Natural Gas (And the Hydrogen Economy) Is a Bridge to Nowhere

©. Rene Frampe

Everybody is hopping on the hydrogen train, but it's being driven by natural gas.

During a recent twitter discussion about Alstom's hydrogen trains that are running in Germany, I learned once again that I am ignorant and that Europe is awash in solar generated hydrogen. But in fact, Alstom is getting its hydrogen from Linde, which makes it for industrial purposes through steam reformation of natural gas. There are plans to dial up the amount of "green" hydrogen over the next few years, but if one looks at the economics, it doesn't make much sense. That's because, as the Bloomberg headline says, America is awash in natural gas and it's about to get worse.

natural gas prices

Bloomberg/via

..the industry is powerless to stop a wave of additional gas hitting the market as a byproduct of rising shale oil output in places like the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico. Even exports of liquefied natural gas provide little relief, as the international market is also oversupplied. “The industry is a victim of its own success,” said Devin McDermott, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. “You don’t just have oversupply in the U.S. -- you have oversupply in Europe, oversupply in Asia, and really oversupply across the globe.”

There is so much gas coming out of the ground that they literally cannot give it away.

Lack of pipelines can force gas prices there to occasionally go negative -- that is, producers have to pay others to take the fuel. They’re increasingly resorting to burning it off, a process known as flaring. The unwelcome attention attracted by flaring isn’t helping gas’s environmental credentials, either. Despite being touted as greener “bridge” fuel that enables utilities to lower their emissions en route to a carbon-free future, gas is coming under attack in some parts of the U.S. from lawmakers seeking to ban all fossil fuels.

Many in the natural gas industry still think of it as been a greener fuel, a way of reducing carbon emissions in power generation with a bright future. It emits 60 percent less carbon than coal and is easy to switch on and off, which plays nicely with intermittent wind and sun. But as Catherine Morehouse writes in Utility Dive, many are having second thoughts about natural gas.

...an increased push on climate and clean energy goals means more states, cities and utilities are aiming for carbon-free power mixes in the next few decades, and some industry observers worry utilities are over-purchasing on natural gas — and will soon be left with the same stranded asset burdens that now plague the coal industry.

The push to get off fossil fuels completely is growing, especially as the availability of renewables increases and their prices drop.

Once those prices begin to undercut the price of natural gas, utilities may see more demand for low-cost, zero-emission power, putting natural gas in a precarious spot, say stakeholders. "The entire community in the natural gas value chain, from wellhead to burner tip ... [has] been surprised at the speed at which the decarbonization debate is occurring in many states," said [Consultant Mark] Eisenhower. "It's been a dramatic shift in a very short period of time."

The industry knows that pressure to decarbonize is coming. This is why they keep talking about the hydrogen economy; it gives them something to put in their pipes and keeps them in business. Morehouse writes:

The natural gas industry sees itself able to participate through longer-term technology solutions that likely won't mature this year, but that the sector continues to pursue. Those technologies include a transition toward biofuels and hydrogen, which would elongate the lifespan for some critical gas infrastructure.

That's the true future of the hydrogen economy: to provide an excuse for keeping all those pipes and pumps and infrastructure working. To justify the continuing to pipe gas to homes and businesses.

Notwithstanding the dreams of my admiring tweeter, the hydrogen economy (and the hydrogen train) is all just talk, a way to continue doing business as usual. It's why we have to keep working to reduce demand and electrify everything.