Is Hydrogen Back in the Energy Picture? Or Is It All Just Shilling for Oil Companies?

©. Toyota

The only people who benefit from the hydrogen economy are the oil and petrochemical companies that make the stuff.

Hydrogen is in the news again. Bianca Nogrady writes in Ensia that, "As the price of renewable energy drops and storage technologies mature, hydrogen fuel is drawing fresh attention."

infographic section

US Department of Energy/Public DomainThis TreeHugger has long been skeptical about hydrogen because it is not a fuel. Even the US Department of Energy infographic that Nogrady includes in the article calls it "a clean, flexible energy carrier" - a battery. This is a fundamentally important distinction. Nogrady writes:

At the heart of the hydrogen economy is the use of electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower to split water into oxygen and hydrogen — a process called electrolysis. That “green hydrogen” can then be used in fuel cells to generate electricity, and the fuel cells can be used individually to drive vehicles or in stacks to support or even power a grid. Best of all, the exhaust generated by hydrogen fuel cells is water, which one day might be recaptured and recycled for electrolysis again.

This is all going to be possible because the economics of hydrogen production are evidently changing. According to Jenny Hayward, senior research scientist at CSIRO and co-author of its 2018 National Hydrogen Roadmap:

“You’ve got production coming down in cost, but also you’ve got utilization coming down in cost,” Hayward says. Not only has the price of electricity from solar photovoltaic and wind dramatically decreased, but electrolyzer technologies have also become much cheaper, larger-scale and more efficient. At the same time, hydrogen fuel cells are also improving both in efficiency and cost, she says.

Nogrady also points out that some of the problems we have complained about with hydrogen are being fixed, like the difficulties of storage (better tanks) and the efficiencies of fuel cells. She notes that a great benefit is that hydrogen cars fill up fast, quoting a consultant who says, “In operations for trucks, for taxis, for emergency response services, you have to have the range and the refueling time that is similar to conventional vehicles.” And the tech is getting so much better. Morry Markowitz, president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association says, “In the transportation sector and other areas, hydrogen vehicles meet or exceed anything that’s on the road today.”

A big change in the hydrogen situation is that we used to write about it being a shill for the nuclear industry. Now hydrogen is seen as a way of storing renewables and beating the intermittency problem of when the wind doesn't blow or the sun shine. In places like sunny Australia, they could make power all day and run generators on hydrogen at night. It might even get distributed through gas infrastructure (although because of embrittlement, only in the plastic pipes).

But it's almost all made from fossil fuels!

Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association sponsors

The proud sponsors of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association/Screen capture This all sounds terrific. Is it time to hang up my skepticism and embrace the hydrogen revolution? Should I stop complaining that the people behind the Hydrogen Energy Association are all car manufacturers and chemical companies? Perhaps, but down near the bottom of the article, Nogrady mentions a hiccup.

Another criticism often made of hydrogen is that a significant amount is still produced using fossil fuels. In the United States, most hydrogen is produced via a process called natural gas reforming, in which natural gas is reacted with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide and a small amount of carbon dioxide.

Well, yes. Fully 95 percent of the hydrogen produced in the world is made through steam reformation. And it is not a small amount of carbon dioxide that is a byproduct of the chemistry; there is 1/4 volume of CO2 for every volume of hydrogen produced, plus the CO2 created in boiling the water to make the steam.

Ninety-five percent. Until that changes we are not talking about a hydrogen economy, we are talking about a greenwashed natural gas economy. That's the reason the US Department of Energy does infographics like the one below; it is really the Department of Fossil Fuel Promotion these days and hydrogen is now basically a shill for the natural gas and fracking industry.

The article concludes with a quote from consultant Lisa Ruf, who says:

The problem we have, I guess, as a sector for supporting hydrogen fuel-cell technology is that we have to be wary of the hype and we have to be able to manage expectations. It’s something that takes time and investment. It will not happen overnight, but in the long-term it’s a very good solution.

But the IPCC says we have to reduce our carbon output by 45 percent in 12 years. Right now, every hydrogen vehicle on the road or rails is running on a fossil fuel. We don't have time to build a vast new hydrogen production, storage and distribution network. It's all hype.

And really it is very simple: follow the money. Who is selling 95 percent of the hydrogen on the market right now? The oil and chemical companies. They make massive amounts of it for producing fertilizer and powering rockets and no doubt love the idea of selling more to power cars, and anyone who drives one is putting money in their pockets.

hydrogen infographic

US Department of Energy/Public Domain