Renewable Hydrogen May Be The Key To A Sustainable Future

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When we hold our monthly staff meetings at CleanTechnica headquarters deep in the Sangre de Christo mountains, we seldom discuss hydrogen. Because hydrogen forms really strong chemical bonds with virtually every element in the periodic table, it is not found in its pure form in nature. To get it, you have to use a lot of energy to break those bonds and then figure out a way to store it and transport it. Our focus has always been on transportation and there is little doubt that hydrogen is far behind electricity when it comes to powering cars and light trucks.

HYBRIT fossil free steel
Credit: HYBRIT

A DC high speed EV charging station costs about $300,000. A hydrogen refueling station costs ten times as much and most of the ones that do exist don’t work half the time. It’s all well and good to say a hydrogen powered car can be refueled in about the same time as it takes to put gas in the tank of a conventional vehicle, but if you can’t find a refueling station and the damn thing doesn’t work when you get there, what’s the point? Plus, no one is ever going to have a hydrogen nozzle hanging on the wall of the family garage.

Still, hydrogen does have important applications in industry. It can be used in steel making to produce zero emissions steel. It may also be the answer to the emissions spewing from the smokestacks of cargo ships and railway locomotives. At CleanTechnica, we may have to rethink our position on hydrogen, as reports about it in the news are pouring in to our state of the art operations center, which overlooks Purgatoire Peak in the distance.

Interest In Hydrogen Is Growing

At present, most hydrogen for commercial use is obtained from natural gas, which in turn is produced by fracking. It is usually referred to a gray hydrogen because although it is zero emissions energy when it is used, there are plenty of greenhouse gas emissions associated with making it. So-called green hydrogen, on the other hand, is made by passing an electric current through water. If the electricity comes from renewable energy sources, there are no emissions from making the hydrogen and none when it is used — a true win for the environment.

Of course, most people — including Elon Musk — are quick to point out that making electricity to electrolyze hydrogen which is then used in fuel cells to power vehicles is not as efficient as making electricity and using it to power vehicles directly in the first place and they are right. Every time energy gets converted from one form to another, there are losses. The more transformations there are, the more losses occur.

But renewable electricity needs to get where it will be put to use before it can do any good. In theory, solar power and wind farms can be built in urban environments, possibly by putting solar panels and wind turbines on every roof top, but as a practical matter, solar and wind facilities tend to be built out in the wide open spaces far away from cities. Often there are no high voltage transmission lines available to bring that electricity to where it is needed. Even if there are, the electricity needs to be converted to DC current at one end and then reconverted back to AC current at the other end. Such conversions inevitably lead to some of the electricity being wasted.

So in theory, electricity beats hydrogen. But in reality, practical considerations can outweigh theoretical calculations. Hydrogen is, in effect, just another battery, one that can be moved from place to place using conventional means such as pipelines or over the road tanker trucks (assuming its tendency to escape via any available means is contained). And no amount of electricity can substitute for the reducing agents needed to convert iron ore into steel.

According to Scientific American, Australia wants to export hydrogen produced by using that country’s abundant solar and wind power. Chile has plans for hydrogen in the country’s arid north, where solar electricity is plentiful and China intends to have one million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2030. Similar projects are underway in South Korea, Malaysia, Norway and the U.S., where the state of California is working to phase out fossil fuel buses by 2040. The European Commission recently published a 2030 hydrogen strategy that calls for increasing hydrogen capacity from 0.1 gigawatt today to 500 gigawatts by 2050. Take all those trends together and you will understand why Goldman Sachs predicted earlier this year that that green hydrogen will become a $12 trillion market by 2050.

Australia Could Be World Leader In Hydrogen

Dr. Cathy Foley CSIRO
Credit: CSIRO

Physicist Dr. Cathy Foley, who has been affiliated with Australia’s highly respected Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization for 36 years, will become the chief scientist for Australia on January 1, replacing Alan Finkel, a natural gas advocate. Foley is currently the chief scientist at CSIRO.

“Of course I want Australia to be a low-emissions economy, but I want us to be a world leader in renewable energy, such as hydrogen, and what I’m hearing from government is that they want the same thing,” she tells The Guardian. “We need to move as quickly as we can using all the tools to lower emissions and be bold and ambitious in doing that.” Part of her mission will be compiling and curating scientific evidence to guide a potential rapid shift away from fossil fuels to a low emissions economy.

Sun drenched Australia has the potential to generate insane amounts of renewable energy but has no way to export that energy except via expensive undersea cables. But it could use that abundant energy to make green hydrogen and ship it to countries all around the world.

The Morrison administration has not been friendly to the idea of renewable energy or reducing carbon emissions and that’s being kind. But Dr. Foley says, “The [science minister Karen Andrews] and the prime minister said they want to make sure there’s independent information that’s as unbiased as possible — gathering scientific information from wherever is needed on an issue or question and then give them frank and fearless advice to use to navigate the issue at hand

Foley points out that misinformation on issues such as climate change science is a problem because social media can cherry pick which information and evidence is disseminated. She believes the country needs a campaign to help the public understand the scientific process and welcomes the steps being taken by social media platforms in flagging posts that contained misinformation. “I think [social media] has played a major role in misinformation being easily accessible and getting a life of its own,” she and hopes social media had now “gone through the wild teenage years” and is now “developing some maturity.” The jury is still out on that, Dr.Foley.

The Take Away

We are going to hear a lot more about green hydrogen in the months and years ahead both as a source of motive power for shipping and as a substitute for reagents in industry that are currently derived from fossil fuels. The proof of the pudding is that here at CleanTechnica we have just added a “hydrogen” category to our story assignment sheet for the first time. We will be covering the topic in depth from now on.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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