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Light at the End of the Tunnel: Mainstream Hydrogen

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Nevelyn Black's picture
Writer, Independent

Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

  • Member since 2017
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  • Dec 3, 2021

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is one of the leading options for storing renewable energy.  It’s so highly recommended that the European Commission describes hydrogen as "the missing part of the puzzle to a fully decarbonized economy.”  Abundant and effective, hydrogen is the answer to energy shortages and the path to zero-emitting power generation.  More than 30 countries have released hydrogen roadmaps, $70 billion of public funding has been committed and the industry has announced more than 200 projects to invest some $300 billion through 2030, notes McKinsey & Company.  I’m convinced, case closed, end of story, problem solved, right?  Not so fast.  Pure hydrogen doesn’t exist on this planet and separating it from other substances is time-consuming and energy-intensive.  Because time is money, transitioning to hydrogen as a mainstream energy source will not be easy.  There are various methods to extracting hydrogen.  Green is clean and grey, not so much, but green hydrogen costs twice as much to produce.  However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and no, it’s not the train.    Analyst believe as renewables rise, the cost of green hydrogen should come down.  According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a surge in clean energy infrastructure could see the cost of production fall 30% by 2030.   How is production coming along for renewables?  Originally forecasted to have a great year, renewables are seeing delays.  According to the IEA, the cost of polysilicon used to make solar panels has more than quadrupled since the start of 2020 and investment costs for utility-scale onshore wind and solar farms have risen 25 percent, delaying projects already contracted.   Amazon’s significant investment might help turn things around.  The company announced 18 new utility-scale wind and solar energy projects across the United States and Europe.  Amazon now has 274 renewable energy projects globally and is on a path to power 100% of its business operations with renewable energy by 2025.  So, if renewables continue to grow and lower the costs of hydrogen production, then we're there.  Hydrogen saves the world?  Then there’s the issue of storage but that’s an entirely different story…No really, it is.  (See the Scientific Challenges of Enabling large-scale hydrogen storage in porous media here and The Future of Hydrogen IEA report here.)

On the topic of storage, Malta Inc. and Bechtel announced Tuesday, they will partner to research and develop long-duration energy storage plants that store electricity for days or weeks.  “We are delighted to be collaborating with Malta to advance the deployment of its innovative and scalable storage solution that will enable the continued global expansion of renewable energy generation portfolios. The lack of long-duration energy storage solutions remains a key challenge for the renewable energy industry,” said Bechtel’s renewables sector lead Scott Austin.  Malta Inc. had already been working on a range of technologies to develop large-scale lithium-ion batteries and clean hydrogen storage.  The new entity will work together to deploy Malta’s 10-150-plus hour energy storage technology in a variety of grid-scale applications.

Now more than ever, utilities should be taking advantage of their unique position to expand and develop alternative energy sources, renewables and energy storage technologies.  Duke Energy is investing in major electric grid upgrades, expanding battery storage and exploring zero-emitting power generation technologies like hydrogen and advanced nuclear.

Is there hope for hydrogen?  How close are we to large-scale hydrogen power?   Should utility companies create their own alternative energy sources?

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

"Is there hope for hydrogen?"

Nevelyn, in terms of hope for being a source of energy, the answer is a definitive "no".

Hydrogen, by itself, doesn't exist in nature - like a battery, we have to invest energy in it by separating it from methane, water, gasoline, and other chemicals where it's bound tightly to other elements. If we're acquiring the energy to separate it by burning methane, we're actually using more energy than we would by simply burning methane to accomplish our original task.

Say I repeatedly withdraw $1,000 from my savings account at one bank, and deposit it in a savings account at another bank - while showing my partner the statement at the second bank. "Look at all the money my tandem-bicycle-rideshare business is making!", I'd say. Then we'd get married, checks drawn on Bank A would bounce, the FBI would show up at our door, a messy divorce and lawsuits would follow. I would lose them, because I had been dishonest. Like hydrogen, my business was a fraud.

I hope my analogy, tortured as it may be, helps to illustrate why in physics there are no shortcuts. We can invest energy and money in hydrogen, but why? It's inefficient and unnecessary. About all it's good for is deceiving others - as credible as a tandem-bicycle-rideshare business.

Nevelyn Black's picture
Nevelyn Black on Dec 6, 2021

Thanks for the analogy Bob.  Entertaining and informative.

Nevelyn Black's picture
Thank Nevelyn for the Post!
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