This was actually written by Mark Lawson. We are collaborating on a collection of papers covering the main problems with intermittent energy. He appears frequently in The Spectator and he is a published writer in his own right. His website.
The use of hydrogen as the medium of a power export market has an obvious, major flaw. Unlike coal or gas, hydrogen can be created anywhere where there is water, wind and sun. Why should any country import the gas when they can make it on their own territory?
Hydrogen is not like LNG. It is much harder to put into liquid form, is much more likely to leak and has different properties which make it a far more dangerous gas.
Hydrogen has been used as a feedstock in many industrial processes for decades, but the vast bulk of the gas is consumed in the same place it is made, from methane and steam. This is a cheaper method of manufacturing than by using electricity.
Energy losses from converting electricity from renewables into hydrogen and then back again at the other end means that it is less wasteful to use a transmission line. These can now carry power over thousands of kilometres. A battery is also a more efficient and safer means of storing power, at least compared to hydrogen.
Hydrogen is already used widely in industrial applications and certain specialised power applications such as fuel cells for submarines, but it has no role at all as a means of transmitting or storing power. Its main role is as a comforting fantasy for activists hoping for the green nirvana.
The worst idea of a bad lot
If we had to hand out awards for the worst idea among all the proposals for generating and storing “clean” energy, then the large-scale use of hydrogen as a sort of alternative to LNG would be a major contender for the top prize.
The very concept of using hydrogen as a means of storing power from countless “pie in the sky” solar, wind and photovoltaic projects has a major, obvious flaw which the many very smart, driven individuals involved in the area (mining billionaires come to mind) have apparently failed to spot.
Unlike power from coal and gas green power can be generated anywhere, and almost any country that can be named has at some point talked about becoming the “Saudi Arabia of wind” as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it. In other words, why would, say, Japan, import horrifically expensive power from elsewhere when they can make horrifically expensive power in their own territory, including coastal waters?
This point was forcefully made by Professor of Engineering at the Australian National University, Andrew Blakers, in the Australian edition of The Conversation, an online site for academic articles, in early April (1). He says that in the March 2022 budget the federal government set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to expand Australia’s green hydrogen capabilities. These funds are supposed to help create a major green hydrogen export industry, particularly to Japan, for which Australia signed an export deal in January.
However, he also points out that Japan has more than enough solar and wind energy to be self-sufficient in energy and – assuming all that energy is harnessed – does not need to import either fossil fuels or Australian green hydrogen. Whether or not you agree with Professor Blakers that Japan can realistically meet all of its energy needs from local renewable energy the country can certainly generate hydrogen locally.
Hydrogen is currently used as a feedstock for many industrial processes such as treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. Petroleum refineries use hydrogen to lower the sulphur content of fuels. Almost all of that commercial hydrogen comes from the traditional extraction method relying on steam and natural gas. And for good reason – this is by far the cheapest way of extracting hydrogen.
Proponents of renewable energy, however, now want to build hectares upon hectares of wind farms and solar energy generators to make hydrogen by passing an electric current through water. This involves putting two bare ends of a wire attached to a power source into the liquid. Hydrogen bubbles off the wire plugged into the negative side of the source, or cathode, and oxygen comes off the positive or anode wire.
The idea is to store this hydrogen in some way, preferably in liquid form like LNG, then ship it off to where it is needed as a replacement for fossil fuels in applications such as creating steel, generating electricity, powering electric vehicles, shipping and aviation. This is basically the vision set out in a 2019 report (2) produced by the impressively named Council of Australian Governments Energy Council Hydrogen Working Group, chaired by Australia’s chief scientist of the time, Professor Alan Finkel. This report set out pathways for developing such a trade, but it was full of recommendations for developing pilot projects and building supply chains. There was nothing about actual commercial opportunities. Like the bulk of recommendations in green energy the emphasis was on government action in order to create this export market, preferably by creating demand. Commercial interest would follow, or so it was hoped.
Should this hydrogen market come into existence vast amounts of hydrogen would be required but, as was not mentioned prominently in the Finkel report, the process of making, condensing and shipping hydrogen is known to be technical challenging and wasteful.
Professor Blakers cites an estimate that converting energy to hydrogen, shipping it to where it is needed and then converting back into energy could consume 70 per cent of the energy generated. Michael Liebreich, a senior contributor to BloombergNEF (new energy finance) wrote in 2020 (3) that as an energy storage medium, hydrogen has only a 50 per cent round-trip efficiency – far worse than batteries. He estimated that hydrogen-powered fuel cells, turbines and engines are only 60 per cent efficient – far worse than electric motors – and far more complex. As a source of heat, hydrogen costs four times as much as natural gas. As a way of transporting 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 significant in Australia is the need for large quantities of very clean water for the process. This may not be an issue for the small pilot projects that will be funded by government grants, but it will probably preclude large-scale commercial production.
Activists who talk so glibly about using hydrogen to store energy are no doubt thinking of Liquid Natural Gas, which is now the basis of a thriving international trade using purpose-built container vessels. Thanks to enormous projects on the North West shelf and in Queensland, Australia’s exports in LNG are now double those of thermal coal by value.
The international trade in LNG started growing in the 1960s with the large scale adoption of techniques for liquifying the gas in giant facilities called “trains” and for keeping it liquid for long periods in what amounts to giant thermos bottles. LNG requires low temperatures, minus 160 degrees Centigrade, but the gas itself is a source of energy and some of that energy can be used to power the liquification process. Once at that temperature the liquid form of the gas can be stored relatively safely at atmospheric pressures. Apart from a couple of accidents when the technology was new, LNG has an impressive safety record.
All that occurred without the mixed blessing of government direction. The technical problems of shipping LNG were worked out, the facilities were built and customers were found to buy the output before the general public was fully aware of the general usefulness of being able to trade gas across oceans.
As noted, Hydrogen has been produced on a large scale for some time, albeit from steam and methane, but the bulk of it is consumed on the spot. Up to the 1960s hydrogen was also used in town gas pipelines, usually contributing around 10 per cent of the mixture in a still mainly methane system. This became uneconomic with the advent of the large-scale LNG industry.
Unlike LNG, hydrogen presents considerable difficulties in its storage and use. It is a much smaller molecule than methane, so seals and pipes that would comfortably prevent methane leakage do not keep hydrogen in. The liquification temperature for hydrogen is much lower than that of methane, specifically minus 253 degrees centigrade or just 14 degrees above what physicists call absolute zero – you can’t get any colder – and so requires considerably more energy to achieve and maintain. The alternative is to store the gas under very high pressures.
This leads to the problem of safety. Without getting into technical details, hydrogen has different burning and explosive properties to that of LNG and, as noted, a greater tendency to leak.
It is a far more dangerous substance than LNG. History buffs will recall the explosion and fire that destroyed the German airship the Hindenburg in 1937, which used hydrogen to stay afloat. The technology of airships was abandoned after that but the few such aircraft still in service use helium rather than hydrogen to stay aloft. At the very least, major hydrogen systems will require a stringent set of safety rules and procedures which may have to be learned the hard way.
Then there is the problem that switching to hydrogen is not just about slapping a hydrogen tank on an existing engine or using existing pipelines. Everything will have to be redesigned and rebuilt, all at eye-watering cost.
Faced with these inconvenient facts, activists offer counterarguments that range from the feeble to the ridiculous.
They claim that green power will be so cheap the wastage from using hydrogen to store the power will not matter. Really? Refer to the chapters in this book on renewable energy, in any case if it’s so cheap why wouldn’t each country create its own power and never mind any export market? If energy has to be shifted around internally, why not reduce the losses and use a transmission line? If power has to be stored then massed batteries may be almost as ridiculous a solution, but at 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. These geological features are a key part of the formation oil deposits. The salt can be extracted comparatively easily to form large, underground pockets for gas storage, or so it is hoped. There are development projects in Europe and in the US looking at salt domes but the last word in this area such be left to another BloombergNEF report.
“Storing hydrogen in large quantities will be one of the most significant challenges for a future hydrogen economy. Low cost, large-scale options like salt caverns are geographically limited, and the cost of using alternative liquid storage technologies is often greater than the cost of producing hydrogen in the first place.” (4)
Activists also point to hydrogen’s possible use in town gas supplies. That is at least possible, but town gas mains are now run at much higher pressures than they were in the 1960s, and have been designed for methane, not hydrogen. There may well be safety issues.
There are already niche uses where the advantages of hydrogen outweigh the disadvantages such as in rocket fuel and fuel cells for submarines. However, the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and retrieving energy was the subject of considerable research long before the present activist enthusiasm but, unlike LNG, no technological solution permitting its commercial use in the power system has emerged.
To judge by the large amount of nonsense spoken and written about its use, the main value of hydrogen is not commercial at all. The gas’s main value has been to provide comfort to activists. It is one of the many fantasy stories they tell themselves in the expectation of some day reaching green nirvana, somewhere over the rainbow. It is about as much use as any other fantasy story.
(1) Australia plans to be a big green hydrogen exporter to Asian markets – but they don’t need it. The Conversation, April 4.
(2) Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, COAG Energy Council
(3) Liebreich: Separating Hype from Hydrogen – Part Two: The Demand Side, October 16, 2020.
(4) Hydrogen Economy Outlook – Key Messages, BloombergNEF, March 30, 2020