Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Hydrogen thing - another polarised energy issue

No, nothing to do with anodes and cathodes: this is to do with vehement disagreements of a pseudo-scientific nature.  Recapping (on an issue we've touched on before, e.g. here and here):

The case for: (BTW, both sides of this "debate" accept future 'net zero' as a given)

  1. Theoretical: electrification of some current uses of fossil fuels is well-nigh impossible to envisage; but conversion to hydrogen-burning looks feasible
  2. Pragmatic / vested interests: this suits a lot of people very well - in particular the natural gas industries along the entire value chain, whose sunk costs are astronomical and whose risk of asset stranding looks quite real; and a load of engineers for whom the practicalities are well-understood, if a little challenging
  3. It's not difficult to see (or at least hypothesize) a future world where periodically there will be large amounts of 'spare' electricity generating capacity, e.g. when the wind is blowing strongly and demand is low: conversion into hydrogen for later use (maybe back into electricity again) might be a whole lot easier than building batteries that are big enough.  Every green advocate whose pet project is inflexible, potentially surplus electricity (nuke, solar) or negative-flex (wind) resorts to "you can always make hydrogen with it" as a fall-back 
Mostly by dint of 2. above, there has been a heap of effort going into this, not least in Germany (some of it bizarre, see links above) and now in the USA.  Initially this was private money - always a good sign - although now the subsidy-farmers are pitching in, busily persuading governments they'd better throw public money in as well.

The case against:

  1. The inefficiency of moving from electricity into hydrogen and back to electricity again is very great indeed (true)
  2. Dreams of there being lots of spare electricity of zero marginal value (or even sometimes negative) to make this economic are just that - dreams: electricity will almost always command a higher price than that, particularly when (ex hypothesi) vast swathes of heating and transportation load has been electrified
  3. Hydrogen is way too dangerous to be used in residential applications**
  4. Pragmatic / vested interests: labour unions dream of untold unionised jobs installing heat pumps and the vast home-adaption paraphernalia that accompanies them  - really quite labour intensive, a decades-long programme, and not a service they can easily be substituted for by robots
  5. Ideological:  we hate those old natural gas people, boo, hiss    

You can see how, what starts life as something of an ideology-free economic debate descends into left-vs-right mudslinging, the Left tending to view hydrogen as a wicked capitalist ramp.

Me?  As you've gathered, I'm always impressed when anyone forges ahead without waiting to garner subsidies: & that's exactly how the great hydrogen movement started.  But that moment has passed: the professional subsidy-farmers have taken over, just as A&R men move in on creative new talent in the pop industry.  And of course they are on both sides of the "debate", seeing as how there are subsidies available on both sides, too.  So now it's really difficult to tell what's good solid analysis and what's BS & hype.  

My guess is that:

  1. hydrogen for domestic use doesn't make much sense
  2. there will be specialised industrial applications where it does
  3. there will be odd, localised, maybe temporary situations where electricity really will be 'almost free' (e.g. in the middle of a remote hot place where there's no grid, plentiful solar and a big mining industry that currently uses a lot of diesel)
  4. it will be hard for hydrogen to compete as a means of strategic storage (via conversion) for electricity with other tools for balancing grids, even those with lots of wind capacity
But that's as far as I'd go.  Views?


** personally I wouldn't bet on that.  Electricity can be quite dangerous, too, and engineers are quite good at solving easily-defined physical problems.


Anonymous said...

We already see plenty of times when North Sea wind farms are paid to stop generating electricity as the grid can’t cope - and they’re usually very close to existing gas infrastructure. There seems especially for the UK some easy repurposing of infrastructure.

andrew said...

On the point that the underlying theme is we need something that turns electricity into something and then then turning that something back into electricity later on then...


1.Safe (good) On catastrophic failure you release a lot of cold air slowly
2. Expensive (bad) but so are batteries or conversion to hydrogen and pipes or h2 to electricity or a weight strung in a mine or reverse hydro or storing heat in salt
3. Cost and efficiency scales with size (good) and that is a big thing that is not true of other solutions I know of.
4. It isn't clever (good)

dearieme said...

The whole net zero thing is balls squared: there's neither good reason to aim for it nor any practical, economical way to achieve it. If I were religious I might claim it's a case of Satan tempting mankind to monstrous acts of hubris. As it is I merely dismiss it all as a product of stupidity, ignorance, the search for an easy buck, and the lust for political power.

When the Romans arrived here they were impressed that our ancestors could "burn stones". Since then we've extended the trick to oil and gas, but otherwise there's been nothing new invented of any great consequence apart from nukes. A great missed opportunity may have been the failure to develop novel fission reactors over the last three or four decades. It's a pity that wave power hasn't come off, but there we are.

Nick Drew said...

dearieme - yes, the wave / tidal thing is an enduring mystery to me

the logic seems impeccable; the engineering seems straightforward; the results are - pathetic

jim said...

Apropos a big, very expensive science project I asked the leading prof 'do you think this is going to work?'. 'Of course not' came the reply 'but that does not stop us taking their money'. Science funding was ever thus.

Similarly sceptical over hydrogen and electric vehicles. Here I think science has run out of credible options and we are stuck with things that look as if they might work for a little while at least. In the hope a better idea might come along.

Tidal?, don't make me laugh, have you looked at a machine that has been in the sea for 40 years. All that bother for piddling numbers of gigawatts and a load of silt.

This may be why we are seeing signs of the big powers pulling up the drawbridges. They can see we will soon be into 'every person for him/her/its' self territory. Sooner or later Nature will let us know the answer, but we probably won't like it.

Possibly we could forestall the more unpleasant effects by adopting the agronomist's solution to lack of resource. The question there is where is our focus to be - a small(ish) number of rich ones or a bigger number of poor ones.

Wildgoose said...

The trouble with Hydrogen is that even H2 hydrogen molecules are just a couple of Protons that can embrittle metallic containers and easily escape. Probably better to add the occasional Carbon atom to make CH4, methane, the principle component of Natural Gas. Much more manageable, and we have lots of experience and existing infrastructure...

This Carbon Cult is getting beyond a joke.

Wildgoose said...

Oops. s/principle/principal

Before dearieme chimes in. :-)

rwendland said...

> the wave / tidal thing is an enduring mystery to me

I'm intrigued by this ND, do you see a possible positive outcome here? I've rather written this off for many years. Going thru the technologies:

barrage or tidal lagoon: except in a few convenient places, enormous capital cost building it, and it takes a long time to build so ~10% ROI/discount rate greatly increases the cost by the time first power is generated (like nuclear). Not economic, though maybe recent events have made that easier.

underwater turbines: very peaky, you only get reasonable power about 1.5 hours in every ~13 hour cycle when tidal flow is strong.

surface waves: interesting, but doesn't seem to generate much power and as jim said, building stuff that lasts 20+ years in sea/waves with low maintenance is tricky.

Have I missed something?

Nick Drew said...

I'll do another post on tidal, Mr W

Clive said...

You can’t argue about the energy density of hydrogen. It does seem a no-brainier for space heating and manufacturing processes.

Not so sure about electricity generation though. The round-tripping (conversion of electricity into hydrogen then the combustion of hydrogen to generate electricity, where you’ve got a hard limit of thermodynamic efficiency…) seems suboptimal.

Jeremy Poynton said...

"Hydrogen is way too dangerous to be used in residential applications*"

There are trials already going on. Whitby for example. Residents not overly enthusiastic, I have read


Jeremy Poynton said...

Unenthusiastic residents of a "Hydrogen village"


Sobers said...

"The whole net zero thing is balls squared: there's neither good reason to aim for it nor any practical, economical way to achieve it."

Apart from which its a total fraud anyway. Net Zero™ as propounded by all major political parties in the UK completely ignores all emissions that do not originate within the geographical area of the UK, ie if you import a leg of lamb from NZ that counts as adding no CO2 to UK overall emissions. But if Farmer Davies from Llandudno produces a sheep and sells it to a UK consumer then all the emissions from its production, slaughter, processing, retailing etc etc count to the UK total. Ergo Net Zero (as defined by the UK establishment) could be achieved largely by stopping UK production of anything and importing it instead. Actual CO2 emissions based on our consumption would be still be huge, but the likes of Sunak/Boris/Starmer (WEF admirers all) et al could parade on the world stage and proclaim their magnificent 'achievement'. Which one assumes is the whole point of the exercise in the first place. It obviously has nothing to do with actual reductions of CO2 on a global basis, even if you consider such a thing necessary.

E-K said...

Sobers - we've been doing that for decades with Chinese manufacturing too.

Our industry approaches Net Zero but our consumption does nothing of the sort - in fact we've lost control of emissions in the production of things we still consume.

For every solution there is a problem (hydrogen)

The word 'greenism' should be replaced with 'poverty'. Poverty is the plan and it's all for our own good. That's why Tories are in on this socialist nightmare - it's their mates raking in billions out of tax avoidance and hedging against UK plc.

(I loathe socialists btw - I'm not to be confused with one.)

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to Tidal please.

But interesting study from Danfoss about waste heat.

"The surplus produced each year by factories and data centers amounts to 2,860 terawatt-hours, nearly the same as the EU’s total demand for heat and hot water in residential and service-sector buildings."

Seems that we are so intent in finding new energy sources we fail to look at what we waste through poor household insulation, transmission losses (viz water utilities) and inefficient plant. Too many subsidy farmers out there.

E-K said...

Food shortages. A direct result of greenism. Brexit gets the blame though.

So. (To those taunting us with photos from the Continent)

Imagine the impact on your shelves if the UK were still in the EU.

Famines are mentioned a little bit in the bible, I think. The Tories (after 13 years rule and 3 in majority) have done a reverse Joseph on us. I don't talk politics in real life but even my Mum now says they're shit. I have to say, that's them finished if the sentiment is true for the wider nation.

Don Cox said...

Surface waves are caused by wind. It makes more sense to use wind turbines and capture the energy directly than to use the water as an intermediary.

However, when the wind drops the waves will continue for a while, so they might be considered as an inefficient way to store wind energy.

I think the most efficient way to store energy is probably to use it to capture CO2 from the air, hydrolyse water, and make methane or larger hydrocarbons. A car with a full tank of petrol is storing a great deal of energy -- I believe about 15 times as much as you can store in a battery of the same mass.


dearieme said...

"Surface waves are caused by wind. It makes more sense to use wind turbines and capture the energy directly than to use the water as an intermediary."

Wind energy is unreliable and low density. Wave energy is a consequence of winds blowing indefinitely over vast stretches of ocean so it's far more reliable and it comes at much higher density.

In fact that turns out to be the problem. High energy density knocks hell out of the equipment that's intended to harvest the energy.

Boffin said...

In fact that turns out to be the problem. High energy density knocks hell out of the equipment that's intended to harvest the energy.

Why not make much of the non structural stuff out of recycled plastics. There will be an endless supply of raw material to make spares - and think of the subsidies.

I'm going to lie down now.

Anonymous said...

I just don't see the hydrogen thing.

Tiny molecules = bugger to keep in pipes

Created by electricity - why not use the electricity directly? BTW what happens to all the oxygen created by electrolysis? I suppose the answer is "it goes to burn the hydrogen".

Trouble is we've not found a good storage method yet. In Scotland last weekend half the turbines were idle on a blowy day.