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Believing in Hydrogen

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Innovation & Energy Knowledge Provider, Agility Innovation

I work as a transition advocate for innovation, ecosystems, within IIoT, and the energy system as my points of focus. I relate content to context to give greater knowledge and build the...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Sep 10, 2020

Something that will take thirty to forty years to turn from being ambitious and full of intent into realization is hard to relate too. Hydrogen is one of those promised solutions that can potentially allow us to achieve our “net-zero” carbon ambitions that have been “set in stone” (The Paris Agreement) dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, signed in 2016 that we need to achieve by 2050.

Hydrogen is becoming a central pillar for many countries across the world to help achieve their targets to this net-zero by mid-century. Hydrogen holds, it seems, such a promise, but it is nearly all to do. There is so much to validate, prove, and certainly scale to make a real impact on changing the sources of our energy.

The more you investigate Hydrogen, the more you realize the complexity of making it a viable energy source of sufficient scale. One that will really deliver the suggested results that Hydrogen could meet 24% of the worlds final energy demands by 2050. Today it provides around 1%. To change our energy systems reliant on Oil, Gas, Coal, and make these renewables based on Solar, Wind, and Water separation is at a level of magnitude is hard to imagine.

Hydrogen is familiar, but it has failed to live up to its reputation as it has been based on fossil fuels, that now needs to change.

Hydrogen has been around for years. We use Hydrogen today for oil-refining and chemical production. The problem is this hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels that have significant CO2 emissions. We have had hydrogen piped into our homes, offered as the alternative aviation solution, that lives always in association with the Hindenburg disaster.

So what makes it different this time?

We are in search of a clean ‘green’ energy source that can complement our other renewable energy sources of wind and solar. We need a dispatchable carbon-neutral source of power that can bridge, supplement and compliment when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow. This is separating water into Hydrogen that gives us the potential solution.

In everything, you read Hydrogen can be the replacement “kid” for our energy supplies; in our building and heating solutions, for solving hard-to-abate industry sectors like iron and steel, chemicals and base agriculture. Hydrogen can be a fuel of the future for transport including cars, trucks, shipping and aviation.

Hydrogen seems to be the sectoral gift from heaven, water is abundant, all we need to do is separate the hydrogen out from the oxygen and turn it into reusable energy. Easy right?

Hydrogen is our decarbonization solution

You can get this sense of a Hydrogen as the best panacea for Decarbonizing the World. From what I have read and it has been a lot recently, I want to believe it, yet everything is currently couched in “It is technically feasible” or “ambitious, but achievable.” We have a considerable range of technically feasible or viable solutions. However, all the different “Hydrogen roadmaps” keep making you feel you are still only closer to the starting off point and not to the end result, we require in this next thirty to forty years if we can decarbonize our planet as we need too.

The sheer number of projects on a feasibility path to validate, prove, pilot, and understand the issues and barriers around Hydrogen are mind-boggling to follow. There are so many that look to be exciting, challenging and worthwhile

Today there are a number of countries all fleshing out their Hydrogen Strategies or pathways. Australia, Germany, the UK, the EU, the US, China all are developing their thinking and building the wider ecosystem of stakeholders to give these intentions with Hydrogen a greater momentum.

Reality often tells a different story

We need an awful lot of Hydrogen to replace our fossil fuels, to power our electricity grids, to decarbonize all the current sectors of our economy that have built their reliance on fossil fuels and have given ongoing focus to driving efficiencies and costs of fuel inputs into known models that work.

Hydrogen is yet to be proven, certainly, at scale as well as a range of applications or processes. Presently Hydrogen is far more expensive as a source of energy than existing energy sources. We would need to radically build a supporting Hydrogen infrastructure as it is to a large degree highly disruptive to the existing infrastructure, supply chains, and market acceptance. We need to resolve this to make it commercially viable.

Getting at simply releasing hydrogen from anything is an ongoing challenge. It needs different technology applications at scale. It does not matter if it is from fossil-based related sources (gas, coal, or oil)  that are the past routes of generation, or the one everyone is in hot pursuit of for the future, from water separation (H2O) to make clean energy of H2.

Turning Water into Wine, well OK Hydrogen

Water is the environmentally friendly Hydrogen that does not “release” carbon dioxide as you break down water (h2O) into the separate components of oxygen and hydrogen. This is a holy grail for our carbon-free world; the use of our abundant supply of water to separate out the hydrogen we need to drive our energy systems of the future. It is going to take an enormous amount of Electrolyzers to be operating and these will need to be way beyond their current size and capacity.

The exciting prospects of combining wind and solar power with water and hydrogen does, in theory, offer the solutions we need to get our world onto a net-zero carbon pathway. The reality is it is a thirty to forty-year slog, one that is hard and can only be achieved in a steady, well-thought-through way and across so much “unknown terrain” with difficulty and determination. It is a long exhausting journey to make Hydrogen the new energy source, it needs an alignment of so much.

Hydrogen needs Global Commitment

Today Hydrogen, the green gas is on shaky ground. The wisdom of many is it provides the only feasible answer to achieve our net-zero carbon emission world.

To achieve the vision of powering our world with green energy needs “all the stars to align”.

We need Governments to clear the pathway to this potential. That means tearing down many of today’s ‘accepted ‘ market conditions, to allow Hydrogen to effectively compete. They need to find ways to reduce subsidies on present fossil fuels or their infrastructure and manage the transition from “dirty, carbon-emitting fuels into clean, renewable-based fuels” and that is a difficult path to navigate through in energy security, cost, constantly changing and increasing energy demand and making sure those future decisions offer increased sustainability and ‘returns’ that constantly deliver growth, new job opportunities to replace those that will be displaced by this energy shift.

Research, development, technology, and innovation are all needed

We need research and development across the whole spectrum of solutions that cover all the sectoral pathways. Electrolysis, storage & fuel cell development are the unlocking keys. Once we get at the hydrogen separation, we can pursue all the cross-cutting technologies for improving fuel cells, improve clean-burning energy and develop storage solutions, build-out infrastructures, make more synthetic fuels and use cleaner hydrogen inputs into the industrial processes.

The real breakthrough in R&D is to find more radical technology design to enable the cost of scale to kick in. The more we create the demand the scaling efficiencies can drop, the pricing of solutions drop. They get closer and closer to the alternative energy and process alternatives. The path of scale is similarly predicted to be like solar, and wind costs have dramatically dropped over the years.

As Hydrogen becomes increasingly attractive to use, the application solutions begin to become validated as switching (costs) get re-evaluated as competitive and desirable. Desirable based on green energy solutions and not polluting ones based on fossil fuels. Zero carbon emissions are the endpoint for all and proven Hydrogen solutions that do scale become highly attractive.

How to get to this projected land of Zero-carbon emissions?

There is a long hard path to travel. Hydrogen needs to prove it can be scaled up, it needs to be attractive in cost to convinced present users, reliant on other fuels to invest in the switch. We need to balance Green Hydrogen through harnessing Renewables (wind, solar) to be able to live alongside Blue Hydrogen, which uses steam reformed natural gas with CCUS solutions. We need real solutions for this Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage as well that can handle the volume and difficulties associated with this. I will be looking more in CCUS in the coming weeks.

Green and Blue Hydrogen have to find the complementary pathway over the next fifty or so years They need to combine to reduce grey hydrogen, currently the one used in those hard-to-abate sectors (iron, steel, chemicals) and replace its principal sources of fuel coal and oil and stop the Carbon dioxide emissions, by at least making it Blue with Carbon Capture.

I want to believe we can get Hydrogen really going in its momentum

I think I am at that point of the more I research Hydrogen and try to understand, the harder it is in knowing the true and feasible pathway and what it is really is. Hydrogen promises so much, will it be realized?

The amount of hype mixed with valuable insights is like separating hydrogen from oxygen, we must do it. All of the Hydrogen potentials seem feasible, but our capacity to scale these out in a logical clear way and make the necessary investments is so mired by our inability to offer a clear pathway for Hydrogen; this needs to be put into place and clarified.

We are at the beginning of a decade for Hydrogen, we need to traverse the Hydrogen landscape. We have on the horizon a fixed set of goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, but all those hills that we will need to navigate are hard when you are still caught in the valley

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 10, 2020

To achieve the vision of powering our world with green energy needs “all the stars to align”.

This seems to be key-- much evidence suggests this could be done if it was our singular, war-like mission to do so. But the question is whether that is the right goal or if there are alternative solutions that will get us there more effectively, efficiently, and affordably. I think hydrogen can play a key role, but it still needs to be proven to much of the world to get the type of buy-in that may be required for a real green hydrogen economy to emerge

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 13, 2020

Getting buy-in is the really hard part, I totally agree Matt.

Not just in (unproven to scale) Hydrogen but for all the Storage, Infrastructure, Alternatives we need

Each has to play their part, not "sell their part"

As we continue to witness catastrophic fires, flash, and devastating flooding, as well the continued loss of habitat, other species facing extinction, food security, mass migration, the continued deterioration of air quality and the realization "essential" rare earth supplies are actually not unlimited, the continued pollution of rivers, land, fish, and mammals. 

These are the drivers of the imperatives..................realization as against buy-in, both can be far too late.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 14, 2020

Complete hysterical nonsense: Your claims that catastrophic fires, flash and devasting floods are the result of climate change (presumably caused by CO2). More people and building in the wrong place drive destruction. Statistically, the number of weather events remains more or less constant.

Hydrogen requires a lot of energy to produce, making the resource economically highly unhelpful for general use. All of this push for hydrogen is the result of green energy's major flaws: unreliability, intermittentency, with a propensity to provide energy when not needed.

Fundamentally, the "zero carbon" movement is based on emotion, with common sense, science and facts completely ignored.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 16, 2020

Michael- let's differ on our points of view. Hysterical no, face those moments of environmental change by witnessing them. Of course, nothing is changing around us, until it does then it's far too late. It is a combination of changing environment factors that are creating upheaval and growing destress.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 20, 2020

"Statistically, the number of weather events remains more or less constant."

Michael, the National Academy of Sciences disagrees with you.

"As Earth’s climate has warmed, a new pattern of more frequent and more intense weather events has unfolded around the world. Scientists identify these extreme weather events based on the historical record of weather in a particular region. They consider extreme weather events to be those that produce unusually high or low levels of rain or snow, temperature, wind, or other effects. Typically, these events are considered extreme if they are unlike 90% or 95% of similar weather events that happened before in that same area."

"Global warming can contribute to the intensity of heat waves by increasing the chances of very hot days and nights. Warming air also boosts evaporation, which can worsen drought. More drought creates dry fields and forests that are prone to catching fire, and increasing temperatures mean a longer wildfire season. Global warming also increases water vapor in the atmosphere, which can lead to more frequent heavy rain and snowstorms."

Global warming is contributing to extreme weather events

"Common sense" is often used to support climate change denial when science is lacking. Though it may be common, it doesn't make much sense.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 22, 2020


I was being a little 'tongue in cheek' on my comment "Of course, nothing is changing around us, until it does then it's far too late."

We are seeing all the effects of change within our environment and Michael Kellers remark "hysterical nonsense"

Global warming is real, is here and we are reacting to events daily.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 10, 2020

Paul, the excitement around hydrogen is mostly hype, intended to take advantage of people with a limited understanding of physics for profit.

Except in minute quantities, elemental hydrogen doesn't exist in nature. It's found everywhere bonded to other elements: carbon, oxygen, silicon, others. To use it as a fuel, it must be pulled away from those elements - that requires energy. In the case of electrolysis, electrical energy is used to separate hydrogen from oxygen. When it's recombined with oxygen, either in a hydrogen fuel cell or thermal oxidization (burning), the energy we get back is exactly what it took to pull it apart.

This is important: hydrogen is not a source of energy. Pulling it away from oxygen is like putting money in an energy "bank" - if we don't put money in our account, we can't make a withdrawal.

Commercial banks occasionally debit accounts, for processing fees, account setup fees, ATM cards, etc. These might be compared to inefficiencies at our energy bank. Because of inefficiencies, in practical terms, we always get back less useful energy than we put in.

Creating hydrogen is like putting money in a bank that charges exorbitant fees for all services - a deposit fee, monthly fee, etc. If we have cash in the house (electrical energy) and we want to buy something at a store (power a vehicle), it would be foolish to deposit it at the bank first (separate hydrogen from water) - the deposit fee (inefficiency) would mean we'd have less money when we make a withdrawal. So we skip the bank and make our purchase with cash (buy an electric car and use electricity to power it).

I use this somewhat clumsy analogy to make sure you understand there is nothing magical about hydrogen - it's a storage mechanism, and compared to lithium-ion batteries, an extremely wasteful one. If any fossil fuels are used to provide the energy for electrolysis, pumping, compression/refrigeration, or distribution, it's not "green" at all - and there's no technology that will ever change that.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 13, 2020

I like your analogy Bob. The energy in for what energy out. If that energy is renewable energy to drive the Hydrogen separation then we are at a positive starting point. If the cost of that energy source is cheaper then alternative today so we can begin to pull Hydrogen apart we have a possible outcome. If the final delivery is cheaper than the existing source of energy, more electrification then it is highly bankable

The argument is for creating the Hydrogen market so this point of yours is tackled in its entirety, not is piecemeal fashion.

The Hydrogen Bank needs to be green from top to bottom, from end-to-end. I have seen some numbers as breakthrough points for individual pieces of the solution, for industries to make a change to their part at the final end delivery point and it is here the validation for change becomes the validation to change. We need more of that final outcome discussion in this transition and we are not there yet, apart from those Excel spreadsheet models sitting in the back office showing the boss the imperative to make the changes before it is too late.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 14, 2020

"We need more of that final outcome discussion in this transition and we are not there yet, apart from those Excel spreadsheet models sitting in the back office showing the boss the imperative to make the changes before it is too late."

Paul, I share your concerns, and your belief in the importance of the final outcome.
At this time there is no analysis showing converting renewable electricity to stored hydrogen, then converting it back to electricity might be remotely competitive with burning natural gas (methane), coal, or oil to make electricity instead. So we need to come up with a viable business model before we get too far ahead of ourselves. For fighting climate change, replacing fossil fuel is the only thing that matters. 

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 16, 2020

I am all for establishing these viable business models, the "hype" is running ahead of the ability to deliver.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 17, 2020

One approach is to use excess renewable energy (essentially being given away), create hydrogen and then use the gas to fire duct burners in a combined-cycle natural gas power plant. Emissions are basically water vapor from the H2 fired duct burners, with the output of the steam turbine increased by roughly 30%. Duct burners are routinely employed by combined-cycle power plants to meet grid peaking needs.

The capital costs are steam electrolyzers and H2 compressors and storage cylinders. The return on the investment would be quite rapid.

In passing, the biggest cost element for H2 production is the fuel needed to break the H2O bonds. If the fuel cost basically zero (or you get paid to take the excess green energy, as happens commonly in Californiathe), then the economics are very good.

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

If the hydrogen production process can be added in any sort of modular and affordable way to renewable generation sites (or built into the economics and planning of future intentional overbuild of renewables), then it could definitely create some really beneficial synergy. I think the question I see come up most often, though, is would that in a reasonable timeframe become a cost-efficient application? Hydrogen production isn't cheap, and when you're only running that production during the times when there's excess renewable energy that you don't want to send into the grid, it makes it a little harder for the numbers to add up. What are your thoughts on the costs of such endeavors, Michael? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 21, 2020

"If the fuel cost basically zero (or you get paid to take the excess green energy, as happens commonly in Californiathe), then the economics are very good."

Michael, when there's excess green energy in California ratepayers are the payer, not the payee.

We pay hundreds of $millions each year for neighboring states - Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon - to take extra electricity that threatens to disrupt the CAISO grid. We get not a single kWh of electricity in return.

For Californians, those economics suck.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 22, 2020

The ratepayers and taxpayers are paying someone to take unneeded green power. That someone could be a power plant that takes the energy to produce and store hydrogen for use with duct burners to produce electricity during the peak periods. Hell of a deal for the power plant owners and yes it does suck for the ratepayers in California. Perhaps the folks in California should stop embracing the production of unneeded green energy. However, that seems unlikely, so why not take advantage of the situation!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 18, 2020

Combined-cycle power plants plants routinely use duct burners to meet grid peaks. The capacity factor for the duct burners equipment is relatively small, but the price of energy to meet grid peaks is relatively high. That means the power plant is able to profit with a relatively minor capital investment (i.e. the duct burners). Making money using this approach is routine.

The idea is to add an electrolysis unit at the combined-cycle power plant and use Ill-timed (and essentially free) green energy to create hydrogen gas for later use with the duct burners during the evening peak when solar energy is absent because the sun has set. From an operational standpoint, really easy to pull off.

The problem with creating hydrogen at green energy sites is there is no particular infrastructure to use the hydrogen. By contrast, the combined-cycle plant can readily use the hydrogen with a very minor investment while pulling excess green energy off the transmission lines already used by the combined-cycle plant.

I've run the financials on the approach and the results are impressive.

Creating hydrogen when the needed electricity is nearly free is very inexpensive; typically about 70% of the cost to produce hydrogen is tied to the cost of energy used to break the H2O bonds.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on Sep 19, 2020


I am really interested in understanding the costs of Hydrogen, loss factors, use in different environments or stand-alone. Any reference points you can point me towards so I can understand the broader arguments, objections, concerns, and potentials.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 22, 2020

The issue is whether or not the catastrophe will be the result of putting manmade CO2 into the air, not whether or not the climate changes. Obviously the climate changes over time, as indicated by the geological record.

The weather record has always been subject to new highs and lows, and always will given the chaotic nature of the planet's weather. 
Again, there is no rational reason to resort to hysterics and extreme actions in response to changes in a trace atmospheric gas. Further, the existing climate models are incapable of predicting the planet's distant climate owing to inherent and intrinsic flaws in the mathematics of the models.

The whole "climate change" issue has degenerated into a political cesspool and is being used to bludgeon anyone who questions the actions of the left.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
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