Hydrogen Hype and Hurdles

Published July 7, 2021

Green Hydrogen is the latest “energy” fad from the global warming warriors. It is mainly hot air.

Hydrogen will NEVER be a source of energy. Unlike coal, oil or natural gas, hydrogen rarely occurs naturally – it must be manufactured, and that process consumes far more energy than the hydrogen “fuel” can recover. And the heat content of natural gas is over three times that of hydrogen.

“Hydro-gen” means “born of water”, but the first commercial fuel containing hydrogen was born of coal. Maybe it should be called “Carbo-gen”?

“Town Gas” was manufactured by heating coal to produce hydrogen, methane and oxides of carbon. The resultant mixture of flammable gases was used for street lighting and domestic heating and cooking. It was replaced by “clean coal by wire” (electricity).

Today’s hydrogen hype proposes using wind and solar energy to produce “green” hydrogen by electrolysis of water. But all green generators are unreliable and intermittent – they seldom produce rated capacity for more than a few hours. “Green hydrogen” would create a messy scatter of expensive equipment for panels, turbines, roads, power lines, electrolytic cells and specialised storage tanks and freighters – all to produce stop-start supplies of a tricky, dangerous new fuel. Risking capital in such ventures is best suited to unsubsidised and well-insured speculators.

There are other problems.

Australia is a huge dry continent. Burning hydro-carbons like coal, oil and gas releases plant-friendly CO2 and water into the atmosphere. (Every tonne of hydrogen in coal produces 9 tonnes of new water as it burns.)  However every tonne of green hydrogen extracted using electrolysis will remove over 9 tonnes of fresh surface water from the local environment. That water may be released to the atmosphere far away, wherever the hydrogen is consumed (maybe in another hemisphere). The tonnage of water thus removed (often from sunny dry outback areas) would be substantial.

Farmers whose water is already rationed will wake up one morning to see their grassy hills covered in wind turbines and power lines, their fertile flats smothered in solar panels, and a huge hydrogen generator draining their water supply. Not green at all.

Here is a stark picture of tomorrow in Australia:
(Please feel free to publish this picture.)

And there are other dangers.

The hydrogen molecule is tiny, seeking any minute escape hole. Once it reaches the air, one small spark will ignite a violent explosion (once detonated, it burns ten times faster than natural gas). This makes storage and transport of hydrogen difficult, and the swift destruction of the Hindenburg illustrates the danger. It cannot be moved safely in natural gas pipelines and exporting it as a liquefied gas just wastes another 30% of the energy and adds another layer of cost, complexity and danger.

Using hydrogen for fuel cells in vehicles makes a bit more sense than promoting electric vehicles powered by massive flammable batteries made of rare metals. The battery car green dream faces huge costs and obstacles to generate the extra electricity, mine the battery metals, establish reliable battery charging stations all over the country and cope with battery disposal problems.  Hydrogen fuelled cars would improve city air quality at the vast expense of producing, handling and dispensing a dangerous gas. Hydrogen makes no sense for replacing petrol and diesel on country roads or farms.

For hydrogen to replace coal, oil and gas would require immense quantities of hydrogen, needing large quantities of fresh water and huge quantities of reliable electricity to generate it.

So what’s best?

If there was a profitable market for electrolytic hydrogen it would be far more efficient to use coal, gas, hydro or nuclear power for continuous production of hydrogen in an area well supplied with fresh water. These same proven, reliable and abundant fuels are best suited to provide cheap reliable electricity and transport fuel for all factories, smelters, farms, vehicles, ships and planes.

Forget the global warming religion and get rid of intermittent wind and solar generators from the grid unless they provide their own backup generators. Cut their subsidies and let them use their intermittent energy to generate unsubsidised green hydrogen for sale to whoever will buy it.