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Hydrogen—When Free Isn’t Cheap Enough

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Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Program Manager CWB Energy Solutions

Mr. Botsford is a professional chemical engineer in the State of California with 30 years’ experience in engineering process design, distributed generation, and environmental management. He has a...

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If you’re an electric utility executive, government policy maker, or environmentalist, what do you do with power generated from wind, solar, nuclear, or hydro? [1-4]

Make electricity. Don’t buy into the expensive idea that hydrogen can serve as the global energy storage medium of the future.

Hydrogen is great...for hydrocracking, hydro-desulfurization, hydrogenation, making ammonia for fertilizer, and a few niche industrial applications. [5]

Transportation isn’t one of those applications, and neither is the use of hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas combustion in turbines—Even If Hydrogen Is Free.

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First up is the case against hydrogen for transportation. Then on to power generation.

Why Hydrogen is Such a Bad Idea for Cars and Trucks

The thermodynamic costs, costs to make it usable (compression is needed due to its low energy density), operations and maintenance costs, and capital costs make it too expensive. The easiest way to demonstrate the business case killing cost of hydrogen is to list the immutable thermodynamic losses associated with transportation.

The Thermodynamic Losses

Losses from Making Hydrogen

To use hydrogen, it must first be manufactured by: (1) electrolysis of water, or (2) fossil fuel reforming. The conversion efficiency of alkaline electrolysis, the most common and cheapest type of electrolyzer technology, is 70-80% on a lower heating value (LHV) basis [6]. Nearly all commercial hydrogen today, approximately 95%, is manufactured by reforming natural gas, oil, or coal. However, this results in carbon emissions and also results in a major efficiency loss similar to that of electrolysis of water (i.e., using electricity to extract the H from H2O). Figure 1 shows the CO2 emissions per equivalent kilometer traveled for a gasoline vehicle versus a variety of ways to produce hydrogen via electrolysis. Using 100% renewable power results in the lowest emissions (zero). However, this is not projected to occur at scale for the foreseeable future [7].

source: ICCT

Figure 1. CO2 Emissions from Gasoline Vehicles, Renewable Electrolysis, and Reforming

Losses from Compressing Hydrogen

To use hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles, it must be compressed to 3,000 pounds per square inch gauge (psig) or more onboard the vehicle, and upwards of 12,000 to 14,000 psig in filling station tanks using a complex series of specialized compression equipment and tanks (Figure 2). Losses associated with compression (and cooling) to 5,000 to 10,000 psig, typical of fuel cell vehicle tanks is approximately 30% (i.e., 70% compressor efficiency) [8].

  

source: M. Zerega

Figure 2. Typical Hydrogen Compressor and Fueling Station

Hydrogen storage isn’t free. Figure 3 shows the relative cost three high pressure hydrogen tanks typically required for a fuel cell vehicle versus the cost and weight of a gasoline can.

source: M. Zerega

Figure 3. Typical Hydrogen Tanks and Costs versus Gasoline

Losses from Converting Hydrogen to Electricity Via Fuel Cells

Hydrogen is combined with air, via fuel cell, into electricity and water. This process, using proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology is about 40% efficient. The power electronics conversion to condition electricity for the drive train results in further losses of 5-10%, which is typical of electric drive trains.

Figure 4, from Transport & Environment (T&E), shows that the efficiency for hydrogen is little better than using diesel or gasoline in a combustion engine, but the comparison excludes the energy required for compression. This would make things worse for hydrogen. An EV is a factor of three more efficient. This means that three times more renewable power would have to be generated for a fuel cell vehicle to travel the same distance as an EV. [9]

source: Transport&Environment

Figure 4. EV Efficiency versus Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and ICEs

Hydrogen – The O&M, CAPEX and Other Losses

Economic Losses

As if production, compression/cooling, and conversion losses aren’t enough, these processes require capital expenditures (CAPEX) for equipment, and operations and maintenance (OPEX) to keep the equipment running. The manufacturer of hydrogen must buy, operate, and maintain the electrolyzers, compressors, and other equipment necessary to condition the hydrogen for use in a fuel cell vehicle or gas-fired power plant (also known as balance-of-plant). In the case of fuel cell vehicles, a fuel cell fueling station is also needed (bought, installed, operated, and maintained) at a typical initial cost of $2M. [10, 11]

This isn’t to say that electric charging infrastructure is free. However, EVs don’t start with hydrogen’s low energy density, and corresponding fuel transportation challenges, and large thermodynamic losses. EV charging infrastructure O&M costs are relatively minor compared to that of hydrogen.

Water Losses

Electrolysis requires water to produce hydrogen. The amount of water required can be significant, especially for regions that are challenged for water resources, which includes many parts of the world. Instead of using limited water resources to make hydrogen, a more appropriate application in water-constrained regions might be to produce potable water via desalination, instead of using limited water resources to make hydrogen.

What About Trucks and Buses?

Years ago, hydrogen was thought to be a great option for zero emission heavy-duty trucks and buses. Since then, batteries have continued to improve, and the business case for electrification for almost all on-road transportation has only become more compelling. The best case for fuel cell heavy duty trucks was the long-haul case study. Surely, if an electric Class 8 heavy-duty truck had to carry all those batteries, it would take forever to recharge, and the weight of the batteries would displace valuable cargo. However, most heavy-duty trucks, and buses for that matter, operate short haul routes. This allows overnight charging and opportunity fast charging to service the daily routes. [12]

Yes, but what about the long-haul trucker who makes a living driving across the US? Hyzon and Nikola are developing fuel cell heavy-duty trucks [13]. However, Nikola is hedging its bet by also developing an electric heavy-duty truck. Long haul electric trucks will reportedly use 300- to 500-mile range batteries that can be recharged in one to two hours.

Figure 5 shows an analysis of the additional cost of energy infrastructure, truck vehicle purchase, and total cost for electric (catenation), for power conversion-to-methane and power conversion-to-hydrogen, versus the base case of power-to-liquid combustion. The hydrogen case is almost three times the total cost of electric for the long-haul heavy-duty freight transport sector in Germany.

source: ICCT

Figure 5. Additional cost for four different greenhouse gas reduction scenarios [14]

In January 2020, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) issued J3105, the standard for heavy-duty EV charging. This standard allows for charging of up to 1.2 MW (1,000 VDC, 1,200A). If that isn’t enough power, the group CharIN, in conjunction with Daimler and other organizations is developing charging technology called the Megawatt Charging System (MCS) that allows for charging up to 3 MW.

Figure 6 shows a chart from Transport & Environment similar to Figure 4, but for trucks [9]. Lawrence Berkeley National Labs released a report that detailed the benefits of electrifying regional and long-haul heavy duty trucks [15]. Has the last potential hydrogen use case for transportation evaporated?

 

source: Transport  & Environment

Figure 6. Electrified Truck Efficiency versus Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and ICEs

What About Ships and Airplanes?

Battery-powered cruise ships may not be around the corner, but battery-powered tugs and ferries are. But then, fuel cell-powered cruise ships may not be practical, either. Possibly, the most carbon-neutral solution might be renewable fuel-powered cruise ships and passenger jets. However, Asahi Tanker has ordered two ship tankers fitted with 3.5 MWh batteries. Electrification of small aircraft is also attracting a lot of attention. [16, 17]

What About Combustion?

Couldn’t electric utilities produce green hydrogen from wind and solar (hydrogen via renewables) and burn it in gas-fired turbines and displace natural gas for free?

No.

First, we consider the purely financial reason against using green hydrogen in power plants. Almost no green hydrogen is produced today [18, 19]. In the interim twenty to thirty years required to get to a meaningful production scale (c.2040), we will continue to produce black (coal), brown (natural gas), and possibly blue hydrogen (natural gas with carbon capture). Still, green hydrogen is projected to be more expensive than the other varieties. A suspicious person might wonder who would benefit from this phased timeline. [20-26]

Next, we consider the technical reasons hydrogen is a bad idea. Existing natural gas pipelines and compressors aren’t designed for hydrogen [27]. Neither are the combustion turbines. Pure, pressurized, hydrogen causes embrittlement and blistering in carbon steel tanks and pipelines. New pipelines, compressors, and other equipment would be required to make this transition [28]. Plus, hydrogen has a higher flame temperature than natural gas, which causes higher NOx emissions. [29]

Hydrogen could be blended in low percentages of 15-30% in an effort to minimize such materials issues [30]. While this could contribute to CO2 emissions reduction if it were green hydrogen, that won’t be the case in the near-term. In the long-term, the 100% green hydrogen costs appear to be a non-starter.

Mitsubishi and others point to hydrogen-produced ammonia as the path forward. Mitsubishi plans to design a 40 MW gas turbine fueled by ammonia [31]. Ammonia could also be used as a shipping fuel. However, producing ammonia requires an additional step in an already expensive process. While this works for fertilizer, which has a relatively high commercial value, the ammonia combustion business case, which would be a pure commodity, may be doubtful. Another problem with ammonia is safety. Ammonia is typically stored in tanks in its anhydrous form, which is classified as an acutely hazardous material. Traditional industries that use anhydrous ammonia undergo process hazard assessments and risk management plans to ensure it’s handled properly. Staff in industries new to ammonia would require extensive training, which could introduce a paradigm shift for those without a historical safety culture in place.

However, even if combustion turbines could operate efficiently with hydrogen or ammonia, what would be the point?

The Rocky Mountain Institute and others have projected that natural gas powered generation will result in stranded assets by the mid-2030s, meaning the power plants won’t be economical to operate by that time frame, which is what’s happening to today’s coal-fired power plants [32-34]. New natural gas power generation is already less economical (on a levelized cost of ownership – LCOE basis) than wind and solar—and this is with natural gas at historic lows in cost per million BTUs. If natural gas combustion turbines (including O&M costs) are not economical, replacing natural gas with green hydrogen or green ammonia, which is more expensive, won’t be economical, either. Why prolong the agony of stranded assets further?

Conclusion

Do you believe in hydrogen? Well, yes. It’s number one on the periodic chart. It’s abundant. It powers suns. And without it, we wouldn’t have water.

The real question is: which applications would benefit from use of hydrogen, and which won’t? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. If the economics, thermodynamics, and safety aspects say green hydrogen is not appropriate for the vast majority of transportation and power generation applications, then this is a distraction the world cannot afford. [35, 36]

No breakthrough in technology will do away with electrolyzer or compressor energy losses. These are fundamental physical processes.

For transportation and power generation, even if hydrogen is free, it’s not cheap enough.

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge the very helpful contributions and advice of Mr. Matt Zerega and Mr. Mike Ferry.

References

1. Corporate European Observatory, The Hydrogen Hype: Gas Industry Fairy Tale or Climate Horror Story?, CorporateEuropeanObservatory.org, Foodandwatereurope.org, recommon.org, https://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/hydrogen-report-web-final_3.pdf, December 2020.

2. CarbonBrief, https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-does-the-world-need-hydrogen-to-solve-climate-change, November 2020.

3. Arnold, R. Green Hydrogen and Unicorns, Energy Central, https://energycentral.com/c/cp/green-hydrogen-and-unicorns, February 2021.

4. Bousso, R., S. Kelly, Energy Firms Bet on Hydrogen Boom, But Payday Far Away, Reuters, Energy & Environment, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ceraweek-hydrogen/energy-firms-bet-on-hydrogen-boom-but-payday-far-away-idUSKBN2AV1R2, March 2021.

5. Brown, A., Uses of Hydrogen in Industry, The Chemical Engineer, https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/features/uses-of-hydrogen-in-industry/, July 2019.

6. US Department of Energy, DOE Technical Targets for Hydrogen Production from Electrolysis, DOE Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Office, https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/doe-technical-targets-hydrogen-production-electrolysis, accessed March 2021.

7. Christensen, A., Assessment of Hydrogen Production Costs from Electrolysis; United States and Europe, The International Council On Clean Transportation (www.theicct.org),  https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/final_icct2020_assessment_of%20_hydrogen_production_costs%20v2.pdf, June 2020.

8. Parks, G., R. Boyd, J. Cornish, and R. Remick, Hydrogen Station Compression, Storage, and Dispensing Technical Status and Costs, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/BK-6A-58564, https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy14osti/58564.pdf, May 2014.

9. Decock, G., Electrofuels? Yes, We Can…If We’re Efficient, Transport & Environment, https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/2020_12_Briefing_feasibility_study_renewables_decarbonisation.pdf, December 2020.

10. Isenstadt, A., and N. Lutsey, Developing Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure for Fuel Cell Vehicles: A Status Update, The International Council On Clean Transportation (www.theicct.org), https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/Hydrogen-infrastructure-status-update_ICCT-briefing_04102017_vF.pdf, October 2017.

11. Wood Mackenzie, Green Hydrogen Production: Landscape, Projects and Costs, Executive Summary, Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, https://www.woodmac.com/reports/energy-markets-executive-summary-green-hydrogen-production-landscape-projects-and-costs-392370, October 2019.

12. Morris, C., Prominent Energy Researcher Believes in Electric Trucks Over Fuel Cells, insideevs.com, https://insideevs.com/features/462434/energy-researchers-electric-trucks-win/, December 2020.

13. Stinson, J., Why Transport Buyers Tell Hyzon Hydrogen is a “No Brainer”, Utilitydive.com, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/Hyzon-fuel-cell-plant-EV-electric-truck/596103/, March 2021.

14. Moultak, M., N. Lutsey, and D. Hall, Transitioning to Zero-Emission Heavy-Duty Freight Vehicles, The International Council On Clean Transportation (www.theicct.org), https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/Zero-emission-freight-trucks_ICCT-white-paper_26092017_vF.pdf, September 2017.

15. Phadke, A, etal., Why Regional and Long-Haul Trucks Are Primed for Electrification Now, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. https://eta-publications.lbl.gov/publications/why-regional-and-long-haul-trucks-are. March 2021.

16. Gallucci, M., The First Battery-Powered Tanker is Coming to Tokyo, IEEE Spectrum, https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/batteries-storage/first-battery-powered-tanker-coming-to-tokyo, February 2021.

17. Morris, C., Is Aviation the Best Application Yet for Hydrogen Fuel Cells?, Charged EVs Magazine, https://chargedevs.com/features/is-aviation-the-best-application-yet-for-hydrogen-fuel-cells/, February 2021.

18. International Energy Agency, IEA 2020 Energy Technology Perspectives,https://webstore.iea.org/download/direct/4165, February 2021.

19. BloombergNEF, Hydrogen Economy Outlook, BloombergNEF, https://data.bloomberglp.com/professional/sites/24/BNEF-Hydrogen-Economy-Outlook-Key-Messages-30-Mar-2020.pdf, March 2020.

20.Thomas, N., and D. Sheppard, The Race to Scale Up Green Hydrogen, Financial Times,https://www.ft.com,March 2021.

21. Franz, S., Hydrogen, Don’t Give Up, PV Magazine, https://www.pv-magazine.com/2018/04/09/hydrogen-dont-give-up/, April 2018.

22. Mikulka, J., Decoding the Hype Behind the Natural Gas Industry’s Hydrogen Push, Desmogblog.com, https://www.desmogblog.com/2021/01/14/decoding-hype-behind-natural-gas-industry-hydrogen-push, January 2021.

23. Kahya, D., Unearthed today: Why oil companies want you to love hydrogen, unearthed.greenpeace.org,  https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2020/12/08/unearthed-today-why-oil-companies-want-you-to-love-hydrogen/, August 2020.

24. Grant, A., and P. Martin, Hydrogen is Big Oil’s Last Grand Scam, cleantechnica.com, https://cleantechnica.com/2021/02/24/hydrogen-is-big-oils-last-grand-scam/amp/, February 2021.

25. Deign, J., The Reality Behind Green Hydrogen’s Soaring Hype, greentechmedia.com, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/the-reality-behind-green-hydrogens-soaring-hype, November 2020.

26. Mikulka, J., Major Fossil Fuel PR Group is Behind Europe Pro-Hydrogen Push, Desmogblog.com, https://www.desmogblog.com/2020/12/09/fti-consulting-fossil-fuel-pr-group-behind-europe-hydrogen-lobby, December 2020.

27. Menzies, M.,Hydrogen: The Burning Question, The Chemical Engineer, https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/features/hydrogen-the-burning-question/, accessed March 2021.

28. Zahreddine, Hafsi, M. Mishra, and S. Elaoud, Hydrogen Embrittlement of Steel Pipelines During Transients, Elsevier, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452321618302683, 2018.

29. Zeldovich, Y. A., P. Y. Sudovnikov, and D. A. Frank-Kameneskii, Oxidation of Nitrogen in Combustion, translated by M. Shelef, Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., Institute of Chemical Physics, Moscow, 1947.

30. Melaina, M.W., O. Antonia, and M. Perez, Blending Hydrogen into Natural Gas Pipeline Networks: A Review of the Issues, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-5600-51995, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/03/f11/blending_h2_nat_gas_pipeline.pdf, March 2013.

31. Mitsubishi, Mitsubishi Power Commences Development of World’s First Ammonia-Fired 40 MW Class Gas Turbine System, Mitsubishi Press Release, https://power.mhi.com/news/20210301.html, March 2021.

32. Dyson, M., A Bridge Backward? The Risky Economics of New Natural Gas Infrastructure in the United States, Rocky Mountain Institute, https://rmi.org/a-bridge-backward-the-risky-economics-of-new-natural-gas-infrastructure-in-the-united-states/, September 2019.

33. AEMC, AEMC Looks Beyond Coal and Gas to Batteries and Flexible Grid to Manage Reliability, https://www.globalenergyworld.com/news/sustainable-energy/2021/03/04/aemc-looks-beyond-coal-gas-batteries-flexible-grid-manage-reliability, March 2021.

34. Trabish, H., “A Total Mindshift”: Utilities Replace Gas Peakers, “Old School” Demand Response with Flexible DERs , UtilityDive.com, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/a-total-mindshift-utilities-replace-gas..., March 2021.

35. Evans, S. and J. Gabbattis, In-Depth Q&A: Does the World Need Hydrogen to Solve Climate Change?, CarbonBrief, https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-does-the-world-need-hydrogen-to-solve-climate-change, December 2020.

36. Messagie, M., Life Cycle Analysis of the Climate Impact of Electric Vehicles, Transport & Environment, https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/TE%20-%20draft%20report%20v04.pdf, draft 2021.

 

Author

Charles Botsford, PE is a professional chemical engineer in the State of California with 30 years’ experience in engineering process design, distributed generation, EV charging infrastructure, and environmental management. He participated in California’s Vehicle Grid Integration (VGI) Working Group and participates in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J3072 AC Vehicle-to-Grid standards committee. Mr. Botsford holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and served as hazards and operability (HAZOP) team leader to analyze one of the largest anhydrous ammonia facilities in the U.S.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 3, 2021

Bravo Charles. We should be asking more engineers, and fewer venture capitalists, for guidance on critical decisions about energy.

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 6, 2021

Hi Bob,

Thanks for your comment. It's funny how that works. I have many engineer friends who like a technology (not just hydrogen), but who don't get into the business case economics to see whether it can compete in the market. I have other friends who are less technically inclined, who read investor reports, and believe what they read about a fad (based on what an engineer says), and jump right in. This is what's happening with hydrogen. The company I was with did cutting edge hydrogen fuel cell work for an auto OEM in the late 90s, early 2000s. The auto company poured millions into R&D and found that fuel cells worked. However, the overall efficiency wasn't much better than gasoline-powered vehicles, so they, and almost every other auto OEM today (with one exception) have gone to battery EVs. Even our military work couldn't scare up a case where fuel cell technology beat diesel or electrification--and the military didn't care about money. They did care about reliability and logistics, which are two real killers for fuel cells. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 6, 2021

If you get a chance, check out the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?". There's a good reason oil companies poured money into hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles in the late 1990s - early 2000s. When GM's EV1 was introduced (1996) they immediately recognized electric cars were the way of the future - and gasoline wasn't.

If they couldn't sell liquid fuel for electric cars, they could at least sell the fuel needed to generate the electricity that charged them by replacing nuclear plants with natural gas plants. But what to do with 50,000 US gasoline stations? The answer was to create a new fake-green liquid fuel and the cars that would need to consume it. The perfect candidates were hydrogen, created by steam reforming natural gas, and fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs).

Though methane is a hydrocarbon (CH4), hydrogen could be plucked from its pesky carbon atom at the refinery and the carbon emitted into the atmosphere where no one would be the wiser. In the showroom, FCVs would be hyped as being "clean" because all that came out of the exhaust pipe was water.

"They did care about reliability and logistics, which are two real killers for fuel cells."

Oil companies, unfortunately, don't care about reliability, logistics, nor the environment. All they care about is selling more oil and gas, and thus are still hard at work hyping hydrogen-from-gas as a clean, green fuel.

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 6, 2021

Yeah, well, as a chemical engineer, I didn't want to diss my homies in oil&gas too much, but they're the prime drivers pushing the green hydrogen craze. Some would say it's ironic, but you just have to look at the underlying motivation to see why they're pushing so hard.

Yes, I know about "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The company I worked for developed EV-1 (Impact) for General Motors. I have quite a few friends who appeared in the film. That, too, is an interesting study in tech development, economics, and motivations.

 

john king's picture
john king on Apr 3, 2021

Thanks for the article and mentioning the embrittlement issue.  With over 300K miles of pipe in the ground that would be quite an expensive upgrade. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 5, 2021

It's a good point-- much of the discussion of how hydrogen can be used today is in context of these complex pipeline systems we already have, but if they aren't in fact ready to accept a growing mix of hydrogen then the economics are vastly undercut. 

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 6, 2021

Hi John and Matt,

Thanks for the comments. You can get around the embrittlement issue, but it requires significant work in materials engineering. The infrastructure cost to enable use of high pressure hydrogen is one thing, but the O&M costs are another tough pill to swallow. You don't use the same natural gas compressors for hydrogen, which means higher energy costs. The leakage is greater, which means hydrogen losses, and the equipment maintenance costs are higher. Then, you get hit with the low overall efficiency of the system, especially for fuel cells, which drives you nuts. No fiscally sane person pushes hydrogen unless it's for use in refineries (hydrocrackers, hydrodesulfurization), making ammonia for fertilizer, and a few niche applications. My first job out of college was on a hydrocracker in Texas. That'll make your adrenaline flow.

Robyn Lowe's picture
Robyn Lowe on Apr 6, 2021

Thank you for a very informative article. The mass hydrogen consumer dream is probable for the next generation.
Some other articles worth having a look at

https://www.rechargenews.com/transition/a-wake-up-call-on-green-hydrogen-the-amount-of-wind-and-solar-needed-is-immense/2-1-776481

Summary
With 1kg of hydrogen containing 120‐142 megajoules of energy, the prediction is that 19 exajoules of green hydrogen will be needed in 2050 translates to 133.8 million to 158.3 million tonnes of hydrogen every year. Using Platts’ formula that 1TWh of electricity provides 20,000 tonnes of green hydrogen (using PEM electrolysis), 6,690‐7,915TWh would be needed every year to produce that amount of green hydrogen. Presuming a capacity factor (CF) of 100% (ie, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year), that translates into 763GW.
Of course, in the real world, CFs of even base load fossil‐fuel plants do not add up to 100%. Using average global CF figures for 2018, provided by the International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Nuclear Association, Recharge calculates that 6,690TWh is the equivalent of 957GW of nuclear (79.8% CF), 1,775GW of offshore wind (43% CF), 2,243GW of onshore wind (34% CF) or 4,240GW of solar PV (18% CF).

and

https://www.h2‐view.com/story/new‐hydrogen‐fuelled‐internal‐combustion‐engine‐under‐trial/

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 6, 2021

Robyn, 79.8% was the CF for U.S. nuclear twenty years ago. Even plants built in the 60s and 70s operate at  93% CF now, due to improvements in refueling techniques and plant efficiency.

Do the Platts equations include losses from compression/liquefaction? Seems Fischer-Tropsch DME or methanol would be more practical than hydrogen as an energy carrier.

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 6, 2021

Hi Robyn,

Thanks for the comment. One of the problems with hydrogen is physics (thermodynamics, electro-mechanical processes). The laws are immutable. No matter what technical advancements engineers make (I am one), you still need electrolyzers (or reformers) to produce the hydrogen. This introduces a 25% hit to efficiency right off the top. Then you need to compress it. This introduces another 25% hit (or more depending on the pressure). Electrification for almost all but a few niche applications are more efficient and cost-effective than use of hydrogen. Personally, I'm very familiar with fuel cell technology and began my career on a refinery hydrocracker that used two types of compressors to get to the required hydrogen pressure.

So, I believe you're right, Robyn. Why waste renewables to make hydrogen, when we could make electricity instead?

Matt Karber's picture
Matt Karber on Apr 7, 2021

Thank you for your article. Plastic liners do exist that make natural gas pipelines compatible with H2. A 2020 journal article (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360319919339618) states that the Toyota Mirai fuel cell is 62% efficient, as opposed to 40%. As far as cars are concerned, we do well to remember that most U.S. drivers do not own EVs now, and many will transition from gasoline engine cars to the EV type that they find most appealing and/or less expensive. Since Tesla and many of its competitors are known for prices well over $60K, the roughly $50K of a current Mirai looks good. Hydrogen is much more efficient than any fossil fuel at its end-use, which usually offsets much of the production cost (https://d231jw5ce53gcq.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/RMI_Document_Repository_Public-Reprts_E03-05_20HydrogenMyths.pdf). Hydrogen can be produced by over six different methods, which can be selected based on location and other needs, a far cry from the limits of fossil fuels. Natural gas steam reformation is known to waste much more water than electrolysis to produce a given amount of H2. As Arizona utility APS discovered, battery-based grid storage can be hazardous, so H2 storage with a fuel cell for peak demand needs is likely to be a better option. H2 is also well suited to jetliners because of multiple efficiency gains within an aircraft, as well as the potential for airlines to control the production and cost of their own fuel, rather than oil companies. Lastly, the cost of hydrogen is only dependent on the cost and efficiency of its production technology, both of which continue to improve over time. I suggest that the market should decide which clean energy technology is best suited for a given application. This will only work best, however, if all options are available to the market. 

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 7, 2021

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comments.

Plastic liners -- Yes, you can line pipelines. People do that all the time for sewage lines and other restoration projects. It costs a lot of money and resources for even short piping runs. Should you do that in the case of hydrogen? I would say no, especially when you take all the other factors (safety, compression, efficiency, emissions, new combustion turbines) into account.

Toyota Mirai -- Let's say Toyota can squeak out 62% efficiency from their PEM fuel cell (short circuit efficiency for PEM fuel cells is right around 40%. SOFC and molten carbonate have a bit higher efficiencies). The well-to-wheels efficiency is still around 25%. The way you can get to an apples-to-apples comparison (and not believe Toyota hype) is to take the kg of hydrogen required for a Mirai to travel 100 miles (easy conversion to kWh) and compare that to the kWh it takes an EV to travel 100 miles and you'll discover that the Mirai requires almost 3 times the kWh.

Doug Houseman's picture
Doug Houseman on Apr 7, 2021

If the energy is being curtailed (see CA last year and this) then Hydrogen is a reasonable choice for saving that energy at a way, way lower cost than batteries.

If Water to Hydrogen actually follows the curve that H2Pro and others are projecting, then hydrogen will be more efficient that a number of storage technologies, including a wide range of batteries.

Hydrogen in metal hydride tanks does not need the high pressures to be dense that your comments indicate. The energy equivalent to diesel fuel density is available at 200-300 PSIG, not at 3000-5000 that people who don't understand hydrogen storage want to talk about.

Fuel cells are getting far more efficient for electricity, and hydrogen burns hotter than many other choices for metal cutting and creating cement.

The world uses 120-140 million tons of hydrogen a year. Better to make it green or pink than gray.

Tim Ryan's picture
Tim Ryan on Apr 7, 2021

I’m with Doug Houseman on this. The value of “time” and “portability” is what is missing from your graphics.

If your 9 little blue cells are worth next to zero ... so are the 27 little blue cells!

As they say ... twice, or three, times nothing is still nothing.

Then if you take approach of overbuilding VRE generation (7x if you are Ross Garnaut) you have to have a flexible “soak” that can turn nothing into something.

Given we need - the climate change - to get rid of 100 million tonnes of fossil fueled hydrogen alone ... all this research and effort is worth it before the opportunities are explored.

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 7, 2021

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the comment. I'm with you as to using green hydrogen versus any other kind. However, trying to fit hydrogen as a solution to problems that don't work economically is a money loser. For example, metal hydride tanks have been used forever for storing hydrogen. But you wouldn't do that for any transportation application because the tanks are really heavy. Also, the reason you can store hydrogen at lower pressures in a metal hydride tank to get the density somewhat in the neighborhood of diesel is that you then have to heat the tank to ~400C for the desorption cycle. The other downside of metal hydride tanks is their capacity loss as a function of cycling (kind of like battery capacity loss). Eventually, the amount of hydrogen you were able to store in a new tank, gets cut significantly over time as you cycle hydrogen in and out. I seem to remember hearing about restoration processes, but that sounds inconvenient.

Doug Houseman's picture
Doug Houseman on Apr 15, 2021

Sorry but mine is not heavy. Mine empty is just under 30 pounds (15KG) and it holds 10 KG of H2. 10KG = 336KWH. (had to go out and put it on a scale). The tank including shipping was just under $300 or about $0.90 per KWH. Now my system is used to make and hold H2 for a plasma cutter, not to run through a fuel cell so I consider 99.9% pure acceptable. 

Please find me a battery that is 70 pounds and hold 300 KWH and is less than a $1.00 per KWH in capital costs. 

Currently the best battery commercially available holds 300WH per KG. Where my Hydride tank holds (including the weight of H2) is 28KWH per KG - just shy of 100 times weight to energy ratio. 

This alone has me questioning your numbers, and I find different sources than you used which give me numbers closer to mine than yours. 

I am not really happy with an electric round trip efficiency of bout 45-60%, but it is better than some batteries offer. But lets remember society consumes 120-140 million tons of hydrogen a year. Making that green is worthwhile. We will consume more as we make "artificial (non-fossil) plastics - I would like those to be GHG free.

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 16, 2021

Hi Doug,

I think the primary problem with metal hydride tanks for transportation use is the high temperature desorption cycle.

I totally agree that producing green hydrogen is a great idea. However, one very large consumer of hydrogen is refineries, and they make their own hydrogen (reformers), so that's not likely to go green, unless refineries eventually go away -- maybe 2040 time frame.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 8, 2021

"If the energy is being curtailed (see CA last year and this) then Hydrogen is a reasonable choice for saving that energy at a way, way lower cost than batteries."

Doug, cost is completely dependent on the overall efficiency of the storage medium.

If round-trip energy efficiency of hydrogen storage is 6%, and that of batteries is 90%, capital/operating expenses of hydrogen would have to be 15 times cheaper than those of batteries to be competitive.

Benoit Marcoux's picture
Benoit Marcoux on Apr 7, 2021

Well documented compendium on the challenges of hydrogen for use in transportation. 

Mohammad  Awal's picture
Mohammad Awal on Apr 15, 2021

It can be more than “cheap enough”, I believe. Remember the price of Eveready Batteries in the 1950s? Most of us couldn’t afford to buy a radio set, and once we could, battery was not easy to afford.

Let there be a fair competition, and Hydrogen will come. Actually it’s not a question of “if” but when will Natural Hydrogen will flow commercially from deep reservoirs, through wells, like oil and gas since 1858!

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Apr 16, 2021

Hi Mohammad,

I think it's a thermodynamics problem. To make green hydrogen (and I wouldn't advocate any other kind), you need electrolyzers and compressors. Once you do that, you're sunk. The overall system efficiency (and costs) just can't compete with electrification.

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