Hydrogen as Green Energy Has Problems
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Hydrogen as Green Energy Has Problems

A recent email by Fareed Zakaria highlighted the growing interest in hydrogen as a non-fossil, non-carbon fuel.  Hydrogen is useful as a way to transport and transform energy, but it is not very useful as an original source of energy.  As hydrogen gas, it can be used as a combustion fuel to replace natural gas, for example, and it can be used to produce electricity from fuel cells.  However, its production in some “green” way is problematic, except as a byproduct of producing natural gas. 

Since the combustion of hydrogen produces water, it would be great to separate the hydrogen out again from the water to burn again, but separating out hydrogen requires significant energy from some source.  What qualifies as “green” hydrogen is usually hydrogen produced by “green” electricity, like wind or solar power.  But this solar power might be more efficiently used directly as electricity, rather than converting it to hydrogen (with significant energy loss) and then converting it back to electricity.  This conversion might be useful to get energy where it is needed, e.g., to power cars, but there is lost energy in the process. 

Because of the difficulty of transporting hydrogen as a gas, which requires super cold temperature and high pressure, the current plan is to transport it as ammonia.  Ammonia is a common compound and industries are used to working with it.  Getting hydrogen in and out of ammonia is not easy, but it is much easier  and more efficient than producing it directly from water or some other source. 

Nevertheless, Fareed Zakaria cites an article in Der Spiegel describing how important hydrogen will be for the European economy.  Der Spiegel says:

A good eighth of Europe's total energy requirements – oil, gas and coal – reach the continent via this logistics hub [in Rotterdam]. In the future, climate-neutral green hydrogen is also set to be processed here in large quantities. At least that’s the plan of the enterprising Dutch. Their new goal is to become Europe's "Hydrogen Hub." And they have very concrete plans for making that happen.

Up to seven hydrogen terminals are to be built here in the coming years: berths for freighters from all over the world carrying green hydrogen (H2) or green ammonia, often to be converted to H2 right on the spot.

"Most people underestimate the huge amounts of hydrogen we will need," says port manager Nico van Dooren. Around 100 million tons of crude oil pass through Europe's largest port every year. To replace just half of that with green hydrogen with the same energy content, around 20 million tons of H2 would have to be produced.

In Germany, green hydrogen had long been regarded as too expensive and little available and with too few possible applications. That view has changed since the war in Ukraine. Germany's industry needs to shift away from Russian natural gas as quickly as possible. But blast furnaces, glass melts and cement factories can't be powered by electricity to the same extent that cars can. That's why the EU in Brussels is now exerting pressure: By 2030, the EU is expected to have 20 million metric tons of green hydrogen at its disposal, double the previous target. Half of that will have to be imported because of the lack of green electricity and electrolyzers in Europe.

The Australian company Fortescue is set to build an electrolyzer here [in Australia] in the next few months. The plant, powered by green electricity from wind and solar farms, is expected to yield around 75,000 tons of hydrogen per year at launch, which will be processed into ammonia at the factory. In a few years, the goal is for Gibson Island to be producing 400,000 tons of green ammonia per year. Most of it is to be exported to Europe by ship, either directly to chemical and food companies or, converted back into pure hydrogen, to industrial customers in the steel or cement industries. The first customer has already been lined up: the German chemicals group Covestro.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal criticizes the EU decision to depend so heavily on hydrogen, an opinion that I agree with.  It points out that producing hydrogen requires a lot of energy.  The EU plans to use “green” wind and solar energy to produce it, but the WSJ points out how much additional energy will be required.  The WSJ says the best way to produce this additional energy is with nuclear power.  It says:

It’s hard to overstate how much the green agenda relies on hydrogen’s alleged promise. It holds out the prospect of carbon-free transportation even if electric-vehicle battery technology never improves. Hydrogen also could be used in industrial processes that can’t easily be electrified to run directly on renewable power.

There’s one problem: physics. Hydrogen atoms don’t appear in isolation in nature so they must be produced, usually by splitting water molecules via electrolysis. A lot of energy is lost in this process, and hydrogen is only as green as the electricity used to electrolyze it.

Nuclear is the obvious solution. Due to its ability to produce near-constant power, only seven gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity are required to produce one million metric tons of hydrogen. But Brussels, egged on by nuclear skeptics in Germany’s government and elsewhere, is dragging its heels.

But the WSJ warns that upcoming EU regulations may say that hydrogen produced with nuclear energy is not “green,” so that all the incentives to produce the new hydrogen will go to wind and solar. 

The EU should recognize that hydrogen is not the panacea that it claims to be, and that nuclear energy is an important alternative to wind and solar. 

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