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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Green Hydrogen Hype Gets Dose of Reality

  • Safety and transportation are general issues related to hydrogen. 
  • As hydrogen plans become more specific, a number of practical and commercial constraints could keep green hydrogen from playing an important role in our energy system.
  • The belief there will be demand for green hydrogen in the future is strong—because some industries have no other path to decarbonization besides green hydrogen.
Hydrogen storage tanks

Hydrogen, a versatile energy carrier with multiple industrial applications, has been hyped up as a pillar of the energy transition. Green hydrogen, specifically, is being advertised as a must-have for a successful transition.

A lot of the talk around hydrogen has been advertising with little actual substance. Now, as hydrogen plans become more specific and actual money rather than pledges is at stake, the reality is reasserting itself—and it was high time it did.

“I’m sorry Lord Bamford [JCB’s owner], I love that you have built an internal combustion engine that runs on hydrogen, but who is going to buy it?” energy analyst and transition consultant Michael Liebreich wrote in a 2023 analysis of hydrogen applications that cited JCB’s brand new hydrogen-powered digger.

Coming from someone intimately involved in the transition, the semi-rhetorical question comes as a rare dose of reality in a transition segment that has, for the most part, seen unrestrained verbal enthusiasm, pledges of billions of dollars, and promises to build a whole new hydrogen economy.

In reality, meanwhile, the UK recently shelved plans to replace natural gas with hydrogen for heating in a village trial set to test the applicability of this approach to decarbonization. The reason for the change of mind was opposition from the locals. And the reason for the locals’ opposition was safety.

Related: OPEC Slams IEA for “Dangerous” Forecast of Peak Oil Demand by 2030

Safety is one of the biggest problems with hydrogen. Highly flammable, the most abundant element in the universe needs special transportation infrastructure to avoid potentially devastating accidents. This means that the so-called hydrogen economy would need its own pipeline network if it is to happen because existing gas pipelines cannot simply be filled with hydrogen and used as they as, which is what some EU officials planned to do a couple of years ago.

Safety and transportation is a general hydrogen issue. Yet there are also specific issues with green hydrogen, the obviously preferred type of hydrogen for transition advocates. One is water consumption, which is considerable. The other is cost. These problems are inherent in green hydrogen production and are unlikely to be solved anytime soon.

Water consumption is what green hydrogen is all about. It is made by breaking down water into its constituent molecules through electrolysis using electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels—or hydropower. There is no way to reduce this consumption and one really needs a lot of water to make hydrogen—roughly 20 tons of water per one ton of hydrogen.

There is also the question of efficiency. The electrolysis that turns water into oxygen and hydrogen is not exactly a 100-percent-efficient process. In fact, it is rather inefficient, meaning a lot of energy gets lost during the course of this process. In other words, producing energy (in the form of hydrogen) via electrolysis takes a greater amount of energy. This is why green hydrogen has such a high cost. It is also why its many critics argue it makes no economic sense and will likely never will.

Yet the belief there will be demand for green hydrogen in the future is strong—because some industries have no other path to decarbonization besides green hydrogen, according to a recent overview of the industry by the Financial Times.

“There are certain industries where the carbon emissions simply cannot be abated, other than with green molecules,” Marco Raffinetti, the chief executive of green hydrogen startup Hyphen, told the FT. “The fertiliser industry is a big driver. Shipping is a big driver. Then power generation, fuel, steel production and so on. So we focus specifically on those use cases.”

In other words, the only path to viability for green hydrogen is forcing the decarbonization of industries that can only implement this decarbonization by using the expensive hydrogen produced via electrolysis with wind or solar power.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • DoRight Deikins on June 13 2024 said:
    Of course, the inefficiency of hydrogen production is nothing compared to throwing away MW of solar power because it can't be used or stored. The idea is to fill the batteries, pump water into hydro reservoirs, and other short term storage and then produce hydrogen with the surplus.

    But then who wants to build a very expensive plant that runs 10% of the time? Looks like plenty of people are throwing around money to do so.

    What's interesting to me is that the reputed price of solar power has dropped 50% in the last decade, but the price of power continues to rise. Reminds me of the old definition of insanity.

    Me, I'm glad my orchard is producing buckets. At least until all the leaky hydrogen production turns the air into an unlivable soup that only supports microbial life. I can just see it now. All the wheezy, old guys of 40, sitting around in their wheelchairs, hacking their lives away saying, "Oh for the good old days when all we had to worry about was CO2."

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