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Plan H

28 Feb 2024 | OP ED Watch

As the problems with so-called alternative energy become clearer and more pressing, a new green saviour appears on the horizon: hydrogen. As in green hydrogen. Hydrogen is all the rage, including with investors souring on previous failed breakthroughs. Including Justin Trudeau, who in a disastrous interview about how dumb Albertans are tossed out glibly, based on a lifetime uncontaminated by real-world commerce or engineering, “If you can build a pipeline for oilsands oil, you can build a pipeline for hydrogen”. Says the man who can’t build a pipeline for oilsands oil even after dumping $21 billion of taxpayer money into a $5 billion project. And should he turn his business acumen next to hydrogen he’ll find it's not really green and it doesn’t really work. Except at incinerating public subsidies. Conventional or “blue” hydrogen suffers from the problem that it’s extracted from methane at considerable energy cost with the byproduct being (ulp) CO2, just as if you’d burned the methane directly and saved several steps. Whereas “green” hydrogen has to come from wind and solar (or nuclear) and since wind and solar don’t really work and most environmentalists still fear nuclear, well um uh back to those subsidies.

Lots and lots of them. The Manhattan Contrarian just took a contrarian look at hydrogen as the new alternative energy saviour. As he points out:

“OK, there’s nuclear, but environmentalists and regulators have nuclear completely blocked. That means that to be carbon-free, most electricity must come from the wind and sun, and in turn that means need for energy storage far beyond the capabilities of any batteries. Hydrogen is the one and only remaining solution.”

And the trouble with hydrogen, as he also observes, is that conventional production involves breaking down methane (CH4) to get the H out, and dumping the carbon into the air as CO2, which rather defeats the purpose, being just like burning the methane except less efficient. Thus:

“Over at the government, their minds move slowly, but they have recently figured out that keeping their energy transition fantasy alive can only be accomplished with vast amounts of green hydrogen. And so they have undertaken to address the issue in the only way they know, which is to throw oodles of taxpayer funding at it.”

Which is only necessary if it’s not, well, actually efficient and thus profitable. Who wouldn’t love to virtue-signal by powering their factory, servers or whatever with green hydrogen? Anyone who saw the price tag, that’s who. Because green hydrogen is actually horrendously energy-inefficient. As in not really green.

After walking us through the math in some recent reports, and suggesting that a lot of it is fishier than a salmon steak, the Contrarian winds up conceding the obvious and insisting on it simultaneously:

“We won’t really know how much this green hydrogen stuff actually costs until there are some real facilities up and running. But whether it is ten times as expensive as the stuff [hydrogen] produced from natural gas, or only five times as expensive, doesn’t really matter. It is uneconomic, and nothing is going to change that. Nobody will ever buy it or use it without government mandates or subsidies or both.”

Maybe time to revisit nuclear. And credit where due; the Canadian province of Ontario, which already uses a lot of it, is looking to use more not less, while the Globe & Mail ran an op ed calling spent nuclear fuel “a non-carbon source of affordable energy for every global citizen over the coming centuries.” It may not get them a lot of friendly notes about getting that “high-level waste” cooking again, but it’s proven technology despite all the scare-mongering about “nuclear waste as an ‘unsolved’ and ‘unsolvable’ problem”.

Going with what we know works seems especially wise when we also read headlines like “Ministry of Transport Under Scrutiny: Allegations of Favoritism in Hydrogen Funding” and learn that:

“Allegations of favoritism have surfaced within the German Ministry of Transport, sparking concerns about the integrity of funding decisions related to hydrogen projects.”

Of course one swallow does not make a spring, nor one scandal a failed industry. But anyone who thinks government’s typical flaws including favouritism and corruption won’t turn up with the vast subsidies sloshing around for alternative fuels because their goals are uniquely virtuous, like every other state program, is again not living in the real world of incentives and tradeoffs. And the subsidies aren’t just vast, they basically are the industry; as Canary Media notes:

“It’s far from clear how the demand side of the clean hydrogen economy will evolve to match the millions of tons of supply set to be unleashed by the Inflation Reduction Act’s 45V production tax credits. Those credits could direct hundreds of billions of dollars toward electrolyzers powered by carbon-free electricity – and, potentially, fossil-gas-fed hydrogen facilities combined with carbon capture – over the coming decades.”

So nobody wants it, and it’s only being supplied in response to tax credits. Not paying customers. Bummer. And another thing.

One minute Canary Media is all “Clean hydrogen gold rush” as “Clean hydrogen is driving the next Gulf Coast energy boom”. The next it asks “Clean hydrogen for clean electricity?” and says apparently not:

“Utilities say the fuel can help them achieve a carbon-free grid. Climate hawks say it opens up a morass of waste and greenwashing that may impede better solutions.”

Here we should give Canary Media credit for trying to keep a level head. It really would be foolish to bet the farm on a technology that “is either a silver bullet or a fatal flaw in decarbonization plans, depending on how it’s made, how it’s used – and who you ask.” And for trying to start a rational debate, warning in an email kicking off a long hydrogen series that:

“The era of ‘clean hydrogen’ is fast approaching, thanks to massive subsidies from the Biden administration. But there’s no guarantee that’s a good thing for the energy transition.”

Part of the problem, especially serious coming from Canary Media not some grumpy contrarian, is that hydrogen has some serious physical limitations as fuel:

“Natural gas is basically methane; hydrogen is much less energy-dense, so you need to burn more of it to get the same amount of energy output. That necessitates bigger valves, pipes and nozzles to deliver higher volumes of gas. Hydrogen also burns hotter than methane, which produces more NOx, a regulated air pollutant that needs to be mitigated.”

Oh, just that. As for the better solutions it might impede, that “Clean hydrogen for clean electricity?” article forgot to list them. And the “gold rush” one said:

“Methane-based hydrogen producers are looking to add carbon-capture devices and sequester emissions underground. Others plan to funnel solar and wind power directly into electrolyzers, producing hydrogen without any fossil fuels.”

Great, huh? Well um no. Looking to and plan to aren’t on a level with are doing. Instead:

“Thus far, though, clean-hydrogen production scarcely exists, and it remains far from achieving industrial scale. Climate advocates hotly contest what should even qualify as ‘clean’ hydrogen and how exactly this resource should be used to best serve the economywide transition from fossil fuels.”

Other than that, a brilliant solution.

7 comments on “Plan H”

  1. The hydrogen atom is very small, and containing it in pressure vessels and piping is difficult (expensive). Hydrogen embrittlement, caused when hydrogen permeates the crystal structure of metal, necessitates constant monitoring and regular replacement of components of a processing or delivery system. Leak monitoring and expensive maintenance do not justify the hypothesized benefits of hydrogen use.

  2. Hydrogen in any form except under carefully controlled conditions by properly trained personnel is a disaster waiting to happen.
    Expensive,difficult,dangerous,impractical.And it seems like it takes almost as much energy to produce any given amount of power as it
    actually delivers to the user.Not efficient at all.

  3. Given that it takes 53kw to produce 1kg of hydrogen that contains 39.4kw of energy, "green hydrogen" is an inefficient "storage" system rather than an energy source. Along with wind and solar on the grid that require matching (doubling up) capacity from spinning back-up, these pseudo green boondoggles (c/w significant life cycle carbon footprint) would be much greener if we simply stayed with reliable energy systems eventually going to nuclear.

  4. Every hydrogen project I was looking at is gone by the wayside as there simply isn’t any power available in the quantities needed including in green hydro bc and Quebec.
    There also isn’t green power available for all the grand electrification plans which is fine as the electrical equipment for electrification is also not available.

    It’s all so stupid

  5. GE’s H2 issues are spot on. In 1980’s I worked at an optical fibre manufacturing plant that used an H2 / O2 flame to melt the quartz preforms. An H2 flame burns at 1500C which is needed to melt quartz. It was a very difficult and dangerous gas to work with for all those reasons cited. Expecting H2 to be the fuel of the future is a pure fantasy .

  6. I watched an interesting YouTube video by Sabine Hossenfelder the other day. It seems somebody in France was drilling and hit a pocket of natural hydrogen. A LOT of natural hydrogen! Just sitting there. Apparently mother earth gins the stuff up all on its own so natural hydrogen may even be considered a renewable resource (although nobody knows over what time scale).

    Of course that still ignores all the myriad of problems of using Hydrogen as a fuel. There is no known substance which is truly hydrogen tight. The stuff is so small that it flat out leaks out BETWEEN the atoms and molecules of whatever material is containing it. Then there's the problem of it being happy to burn in a huge number of ratios, unlike most fuels which only burn in a narrow range. And a hydrogen flame is invisible. If a leak develops and catches fire you would only know it from the heat given off! Then there's that wonderful property of hydrogen of embrittlement! As the stuff leaks between the atoms of the crystal lattice of its container it inserts itself in said lattice making localized weak spots. Over time the material weakens and will no longer contain the pressure that hydrogen needs to be kept under.

    Isn't it amazing how truly awful the greenie weenie's "solutions" (to a problem - ACC - which doesn't exist) truly are. I read somewhere that you could not purposefully design a WORSE motor fuel than ethanol. It is bad all kinds of ways. Well, I believe hydrogen is worse than ethanol. Somehow, I suspect that, if there actually were unicorns, their farts would be even worse. They'd probably melt flesh off of bones in usable concentrations!

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