From one of our correspondents.
Author: Mark Lawson.
Using hydrogen as the medium of an electricity export market has a major flaw. Unlike coal or gas, hydrogen can be made wherever there is water, wind and sun. And why would a country import that gas when it can produce on its own territory?
Hydrogen is not like LNG. It is much more difficult to convert to liquid form, it leaks much faster and it also has other properties that make it a much more dangerous gas. Hydrogen has been used as a feedstock in many industrial processes for decades, but the vast majority of the gas is consumed in the same place where it is made, from methane and steam. This is a cheaper way of producing than using electricity.
Energy losses in converting electricity from renewables to hydrogen and back again on the other hand, do not outweigh a regular transmission line that is less wasteful. It can carry thousands of kilometers of electricity. A battery is also a more efficient and safer way to store energy, at least compared to hydrogen.
Hydrogen is widely used in industrial applications and especially in certain specialized energy applications such as fuel cells for submarines. But it does not play any role as a means of transferring or storing energy. The lead role is a comforting fantasy for activists hoping for green Nirvana.
A worse than bad idea
If, of all the proposals for generating and storing ‘clean’ energy, we have to award prizes for the worst idea, the large-scale use of hydrogen as a kind of alternative to LNG would be a major contender for that first prize.
The concept of using hydrogen as a means of storing energy from the myriad of ‘pie in the sky’ solar, wind and photovoltaic projects has a big, obvious flaw that many very smart and driven entrepreneurs operate in. the industry (think of mining billionaires) is apparently not seen.
Unlike coal and gas, green power can be generated anywhere, and almost every country has at one time or another philosophized about becoming the ‘Saudi Arabia of the wind’, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it. In other words, why should, say, Japan import terribly expensive power from elsewhere when they can make terribly expensive power in their own territory, including the coastal waters? This important point was made in early April by Prof. Andrew Blakers of the Australian National University, in the Australian edition of The Conversation, an online site for academic articles (1). He wrote that in the March 2022 budget, the federal government has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to expand Australia’s green hydrogen capacity.
However, he also points out that Japan itself has more than enough solar and wind energy to be self-sufficient in energy and—assuming all that energy is harnessed—no need to import fossil fuels or Australian green hydrogen. Whether or not you agree with Professor Blakers that Japan can realistically meet all its energy needs from local renewable energy, the country can certainly generate hydrogen locally.
‘As a heat source, hydrogen costs four times as much as natural gas.’
Hydrogen is currently used as a raw material for many industrial processes, such as metal treatment, fertilizer production and food processing. Petroleum refineries use hydrogen to lower the sulfur content of fuels. Almost all of that commercial hydrogen comes from the traditional extraction method that uses steam and natural gas. And rightly so: this is by far the cheapest way to extract hydrogen.
However, renewable energy proponents now want to build hectare after hectare of wind farms and solar generators to make hydrogen by passing an electric current through water. This involves placing two bare ends of a wire attached to a power source in the liquid. Hydrogen bubbles from the wire connected to the negative side of the source, or cathode, and oxygen comes from the positive, or anode wire.
The idea is to somehow store this hydrogen, preferably in liquid form such as LNG, and then transport it to where it is needed as a replacement for fossil fuels in applications such as steel making, electricity generation , powering electric vehicles, marine and aviation . This is actually the view set out in a 2019 report (2) prepared by the highly impressive Hydrogen Working Group of the Council of Australian Governments Energy Council.Chaired by Australia’s then very distinguished scientist, Professor Alan Finkel. While this report outlined pathways for developing such a trade, it was full of recommendations for developing pilot projects and building supply chains. There was nothing about actual commercial opportunities. As with most green energy recommendations, the emphasis has been on government action to create this export market, preferably through demand creation. Commercial interest would follow, or so they hoped.
If this hydrogen market were to emerge, huge amounts of hydrogen would be needed. But the Finkel report made no mention that the process of making, condensing and shipping hydrogen is technically challenging and wasteful.
Professor Blakers cites an estimate that converting energy into hydrogen, shipping it to where it is needed, and then converting it back into energy could consume 70 percent of the energy generated. Michael Liebreich, a senior associate of BloombergNEF ( New Energy Finance) wrote in 2020 (3) that hydrogen as an energy storage medium has only a 50 percent efficiency – much worse than batteries. He estimated that hydrogen fuel cells, turbines and engines are only 60 percent efficient — much worse than electric engines — and much more complex. As a heat source, hydrogen costs four times as much as natural gas. As a way to transport energy, hydrogen pipelines cost three times as much as power lines, and ships and trucks are even worse, he says.
Another factor that is particularly important in Australia is the need for large amounts of very clean water for the process. For the small pilot projects funded by government grants, this may not be a problem, but it will likely preclude large-scale commercial production.
“Apart from a few accidents when the technology was new, LNG has an impressive safety record.”
Activists who talk so smoothly about using hydrogen to store energy will no doubt be referring to liquefied natural gas, which today forms the basis of a thriving international trade with purpose-built container ships. Thanks to huge projects on the northwest flank and in Queensland, Australia’s LNG exports are now double in value that of thermal coal.
International trade in LNG began to grow in the 1960s with the large-scale application of techniques to liquefy the gas in giant facilities called “trains” and to keep it liquid for long periods of time in what amounts to giant thermos flasks. LNG requires low temperatures, minus 160 degrees Celsius, but the gas itself is an energy source and some of that energy can be used to power the liquefaction process. Once at that temperature, the liquid form of the gas can be stored relatively safely at atmospheric pressure. Aside from a few accidents when the technology was new, LNG has an impressive safety record.
The technical problems of shipping LNG were solved, facilities were built and customers were found to be buying the output before the general public was fully aware of the public benefit of being able to trade gas across oceans.
As mentioned, hydrogen has been produced on a large scale for some time now, albeit from steam and methane, but most of it is consumed locally. Until the 1960s, hydrogen was also used in city gas pipelines, usually accounting for about 10 percent of the mixture in a still primarily methane system. This became uneconomical with the advent of the large-scale LNG industry.
Unlike LNG, hydrogen poses significant problems in storage and use. It’s a much smaller molecule than methane, so seals and pipes that would easily prevent methane leakage don’t hold hydrogen. The liquefaction temperature for hydrogen is much lower than that of methane, specifically minus 253 degrees Celsius or just 14 degrees above what physicists call absolute zero – you can’t get any colder – so it takes significantly more energy to achieve and maintain it. . The alternative is to store the gas under very high pressure.
This leads to the security issue. Without going into technical details, hydrogen has different combustion and explosive properties than LNG and, as mentioned, a greater tendency to leak. It is a much more dangerous substance than LNG. History connoisseurs will remember the explosion and fire that destroyed the German airship Hindenburg in 1937, the airship that used hydrogen. Airship technology was abandoned after that, but the few such craft still in service use helium instead of hydrogen to stay airborne. At the very least, large hydrogen systems will require a set of strict safety rules and procedures that may have to be implemented the hard way.
Then there is the problem that switching to hydrogen is not just about simply connecting a hydrogen tank to an existing engine or using existing pipelines. Everything will have to be redesigned and rebuilt, all at a staggering cost.
Faced with these inconvenient facts, activists offer counterarguments that range from the weak to the ridiculous. They claim that green power will be so cheap that the waste of using hydrogen to store the power won’t matter. Do they really mean that?
Why not every country generate its own power and let alone create an export market? If energy needs to be moved internally, why not reduce the losses and use a transmission line? If power is to be stored, then massive batteries might be an almost as ridiculous solution, but at the very least it would be cheaper, more efficient and (probably) safer than a hydrogen storage unit.
Another argument is that hydrogen can be stored cheaply in salt domes. The salt can be extracted relatively easily to form large, underground pockets for gas storage, it is hoped. There are development projects in Europe and in the US looking at salt domes, but the final word on this is left to another BloombergNEF report.
‘Storing hydrogen in large quantities will be one of the most important challenges for a future hydrogen economy. Low-cost, large-scale options such as salt caverns are geographically limited and the cost of using alternative liquid storage technologies often exceeds the cost of producing hydrogen.”(4)
Activists also point to the possible use of hydrogen in the city gas supply. That is certainly possible, but city gas pipelines now operate at much higher pressures than in the 1960s and are designed for methane, not hydrogen. There may be security issues.
There are already niche applications where the benefits of hydrogen outweigh the drawbacks, such as in rocket fuel and fuel cells for submarines. The use of hydrogen as a way to store and recover energy was the subject of much research long before current activist enthusiasm, but unlike LNG, no technological solution has emerged that would allow its commercial use in the electricity system. makes possible.
Judging by the sheer amount of nonsense being talked and written about its use, hydrogen’s primary value is not commercial at all. The main value of the gas was to comfort the activists. It’s one of the many fantasy stories they keep telling themselves in the expectation that one day they will reach green Nirvana, somewhere above the rainbow. It’s about as useful as any other fantasy story.
(1) Australia plans to become a major exporter of green hydrogen to Asian markets, but they don’t need it. The talk, April 4.
(2) Australia National Hydrogen Strategy, COAG Energy Council
(3) Liebreich: Hype Separating Hydrogen – Part Two: The Demand Side, October 16, 2020.
(4) Hydrogen Economy Outlook – Key Messages, BloombergNEF, March 30, 2020
April 24, 2022