where fossil fuels are in use, and hydrogen is viable as replacement for fossil fuels, and without considering all alternatives, because hydrogen provides a solution, assume hydrogen provides the best solution.
One a decision has been taken, even when new better solutions become viable, confirmation bias and sunk cost bias can, as has often happened with hydrogen vehicles lead to backers of hydrogen projects being blind to the fact that the time for their vision has passed.
Before battery technology made electric cars a viable solution, hydrogen made sense as the solution and this also applies for other applications where it can seem that the hydrogen solution is easy to envisage and seems more familiar, but there is a far better alternative that makes a hydrogen even as an interim step, a senseless step.
While there may be cases where hydrogen still makes sense for the interim, until that even better solution is ready, often, it takes longer to bring the interim hydrogen solution to market than, than it would take to launch the better, lower cost, long term solution.
Electric Cars, Prior to 2012, When Hydrogen Cars Seemed Needed to Fill a Gap.
This is covered in depth in Battery Electric Cars? Or Is Hydrogen The Future For Cars?
The initial developments of hydrogen cars were not a scam, because at the time, EVs were not viable for most applications. However, the world has moved on, and so have EVs.
In fact, that there may still a use for some hydrogen cars. Sometimes the idea is not completely a scam even today. There are still locations and circumstances where electric power is not available. Obviously, anywhere there is a gas station requiring generators to run the pumps there is electricity for charging, but there are remote mining sites and situations like the war in Ukraine that results in locations where electrical charging could be questionable. Of course, there is still the question as to why not use e-fuels or generate electricity from the hydrogen at these locations, and then use normal battery cars, but at least that idea is looking for situations where EVs might not work.
The scam is to suggest hydrogen cars could take over from EVs, which was never the case. It was always that hydrogen cars might work for applications where EVs could not be made workable.
When hydrogen cars first were developed, it did not look like battery electric cars would provide a replacement for fossil fuelled cars. The Nissan Leaf, first released in 2010 with a 21kW battery, was at the time considered a revolution and state of the art. This is what an electric car was good for, just over 100km (67 miles) of range if driven carefully and the motors were not powerful. Factor in that most people would want at least of 30km (18 miles) of range in reserve when they recharge, even if only driving in the city. At that time, electric cars did not look like a technology that could take over.
Fast forward to 2022, and there are electric cars with over 500 miles/800km (Lucid Air), 600 miles/ 1,000 km (Aion LX, Neta S) even over 1,000 miles/ 1,600 (Aptera) of range, and the world is turned upside down. That always superior technology of the electric motor, suddenly, can now be used for real cars, and well before the industry was expecting such a change.
The hydrogen car was a better solution for the environment than internal combustion cars but was only ever viable for applications where electric cars were not feasible. The problem for those pushing hydrogen cars, is that electric cars are now feasible for almost every application, even though hydrogen advocates would still like to believe electric cars are still not practical for everyday use.
Hydrogen Energy for Japan and South Korea are special cases.
Both Japan and Korea have made commitments to buy hydrogen for the purpose of electricity generation. The possible scam is to promote these two possible customers as the tip of an iceberg, when they are very special cases.
The list of countries by population density reveals both Japan and Korea as high up the list, limiting the free space available for renewables from solar and wind. But neither country has the absolute highest population density, as what make Japan and Korea more vulnerable than every country above them in population density (with the possible exception of Taiwan), is that the only feasible paths to connect Japan and Korea to an international grid allowing imports of electrical energy via HVDC cable instead of hydrogen, are via either China or Russia.
While a stockpile of hydrogen and supply arrangement could make sense for both these two countries, that does not mean others would follow, or even that this will remain a long-term strategy for any country, particularly if a “world-wide-grid” emerges.
What about almost free hydrogen made from bonus electricity?
The Hydrogen could be virtually free, but neither storage nor distribution are free.
One scenario that could make hydrogen compelling is: “what if the energy for the hydrogen could be almost free”?
Creating hydrogen from renewable energy results in the loss of 2/3 of the energy when the hydrogen is converted back into energy.
This makes hydrogen a high solution cost for situations where it would be possible to just directly use the renewable energy, but what if there are times when there is no direct use for the renewable energy?
A grid largely powered by solar and/or wind, can be configured for a “baseload” level of energy, and when that strategy is adopted, low-cost “off-peak” power becomes almost zero marginal cost near free electricity.
The supply of renewable energy is not ‘on demand’, and it can be that the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing, even when demand is low. With the solar panels and wind turbines in place, and able to meet peak loads, there would be lots of times when generation of power could meet peak loads, but the loads are below peak levels, leaving excess power available at no extra cost.
In a sense, using that otherwise excess power to create hydrogen could be seen as the creating of hydrogen for ‘free’. In reality, the hydrogen is no more ‘free’ than any renewable energy, as there is the cost of the infrastructure to generate the hydrogen and store it. As with solar and wind, the only cost is the installation and maintenance of the infrastructure, and the rest just comes from the sun and the wind.
Using renewable energy that would otherwise be ‘excess’, maximises the potential return on existing solar and wind infrastructure, and while not quite ‘free‘, it could finally be an economically viable alternative to grey hydrogen.
The next question, is what to do with that low-cost hydrogen?
Hydrogen for energy storage only, or for distribution for a ‘hydrogen economy’?
Some hydrogen advocates then suggest this potential supply of free hydrogen, provides a reason to have hydrogen vehicles, hydrogen home heating and/or other equipment ready to take advantage of this ‘free’ hydrogen. But the hydrogen is still less ‘free’ than the original renewable energy, and using hydrogen to transport energy to EV and home heating etc is NOT the only option.
Remember, what is needed is energy, not hydrogen, and the hydrogen has to be converted to energy to be useful. Either:
- The hydrogen can be converted back to energy whenever needed at the same location where the hydrogen was produced.
- The hydrogen can be transported to refueling stations for hydrogen vehicles, or to homes for heating and cooking, with each vehicle or home etc converting the hydrogen back to electricity as required.
The energy storage option, with free transport of energy.
Consider a solar or wind farm where excess renewable energy is converted into hydrogen and stored.
When the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, the stored hydrogen can feed the grid from the same location the solar or wind would normally feed the grid. Hydrogen can be converted back into electrical energy, and then sent over the same power lines that are normally sending the electricity from the solar or wind. These powerlines are already in place and their construction cost already covered by the original renewable energy project. As these powerlines would otherwise be unused at the time the power from hydrogen is needed, this amounts to fee and efficient transport of the energy that was stored.
Remember, the ‘free’ Hydrogen is limited to being a fraction of the power available as wind/solar.
Sometimes hydrogen advocates get excited by ‘free’ hydrogen, and ask, why not then power everything by hydrogen? This question forgets the key principle that you need 3x the amount of renewable energy in order to make the hydrogen. The hydrogen is only free if there is spare renewable energy from wind and solar, and there is only spare capacity if the grid is normally fully powered by wind and solar.
Hydrogen can only be ‘free’ in a system mostly powered by wind and/or solar.
Distribution of even ‘free hydrogen’ for a ‘hydrogen economy’ makes no economic sense at all.
An alternative to converting hydrogen back into energy at the location where the hydrogen is generated, is to transport the hydrogen to the point of use and only covert back to electricity if required.
Consider EVs. It is feasible that, for example, 1/3 or all power generated is consider excess power, and then used to produce hydrogen. Since the process of creating the hydrogen, getting it to the cars and then the cars converting hydrogen back to electricity to power the car is around 30% efficient, that means there would only be sufficient ‘free’ hydrogen to power 1/10 of all cars. Which may sound OK, until considering all the energy which could have been used to power the gird when there is insufficient sun/wind, has been used to power this 10% of all cars.
However, given that transport of hydrogen is problematic, or at least, is expensive, and as the hydrogen in this instance, being created from renewable power generation, will be available at a location with a high-capacity grid connection, why not store the hydrogen at it is initial location and convert it back to electrical energy as required?
This use of the free hydrogen as storage only, rather than for both storage and distribution, eliminates one of the big problems for hydrogen: distribution.
Well, no economic sense for society, but it could create wealth for suppliers at the expense of the rest of society.
Distribution of ‘free hydrogen’ could create a market for fossil fuels and more CO2 emissions.
The dream of hydrogen advocates is that ‘free'(gratis) hydrogen would then be distributed to hydrogen filling stations for vehicles and even homes for hydrogen powered cooking and heating.
If this did happen, the hydrogen would no longer be ‘free’, but it would open the door for fossil fuel companies to gain more revenue and keep emitting CO2.
Avoiding the hydrogen trap: there are alternatives.
There are so many problems, where hydrogen can play a key role in solution. The trap is to have a problem and find that hydrogen can provide a solution, and then not continue looking for other solutions that may be better than the one using hydrogen.
This trap very often catches out those in the fossil fuel industry, who are so hoping for a hydrogen future.
For long term energy storage, while hydrogen is a candidate, there are many other possible solutions to consider.
What seems most illogical, is the idea of using hydrogen not only for energy storage, but also for energy transport all the way to the end usage of the energy.
Scams: Propaganda and false claims.
Blue Hydrogen: Disguised Natural Gas Made Worse.
Fossil fuel has carbon, that makes CO2 when you burn it, or when you take out the hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is when you pretend you have a way to catch the CO2
In the video to the right, from the channel “just have a think”, suggests “blue hydrogen” is the greatest fossil fuel scam in history.
Note that even people talking up ‘green hydrogen’ can in fact be looking to create markets for fossil-fuel sourced, ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ hydrogen. Unless you have green electrical energy going to waste, ‘green’ hydrogen is just expensive, and fossil fuel companies have an alternative.
The Big Picture: The Economics Don’t Add Up, Its A Stalling Tactic, or a ‘fossil fuel’ trick.
I have previously explored in detail the pros and cons of battery electric vs hydrogen cars and found 3x running costs, more expensive cars with no real benefits not available using batteries. The bottom line is, for motor vehicles, the economics just don’t add up to use hydrogen in place of batteries.
In more detail:
- The argument against hydrogen is:
- If using green hydrogen from electricity, you need 3x more electricity than battery electric cars.
- The suggested benefits for hydrogen:
- If you have really really large fuel tanks, you can in theory better range than battery electric cars.
- In practice, hydrogen cars only better the range of very low price electric vehicles, and there are no low price hydrogen vehicles. In practice, far better range is available from battery electric.
- Recharging can be faster than the recharging a battery.
- Battery swapping is faster and safer than rechanging hydrogen, and there are already more battery swap stations than hydrogen stations.
- If you have really really large fuel tanks, you can in theory better range than battery electric cars.
Toyota: The Anti Electric Vehicle Car Company.
So why are some companies still pushing hydrogen cars, including the worlds largest car maker: Toyota?
Because, it turns out that despite being a leader with hybrids, Toyota feels electric vehicles will lead to huge job losses in Japan. It appears their issue is not that hydrogen cars are not the best product, it is that battery electric cars are seen as a threat.
So fixed is Toyota on trying to stop electric vehicles, that the company is facing a consumer backlash and boycotts from environmental groups, over their lobbying and donations to those who vote against electronification.
Toyota gained a positive ‘environmental’ reputation with the introduction of hybrids, starting with the Prius in 1997.
Here was a company introducing new technology that reduced emissions!
For the performance and other specification, the Prius was an expensive car. To make a hybrid, you take a normal car make it more complex by adding a battery and electric drive train, and perhaps the motivation of Toyota was simply to sell more complex cars? To move from a hybrid to an EV, you take things out and make the battery bigger, which makes the car simpler. It seems on making cars simpler, Toyota are not so pleased, and looking at the EPA data, maybe the environment is not really their motive.
The main reasons for backing hydrogen cars, is that doing so could slow or even derail the uptake of battery electric cars, which are a threat to:
- Some existing automakers who will lose market share and as a result employ less staff.
- Fossil fuel companies.
Not only are hydrogen cars seen as a way to delay the uptake of electric vehicles, but also as a potential market for ‘blue hydrogen’ for fossil fuel companies, and a way to retain pricing and profit for Toyota and some other car makers not ready for battery electric vehicles.
Hyundai: Did You Know They Also Do Oil and Gas?
I thought of Hyundai primarily as a car company, but on corporate web site, automotive is just 1 of 11 activities, and oil and gas is amongst those activities. I do not know if the activities look as synergies, but Hyundai being the only company I know of that does both automotive and oil and gas, as well as now appearing to be the strongest remaining supporter of hydrogen cars, may not be entirely a coincidence.
‘AsianPetrolHead‘, an informative reviewer of cars from Korea, recently attended a Hyundai promotion on their plans for hydrogen, and was provided with the message that hydrogen cars “can act as a generator“, and that even entire buildings could be powered by hydrogen.
Given that ‘green hydrogen’ requires more electrical energy to produce than the electrical energy get back, it is not logical to use the fuel cell to generate electricity if the hydrogen was made from electricity.
This means that for Hyundai, it seems clear what the answer to the question “where does the hydrogen come from” is:
‘Green Hydrogen”, From water, which is combined hydrogen and oxygen (H2O).
- “Blue/Grey Hydrogen”, From An ‘Alkane’, such as natural gas (CH4), which is combined hydrogen and carbon .
Is it possible that the car division of Hyundai is announcing a strategy to support the “natural resources” division?
Hydrogen Trucks and Buses.
There is an argument the duty cycle for trucks and busses will not allow for the time to recharge electric trucks and busses. This maybe true, but swapping a battery can be faster and provides more cost effective operation than hydrogen.
The fundamental problem for hydrogen, is that the running costs will always be at least 3x higher than for electric trucks. I suggest this is an even bigger fatal flaw for hydrogen trucks and busses than it is for cars, as logistics is all about costs. While some consumers will tolerate inefficient vehicles, logistics companies cannot.
While there are work arounds for rechanging times, such as battery swap and wireless in road charging, there is no work around for the inefficiency hydrogen, as physics dictates energy is required to compress the hydrogen, and compression results in heat losses. Either green hydrogen is used, which requires electricity which could be used more efficiently for charging batteries, or fossil fuels are used, which only works if there is an ongoing supply of low cost fossil fuels. Currently, fossil fuel companies will back hydrogen projects, as it allows them to project a future for natural gas, but that is the only way hydrogen trucks add up.
Hydrogen Home Gas: Leaky Pipes Anyone?
Michael Liebreich, the influential energy analyst and founder of BloombergNEF, told Recharge in June: “You’re not going to have hydrogen in your home for safety reasons. It’s just not going to be a thing.”‘Hydrogen in the home would be four times more dangerous than natural gas‘: government report: Recharge.
One suggestion is that hydrogen could replace methane as the gas used over the ‘gas main’. The appeal is that many homes are already fitted for gas.
Update, This article is also useful reference
However, all those gas pipes and fittings have been tested for leaks of methane. These same pipes are untested with hydrogen, which is a major problem as that hydrogen is a gas of much smaller molecules than methane, and will leak when methane would not leak. The reality is that pipes and fittings of the gas main already leak methane, just within acceptable limits. Upgrading theas system of pipes for hydrogen would be very expensive.
Then, all the ‘burners’ and heaters and appliances the burn the gas would need either replacing or modification to work with hydrogen instead of methane or ‘lpg’.
And what would we be the benefit, if the hydrogen begins life as electricity, and 50% of the energy is lost by converting to hydrogen? We can already distribute electricity to homes, and there are already cooktops and heaters available. Yes, historically natural gas could be less expensive than electricity, so gas was economic. But those economics are from the past if in future the gas is going to be produced using the electricity! Remember, if you convert electricity to hydrogen, there are inefficiencies and you lose a lot of the energy, and solar is now far less expensive than electricity was in the past. Hydrogen at homes would be used only for heating, as converting back to electricity using fuel cells would be just ridiculous, so the losses are less than with electric cars and other situations where you need the efficiency of electricity, but there are still substantial losses. It will simply cost more even to heat and cook using hydrogen than with the more efficient heat pumps and induction cook tops.
Plus, burning hydrogen is not completely pollution free, and some nitrogen from the air inevitably also becomes burnt, producing some nitrous oxides.
Home hydrogen gas would mean higher power bills, so at least utility companies may be happy, but it still requires changing stoves and heaters in homes, and is not pollution free.
Converting ‘green electricity’ to hydrogen to send to homes does not make economic sense. They only way sending hydrogen to homes in place of electricity could make sense, is if the hydrogen does not come from electricity, but from natural gas. The trouble with using hydrogen from natural gas is, that greenhouse gas emission are greater than from using natural gas. So going through a conversion from natural gas to hydrogen from natural gas, that results higher household energy costs, more CO2 and more dangerous homes, only adds up if you are prepared to make great sacrifices to provide profits for oil and gas suppliers.
Hydrogen Exports: Send Power By Boat Instead Of Electrical Wires.
There are real plans to export ‘green hydrogen’ from places such as the Australian Northern territory. This sounds great, there is so much sunshine and free land at the source location, that solar and wind makes perfect sense.
But just one question: why convert the electrical energy into hydrogen to send it to other countries?
The map here is of the submarine cables that connect the internet, but why would it not be possible to also use submarine cables to send electricity?
Is it really more efficient to send ships loaded with hydrogen to move electrical energy from one point to another? If it is, why have we been wasting all these years using electrical cables to move electricity from one point to another!
Consider Japan’s plan for buying hydrogen:
Under the Australian plan, coal would be converted to gas for processing to remove sulphur, mercury and carbon dioxide, leaving hydrogen. The Norwegian system would use renewable power for high-temperature electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which would be released into the atmosphere. In both cases, the hydrogen would be liquefied for shipment to Japan.Norway Races Australia to Fulfill Japan’s Hydrogen Society Dream
The entire project to supply Japan was developed around the idea of sending fossil fuel sources hydrogen, and the ability to use fossil fuels is a major reason for sending hydrogen, rather than shipping electricity.
Yes, and advantage of shipping hydrogen is that there can be stored energy at the point of import. But given the inefficiency of physically shipping hydrogen, and the loss of 2/3rds of the energy from conversion of electric power to hydrogen and back, using cables and a mix of using some of the electricity immediately, and converting some to hydrogen at the destination just has to be more cost effective if all the hydrogen would be ‘green hydrogen’.
The Coal, Oil, Gas Replacement, The Delusion Of Fossil Fuel Thinking.
There has been over 100 years of fossil fuel use for in cars as well as heating and power generation. How can we do without a direct replacement? Green hydrogen is the only green fuel could be a direct replacement. You can transport it in tanks, burn it, generate electricity, and generally do everything you could do with fossil fuels.
The problem is that once you start with electricity, many of those things become redundant. Electricity can be more efficiently transported over wires. Even when you have hydrogen, it is better to covert the hydrogen back to electricity than burn it, and why generate electricity from hydrogen if you started with electicity?
So established is a fossil fuel way of thinking, that some people feel hydrogen is the main solution because it feels like it give back the familiar experience of fossil fuels. Maybe sufficient people will remain in this mindset to create a robust market, but this emperor has no clothes, as the old way is now redundant.
Hydrogen Boats and Planes.
The power to weight of hydrogen may have lost to the greater efficiency and utility of batteries for cars, but what about boats and planes? The same disadvantage of size, and weight apply, as well as the same efficiency and other advantages. In summary, hydrogen can, at extra cost, enable things beyond the reach of electric boats or planes, but if electric can work, it is the better option. So what can work?
- Electric Ships:
- General motors buys a stake in Pure Watercraft.
- Evoy Goldfish X9 electric rib.
- 7 MWh Electric Container Ship Yara Birkeland On Maiden Voyage
- Electric Planes:
- World’s Fastest All-Electric Plane Has Arrived—It’s Made by Rolls-Royce
- Hydrogen Planes.
- Hydrogen-Electric Aircraft Gearing Up for Regional Flights in the Next Years
I will add more links developments materialise, but hydrogen may make sense, at least in some cases, for aircraft.
Hydrogen Energy Storage: Maybe Not A Scam?
There are several studies, such as these, comparing energy storage alternatives. With the economic might of fossil fuel companies desperate to have hydrogen as a chosen solution, it is important to check who is funding the studies.
I have written previously on how renewables cannot replace fossil fuels with out the addition of storage.
The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind does not always blow. In reality if you have a big enough connected areas, the sun always shines somewhere during daytime, and the is always wind somewhere, but politics usually block having a large enough connected area, and even then there is the day night thing unless the connection is global. Reality is, storages is needed.
The most tried and tested storage in pumped hydro, and there are places that have now proved batteries as storage. I need to check again if anywhere has hydrogen as storage, but in theory if the area is too flat for pumped hydro, then hydrogen should be a good option. Hydrogen for storage need not be a scam, but it is unproven and so far, as soon as hydrogen is mentioned, the natural gas people tend to try and hijack the project.
Hydrogen Metals: Green Steel, Green Aluminium: No Scam.
Not all coal is destined for coal fired power plants, there is also metallurgical or ‘coking coal‘, which as described by that link, is ‘essential’, for making steel.
At one point I thought that as this coal was the source of the carbon that is part of steel, and would not harm the environment as it is not burned. I was wrong.
The basic principal is that metal ‘ores’ are mostly oxides or other compounds with oxygen: iron ores are mostly a form of iron oxide, and aluminium ore, or ‘bauxite’ is also primarily aluminium and oxygen. The key process to remove the oxygen, is to bond the oxygen with carbon, and emit CO2.
Green steel and green aluminium, are formed without the production of CO2 to remove the oxygen. The established ‘green’ method is to instead bond the oxygen with hydrogen, and thus produce H20 in place of CO2. Note, green steel still has carbon in the steel, but that is very little carbon and as it is not used to produce CO2, there is no problem with that use of carbon.
Who Is Being Scammed?
this section still being updated.
It sounds good. A supplier offers you hydrogen, and undertakes to ramp up the percentage over time that is “green hydrogen” or even that magical “blue hydrogen”. If you are buying the hydrogen from another country, is it your problem if there are emissions at the location of the source of the hydrogen?
After all, it still lets you have commit to targets for reducing greenhouse gases within your country!
Do not need wonder why supplier does not suggest sending electricity via submarine cable, given that if it is green hydrogen made from electricity, that would be more efficient than sending hydrogen?
I thing everyone has heard the taglines:
- The most abundant material in the universe!
- Pure clean energy that produces only water as a waste product.
The reality is that hydrogen is not readily available everywhere as the tagline suggests, and in fact simply does not exist as ‘hydrogen’ on earth at all, and because the hydrogen must be extracted using more energy than the hydrogen provides, hydrogen is not an energy source, but energy storage.
Then, even ‘green hydrogen’ never quite matches electricity for lack of environmental impact.
It is also quite hidden that the cleanest way to use the hydrogen, is produce electricity anyway, and that the only ‘green’ hydrogen requires more energy for production than will be available from the hydrogen.
The taglines for hydrogen are definitely misleading, and always leave out the cost of storage and transport and energy losses.
If you listen to the stories, you could easily believe hydrogen is even better than electricity, and the main reason is that there are huge amounts of marketing behind hydrogen.
It is not just consumers being trapped. The promise of schemes make millions from hydrogen infrastructure, also become a huge source of people at risk of being scammed. One of the key reasons is that building infrastructure around hydrogen can be a distraction from other projects that genuinely transition away from fossil fuels, but most investors believing in the projects even if not all promoters are so sincere. The more infrastructure projects in the works, the longer we keep using fossil fuels in the interim.
This does not mean that no hydrogen projects will actually make economic sense once the required green electricity is available, but it does mean a lot of projects get “green lighted” that will never add up.
Always question: “Where is the hydrogen coming from?”
And then, take a very long look at whether there is a more efficient, lower cost, purely electrical solution that does not require hydrogen.
By use case:
- Storing energy: In no case so far has hydrogen even been a best choice solution for energy storage.
- Batteries, compressed air, thermal or hydro storage are all better choices.
- Transporting energy: Hydrogen is an even worse solution for transporting energy, and electrical cables or batteries are a better solution.
- Reduction: For reduction, which is the removal of oxygen from ores such as iron ore or bauxite, hydrogen is viable and sustainable solution.
There are valid uses for hydrogen, but they are not related to energy.
- *2023 May 17 th: Updated synopsis and revised.
- 2021 October 24 th: Initial version.
Links to be filed.