Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Adam Tooze Looks At Hydrogen

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From Foreign Policy Magazine, July 14:

Hydrogen Is the Future—or a Complete Mirage
The green-hydrogen industry is a case study in the potential—for better and worse—of our new economic era.

With the vast majority of the world’s governments committed to decarbonizing their economies in the next two generations, we are embarked on a voyage into the unknown. What was once an argument over carbon pricing and emissions trading has turned into an industrial policy race. Along the way there will be resistance and denial. There will also be breakthroughs and unexpected wins. The cost of solar and wind power has fallen spectacularly in the last 20 years. Battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) have moved from fantasy to ubiquitous reality.

But alongside outright opposition and clear wins, we will also have to contend with situations that are murkier, with wishful thinking and motivated reasoning. As we search for technical solutions to the puzzle of decarbonization, we must beware the mirages of the energy transition.

On a desert trek a mirage can be fatal. Walk too far in the wrong direction, and there may be no way back. You succumb to exhaustion before you can find real water. On the other hand, if you don’t head toward what looks like an oasis, you cannot be sure that you will find another one in time.

Right now, we face a similar dilemma, a dilemma of huge proportions not with regard to H2O but one of its components, H2—hydrogen. Is hydrogen a key part of the world’s energy future or a dangerous fata morgana? It is a question on which tens of trillions of dollars in investment may end up hinging. And scale matters.

For decades, economists warned of the dangers of trying through industrial policy to pick winners. The risk is not just that you might fail, but that in doing so you incur costs. You commit real resources that foreclose other options. The lesson was once that we should leave it to the market. But that was a recipe for a less urgent time. The climate crisis gives us no time. We cannot avoid the challenge of choosing our energy future. As Chuck Sabel and David Victor argue in their important new book Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World, it is through local partnership and experimentation that we are most likely to find answers to these technical dilemmas. But, as the case of hydrogen demonstrates, we must beware the efforts of powerful vested interests to use radical technological visions to channel us toward what are in fact conservative and ruinously expensive options.

Using hydrogen as an energy store is hugely inefficient. With current technology producing hydrogen from water by way of electrolysis consumes vastly more energy than will be stored and ultimately released by burning the hydrogen. Why not use the same electricity to generate the heat or drive a motor directly? The necessary electrolysis equipment is expensive. And though hydrogen may burn cleanly, as a fuel it is inconvenient because of its corrosive properties, its low energy per unit of volume, and its tendency to explode. Storing and moving hydrogen around will require huge investment in shipping facilities, pipelines, filling stations, or facilities to convert hydrogen into the more stable form of ammonia.

The kind of schemes pushed by hydrogen’s lobbyists foresee annual consumption rising by 2050 to more than 600 million tons per annum, compared to 100 million tons today. This would consume a huge share of green electricity production. In a scenario favored by the Hydrogen Council, of the United States’ 2,900 gigawatts of renewable energy production, 650 gigawatts would be consumed by hydrogen electrolysis. That is almost three times the total capacity of renewable power installed today.

The costs will be gigantic. The cost for a hydrogen build-out over coming decades could run into the tens of trillions of dollars. Added to which, to work as a system, the investment in hydrogen production, transport, and consumption will have to be undertaken simultaneously.

Little wonder, perhaps, that though the vision of the “hydrogen economy” as an integrated economic and technical system has been around for half a century, we have precious little actual experience with hydrogen fuel. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of hydrogen skeptics. The most vocal of these is Michael Liebreich, whose consultancy has popularized the so-called hydrogen ladder, designed to highlight how unrealistic many of them are. If one follows the Liebreich analysis, the vast majority of proposed hydrogen uses in transport and industrial heating are, in fact, unrealistic due to their sheer inefficiency. In each case there is an obvious alternative, most of them including the direct application of electricity.

Nevertheless, in the last six years a huge coalition of national governments and industrial interests has assembled around the promise of a hydrogen-based economy.

The Hydrogen Council boasts corporate sponsors ranging from Airbus and Aramco to BMW, Daimler Truck, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, Siemens, Shell, and Microsoft. The national governments of Japan, South Korea, the EU, the U.K., the U.S., and China all have hydrogen strategies. There are new project announcements regularly. Experimental shipments of ammonia have docked in Japan. The EU is planning an elaborate network of pipelines, known as the hydrogen backbone. All told, the Hydrogen Council counts $320 billion in hydrogen projects announced around the world.

Given the fact that many new uses of hydrogen are untested, and given the skepticism among many influential energy economists and engineers, it is reasonable to ask what motivates this wave of commitments to the hydrogen vision.

In technological terms, hydrogen may represent a shimmering image of possibility on a distant horizon, but in political economy terms, it has a more immediate role. It is a route through which existing fossil fuel interests can imagine a place for themselves in the new energy future. The presence of oil majors and energy companies in the ranks of the Hydrogen Council is not coincidental. Hydrogen enables natural gas suppliers to imagine that they can transition their facilities to green fuels. Makers of combustion engines and gas turbines can conceive of burning hydrogen instead. Storing hydrogen or ammonia like gas or oil promises a solution to the issues of intermittency in renewable power generation and may extend the life of gas turbine power stations. For governments around the world, a more familiar technology than one largely based on solar panels, windmills, and batteries is a way of calming nerves about the transformation they have notionally signed up for....


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