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Ambitions to make hydrogen an important energy source for a climate-friendly future are wrong, says Anthony Patt. Wherever possible, including ground transportation and heating, we should replace fossil fuels with the direct use of renewable electricity.
To save the climate, the world will have to do without fossil fuels by the middle of the century. We are finally on the right track. Almost all new investments in the electricity sector go into renewable energy sources. Battery electric vehicles (BEV) are becoming increasingly popular. Most new buildings are built with non-fossil heating systems. The pace of change needs to be accelerated and stronger climate policies are needed. But one of the most serious threats to all of this is posing as a friend of clean energy: hydrogen.
The wrong hope
Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy carrier. We can make it in three ways. Gray hydrogen, which currently makes up almost all of the hydrogen used, is made from methane in a process that creates significant CO2 and volatile methane emissions. Blue hydrogen is like grayer but with carbon capture and storage to reduce CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, volatile methane emissions and process inefficiencies mean that even blue hydrogen causes higher greenhouse gas emissions than any oil and natural gas it could replace.
Green hydrogen is made from water using renewable electricity for electrolysis. It does not cause any direct emissions and is the only climate-friendly option. The problem with green hydrogen is that using renewable energy directly would, in most cases, be more efficient, cheaper, and require fewer natural resources and new infrastructure. From a systemic point of view, these questions are critical.
Competitive and fair
Consider ground transportation. Current BEVs are inexpensive to compete with gasoline and diesel vehicles and have a rapidly growing market share. They offer sufficient range for 99% of all trips, and for the other 1%, fast chargers offer over 400 km of range in less than 30 minutes, which is the breaks people need anyway. More recent work shows that battery-electric trucks, which previously lagged behind cars, also work equally well on long journeys in terms of economy and range. There were concerns about the environmental impact of battery production; These can and will be addressed through circular economy solutions.
The core infrastructure for charging BEVs – the power grid – already exists. As the number of BEVs on the roads increases, we need to expand both the renewable power supply and the distribution network. It is important, however, that the diffusion of BEVs and the necessary infrastructure upgrades can take place at the same time.
The situation is similar with heat pumps, which are the most efficient method of using renewable energies to heat buildings and many industrial processes. They are now competitive with fossil heating systems, and at the same time as their growing market share, infrastructure improvements can be made.
Inefficient, expensive and slow
And what about hydrogen? The main advantage of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) is that they refuel faster than BEVs can charge. This no longer matters as the BEV range and charging speeds have increased. Their first downside is that the overall efficiency of FCEVs – electricity, to green hydrogen, back to electricity, to wheels – is half to a third that of BEVs. A higher energy consumption makes them significantly more expensive compared to BEVs and petrol or diesel. And we would need an extensive new infrastructure for hydrogen distribution and fueling, which, unlike BEVs, would have to be in place before FCEVs are even suitable for a mass market.
For heating, so-called “hydrogen-ready” boilers come onto the market, which can burn a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen. Pure hydrogen boilers, which we would ultimately need, do not yet exist. Boilers offer some short-term advantages over heat pumps as some older buildings are less in need of renovation. But then there are the same disadvantages as with FCEVs. Efficiency: Generating the required green hydrogen would require around six times more renewable electricity than a heat pump to heat the same building. Costs: These are higher due to the higher energy consumption. Infrastructure: A second parallel hydrogen supply system would be required before pure hydrogen boilers – which we really need by 2050 – can come onto the market.
Equally important, the rapid expansion of renewable electricity supplies is likely to be the biggest bottleneck in moving away from fossil fuels. In Switzerland, for example, we are currently installing photovoltaic (PV) capacity faster than ever before, and yet we must quickly increase installation rates by a factor of four in order to fully electrify land transport and fully electrify heating by 2050. If green hydrogen catches on, the ramp-up must be even faster and the challenges must be much greater.
The hydrogen hype
Despite these problems, there is a great deal of political enthusiasm for hydrogen. To be clear: There are some applications where hydrogen will help us to decarbonise, especially seasonal energy storage, steel production and as an intermediate step in the production of sustainable aviation fuels (see ETH News). But the policies discussed go far beyond that.
For example, the EU’s hydrogen strategy envisages making hydrogen an important energy source for ground transport and heating, and would provide billions of euros in public funding for R&D and infrastructure planning. The federal government does not have such plans in the area of heating, but the cantonal governments have indicated that they see the expansion of the infrastructure for BEVs and FCEVs on an equal footing. It just doesn’t make sense.
So why the hype?
The hype seems to come from corporate lobbying in the political process. The European hydrogen lobby spends over 50 million euros annually, outperforming environmental NGOs by a factor of five in meeting and providing pre-engineered strategies for revised policy makers.
And that makes sense, because the switch to renewable energies threatens to make your entire industry obsolete. Prioritizing hydrogen will slow everything down and extend the use of existing facilities. If the demand for hydrogen grows faster than the supply of renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, we will be forced to continue using gray or blue hydrogen based on natural gas. After all, the main competency of the fossil fuel industry lies in the processing, storage and delivery of fuels to customers via pipelines and points of sale.
hit the alarm
I’m not the only one worried. One of the leading global energy sector and cleantech analysts, Daniel Liebreich, has suggested that the oil sector is lobbying for hydrogen “because it wants to delay electrification”. A group of prominent British scientists have written to their government expressing concerns about the development of hydrogen.
In some limited applications, green hydrogen can help us decarbonise. But for ground transportation and heating, which together make up the bulk of energy consumption, hydrogen is a really bad idea. It is the fossil fuel industry’s last best chance of survival, and it plays the political game accordingly.
If they win, the transition to clean energy will be delayed. In the meantime, generate higher emissions. Need more land and resources for power generation. And costs more. The environment and society will lose.
“Serious threat” from fugitive emissions with hydrogen plan
Marc A. Melliger et al., Fear vs. Reality – Sufficient Range of Battery Electric Vehicles in Switzerland and Finland, Traffic Research Part D: Traffic and Environment (2018). DOI: 10.1016 / y.trd.2018.08.011
Björn Nykvist et al., The Feasibility of Heavy Battery Electric Trucks, Joule (2021). DOI: 10.1016 / J.JOULE.2021.03.007 Joris Baars et al., Circular Economy Strategies for Electric Vehicle Batteries Reduce Dependence on Raw Materials, Nature Sustainability (2020). DOI: 10.1038 / s41893-020-00607-0
Robert W. Howarth et al., How Green is Blue Hydrogen? Energy Science & Engineering (2021). DOI: 10.1002 / ese3.956
Quote: Opinion: Hydrogen for ground transportation and heating is a bad idea (2021, November 24), accessed on November 25, 2021 from https://techxplore.com/news/2021-11-opinion-hydrogen-ground-bad-idea .html
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