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Bob Meinetz's picture
Nuclear Power Policy Activist, Independent

I am a passionate advocate for the environment and nuclear energy. With the threat of climate change, I’ve embarked on a mission to help overcome the fears of nuclear energy. I’ve been active in...

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  • Dec 17, 2020

Chemical engineer/author Robert Rapier, once a frequent contributor to Energy Collective, brings to hydrogen enthusiasts a harsh dose of reality: including fuel production, driving a car powered by "clean" hydrogen emits more greenhouse gases than one powered by gasoline:

"Praxair is one of the world’s largest producers of hydrogen, has broken down the carbon footprint associated with the individual process steps [of manufacturing hydrogen fuel]. I have converted their data to metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by these process units per million ft3 of hydrogen produced.

  • Combustion for reforming energy – 3.7 metric tons
  • Combustion for steam – 2.5 metric tons
  • Power for separation and compression – 0.1 metric tons

Adding this to the carbon dioxide produced from the natural gas reactions, the total becomes 19.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced per million ft3 of hydrogen. However, the Praxair paper noted that this is the theoretical minimum. Due to heat losses and inefficiencies, the actual number in practice in a large hydrogen plant is 21.9 metric tons. 

This converts to 9.3 kilograms (kg) of CO2 produced per kg of hydrogen production. One kilogram of hydrogen is the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline, which produces 9.1 kg of CO2 when combusted."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 17, 2020

Tracking these figures is key-- I wonder how they may have changed over time, and what would be the 'ceiling' of how much better you can make those numbers with tech advancement.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 17, 2020

Currently hydrogen generates 9.3 kgCO2 compared to gasoline's 9.1 kgCO2, so it's only 2% less efficient. But that efficiency might be improved by 2% or more is irrelevant. Even if it was 50% more efficient, extending reliance on fossil fuel for transportation is unacceptable, period.

I get the feeling many don't know, or don't understand, or don't appreciate what's at stake: the extinction of 70% of species alive on Earth today; the loss of all coastal cities - London, New York, New Orleans, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo - and all of their history; the extinction of 95% of sea life from ocean acidification; global temperatures up to 18°F hotter than they are today; equatorial high temperatures of 150-180°F, for the next 100,000 years - these conditions are not only possible, but likely if we don't  eliminate fossil fuel extraction by 2100.

Not efficiency, nor "net-zero", nor "cleaner than gasoline" are remotely good enough.

Joe Butzer's picture
Joe Butzer on Dec 17, 2020

I believe context is very important in these types of discussions when they may be used to sway public opinion. I agree with everything written in this article. 11 years experience in an oil refinery with two hydrogen plants, confirms to me with out a doubt the information is accurate. BUT. It is silly to think that we would use Natural Gas as a feed stock, convert it to Hydrogen and then use the Hydrogen as a fuel. What would be the point? It would be much more economical, safer and environmentally sound to power our cars with natural gas. Which maybe is the point of the article.

However the current discussion being had in the electrical energy industry, where I have worked for the last 21 years and the public realm, is in the context that excess electrical generation that is waisted today, will be used to create Hydrogen using electrolysis. As stated in the article, Electrolysis vs using a hydrocarbon as a feed stock to produce Hydrogen are entirely two different processes. Currently utility size PV and Wind generation are being curtailed daily due to Transmission limitations. This curtailed energy is lost forever, never to be recovered. Utilizing 100% available Wind and PV 100% of the time is the goal. Economics may change in the future but converting water to Hydrogen fuel via electrolysis using relatively free energy, instead of throwing away the curtailed energy is a game changer economically and environmentally. 

I might add that we are currently testing the manufacture of Hydrogen at our Nuclear plant. The theory is to allow the Wind and PV generation to maximize available generation 100% of the time in conjuncion with reducing generation at our Nuclear plant to balance generation. But, the Nuclear plant stays at maximum reaction rate producing Hydrogen instead of MW. On paper good for our nuclear fuel efficiency and good for lost Wind and PV generation.

It would be cool to be around 50 years from now to see what becomes mainstream!


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 18, 2020

"It is silly to think that we would use Natural Gas as a feed stock, convert it to Hydrogen and then use the Hydrogen as a fuel."

From an environmental perspective, yes - it would be silly. From a marketing / profit perspective, however, it was gold.

The idea of using a hydrogen as an automotive fuel was born in the 1990s as a way to market natural gas. Tens of $millions were invested in fuel cell research by oil companies after they recognized the threat electric vehicles posed to their profit stream. With the introduction of General Motors' EV1 in 1997, and growing concerns about global warming, they knew gasoline's days were numbered - that  50,000 U.S. service stations would be rendered extinct unless there was another liquid, hydrocarbon fuel they could sell.

Liquified hydrogen, manufactured from their abundant supply of natural gas, was the obvious choice. It would be marketed as a climate-friendly "clean" fuel by showing potential customers all that comes out of the exhaust pipe is...water! (that millions of tons of CO and CO2 are emitted during the fuel's manufacture somehow escaped mention).

In 2003, oil companies and car manufacturers banded together as the California Fuel Cell Partnership to hype fuel cell vehicles and the "clean" hydrogen fuel that powers them, and they're still doing it to this day. Note the carefully-parsed sales pitch on the group's homepage:

"Zero Emissions...just a puff of water vapor. No pollution or greenhouse gases from the tailpipe. No petroleum in the tank. Doing your share to lighten the planet's load..."

Joe Butzer's picture
Joe Butzer on Dec 17, 2020


Agreed. I do a lot of public talks about energy generation in schools and the public is not ready for a conversation about Nuclear Power. Things get emotional very quickly if the topic arises. My reply to your original article was not to disagree with where you were going with the article but to stress the point that it is so prevalent today that a statement taken out context is so often used to support the opposite view point of the original author. Keep up the good fight.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 18, 2020

Thanks Joe. When talking to people about nuclear energy I find it helps to start by asking questions: "What are your concerns? Why do you think nuclear waste is dangerous?" etc.

Many people are terrified of nuclear energy. To them, their fears are real, whether based in fact or not, and discounting or trivializing them will get you nowhere.

By listening and asking the right questions, however, you often come to a point where your listener begins asking you questions. At that point it's possible to help them gain some perspective on the real benefits and dangers of nuclear energy.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Thank Bob for the Post!
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