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Hydrogen Is Back as the Green Fuel of the Future

image credit: Credit: Guidehouse

By Llewellyn King

Hydrogen as a clean fuel is back with a new mission and better ways of producing it.

Jan Vrins, a partner in Guidehouse (formerly Navigant), a leading consulting firm, says hydrogen is a critical component in the carbon-free future of electricity. He told a press event at the National Press Club in Washington that the role of hydrogen as a storage medium as well as a clean fuel will be vital going forward.

Vrins, who heads a team of 800 consultants and researchers at Guidehouse, told reporters that Europe is ahead of the United States in the new uses of hydrogen and in offshore wind development as a hydrogen source. The two are linked, he said, and hydrogen will grow in importance in the United States.

In the bleak days of energy shortage in the 1970s and 1980s, hydrogen was hailed as a magical transportation fuel. Cars would zip around with nary a polluting vapor, except for a drip of water from the tailpipe.

But this white knight never quite got into the saddle. Hydrogen wasn’t easily handled, wasn’t easily produced and wasn’t economically competitive.

Now hydrogen is back as a carbon-free fuel -- a means of sopping up excess generation from wind and solar, when production from those exceeds needs, and as an alternative source of energy storage besides batteries.

In theory, hydrogen may yet make it in transportation via fuel cells. But that puts it in competition with electric vehicles for new infrastructure.

Unlike the 197os and 198os, today there is natural gas aplenty for producing hydrogen. Vrins calls this a “bridge” until hydrogen from water takes over.

Hydrogen doesn’t have the same properties as natural gas, and these must be accounted for in designing its use. It has greater volume than an equivalent amount of natural gas and it’s very volatile. But it can make electricity through fuel cells or burning.

Hydrogen isn’t found free in nature, although it’s the world’s most plentiful element -- water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. To get hydrogen, coal or natural gas must be steam-reformed, or it can be extracted from water with electrolysis – a development that isn’t missed on companies like Siemens which makes electrolyzer units. Siemens is a leader in a field that is fast attracting engineering companies.

Hydrogen needs special handling and must be engineered into a system. It can’t be treated as being a one-for-one exchange with natural gas at the turbine intake. It has a lower energy density which means it must be stored under pressure in most instances.

Adam Forni, a hydrogen researcher at Guidehouse with an extensive background in natural gas and hydrogen, told me the emphasis today is on reforming natural gas and desulfurizing it in the process with carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technology. This gas is known as “blue hydrogen”, as opposed to gas from electrolysis which is known as “green hydrogen”.

Green hydrogen is the long-term goal of Guidehouse’s Vrins and his team. It makes alternative energy more efficient.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has announced  it will convert an 1,800-megawatt coal-fired power plant located in Utah to 800 megawatts of all hydrogen. Initially, the plant will burn 70 percent blue hydrogen and will convert to 100 percent green hydrogen by 2045.

But even blue hydrogen with CCUS is a clean fuel, emitting no carbon. Natural gas when burned emits about half the carbon of coal; blue and green hydrogen, zero.

At the Washington press event, Vrins said hydrogen will help in the creation of microgrids which are the coming thing as utilities reorganize themselves. He said natural gas could be piped to the site and then reformed into hydrogen or, better yet, green hydrogen could be made on-site with the surplus electricity from windmills and solar installations.

Vrins sees a future when the grid or microgrid doesn’t need all the power being produced it can be diverted to electrolyzing water and making hydrogen, thus acting as an energy storage medium with greater versatility than batteries. Batteries draw down quickly, whereas hydrogen can be stored in quantity and used over time, as natural gas is today.

Hydrogen is one of the tools as utilities go green. It’s back all right.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com.

 

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 1, 2020 4:06 pm GMT

Llewellyn, I nominate "XXX is Back as the Green Fuel of the Future" as the default syntax for announcing new renewables-based anything: solar, wind, hydrogen, gravity storage, compressed-air storage, biochar, copper, Omega-3, and everything in between. It artfully combines confused tense with foot-stamping certainty to achieve the essential "wha?" factor necessary to avoid any associations with credibility.

Hydrogen never will be the green fuel of the past, or any other alternate dimension of spacetime. The only (repeat, only) cost-effective way to manufacture it is by steam-reforming methane. Thus, it represents but a cynical attempt to put a green smiley-face on a sad fossil fuel by the most profitable industry in the world.

Attempts to spread this vicious fact are currently being met with a blizzard of public relations, like your article here. But I can't help pointing out the obvious: if hydrogen is a fuel of the future, it has yet to exist. So the only thing that can be "back" is the same campaign of hype begun in the early 2000s, when oil companies recognized EVs and climate change were ways of the future, and had to invent a green liquid fuel to take the place of gasoline. With the Shale Revolution they had a sh!tload of methane on their hands, and since the public was already comfortable with referring to unnatural methane as "natural gas" and it could be inexpensively morphed into hydrogen (if at great environmental expense), it was the logical candidate.

At all costs, they had to counter the resurgence of interest in carbon-free nuclear energy, their arch-enemy since the 1950s. Don't even say the n-word, don't think about it.

Now since you seem to be a nice, honest person, with a history at PBS and a reputation to defend, I would ask you to talk to a physicist, chemist, or engineer about the false promise of hydrogen as a "green" fuel - they're the most qualified to steer you in the right direction (they're also honest - physics, chemistry, and other STEM professions lack the pay scale to attract outright liars). I'm not as qualified, but I am honest and I know what I'm writing about: hydrogen, as a green fuel, is a scam. I don't have the time to address all the talking points you present here - with the current interest in Fake Green Fuels of the Future, they're everywhere - but I do the best I can.

Rick Chalker's picture
Rick Chalker on Feb 4, 2020 4:02 pm GMT

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have a tough time out there in the real world. They have all the ecological advantages of an EV and the refueling speed of a gasoline vehicle. But there's that whole infrastructure issue. Without places to refuel, the best car in the world is essentially worthless. But that hasn't stopped Toyota from introducing a new, classier Mirai ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show.

While hydrogen fuel is still years away from any mainstream, everyday use as a fuel, I would not bet against Toyota. They have a whole model lineup based on hydrogen vehicles.

As far as Germany being a leader in the introduction of hydrogen as a fuel source, I must chuckle. Germany has eleminated nuclear as their base fuel source at a time when small modular reactors (SMR) are right around the corner. Self contained, clean burning, minimal fuel, base load (not intermittent), extended life (my estimate 30 - 60 years), minimal maintenance, non-explosive, small footprint, and the benefits go on and on. 

The Germans gave us two world wars, rockets, VW (people's wagon), the EU, and Angela Merkel. And yes, I have German blood.  Point being that they are not always on the right side of history. It was the U.S. under the Marshall Plan, backed by American taxpayers money, that rebuilt Germany and Europe after WWII. Germany cannot be used as a model when they desire to go 100% renewable energy. All eggs in one basket equates disaster when the unexpected happens. 

It will be many, many years, if and when, hydrogen will make any inroads as a major fuel resource.

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 4, 2020 5:13 pm GMT

 But there's that whole infrastructure issue. Without places to refuel, the best car in the world is essentially worthless

Do you think there are lessons the Hydrogen vehicle market can/should be learning from the EV charging infrastructure roll out thus far-- both what worked and what's failed?

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Feb 8, 2020 2:52 am GMT

While hydrogen fuel is still years away from any mainstream, everyday use as a fuel, I would not bet against Toyota. They have a whole model lineup based on hydrogen vehicles.

Rick, hydrogen is not that "years away" It's about one year away if we know what we are doing. It needs a higher level of cognizance to handle when it comes to hydrogen fuel.

And you said Japan has a whole model lineup based on hydrogen vehicles?....It doesn't make any sense to me....They gonna mass produce the carriages when there are only a few horses to pull them?

Barry FITZGERALD's picture
Barry FITZGERALD on Feb 4, 2020 8:30 pm GMT

I won't go over what has already posted about H2 being just a way to green up natural gas, which is true. The idea that we electrolyse water from excess power from renewables is defeinitely the future and likely ALWAYS will be. Heat losses account for ~40% of the energy. You lose another ~40% to heat in fuel cells. Until THOSE problems are addressed infrastructure deficiencies are moot. 

Imagine you have electricity > electrolysis > fuel cells > electricity as one very lossy route and replace it with electricity > battery > electricity and you have ~90% efficiency instead of perhaps 30-50% at best.

Ronald F. Cascone's picture
Ronald F. Cascone on Feb 4, 2020 10:16 pm GMT

Llewellyn, You do understand that "Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and always will be.", is the oldest joke in the field of alternative fuels?   It has always been that "bright shiney object" that can attract finacing away from much more viable and available solutions, and an excellent greenwashing strategy. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 4, 2020 10:55 pm GMT

Which fuels do you think are better suited for that financing? How will they succeed where hydrogen falls short? Not disagreeing with you, just curious what your perspective is, Ronald. 

Ronald F. Cascone's picture
Ronald F. Cascone on Feb 6, 2020 7:14 pm GMT

In terms of practical viability, safety, and re-use of existing infrastructure (distribution and ICEs) - RNG (renewable natural gas), made by extraction from biogas (AD of food and other organic wastes, and LFG), conversion of captured stack CO2 with renewable hydrogen, biomass gasification; or distribution of ammonia (a better hydrogen carrier than hydrogen per se) from renewable hydrogen; EVs; liquid biofuels, etc., - anything but hydrogen.  We need to avoid the idea of building an new infrastructure for a "hydrogen economy"; we have a natural gas grid and engines that can be adapted to use RNG, and we have an electric grid and practical, economical EVs, millions of them.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 6, 2020 9:57 pm GMT

Appreciate your insights, Ronald!

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Feb 6, 2020 2:52 am GMT

Hydrogen is found to be our best fuel for all facets in humans' lives. There is no doubt. Since we have found this out there have been two recalcitrant obstacles standing between this fuel and us for over century. They are production and distribution. Ther is no way as long as we live on to remove these two obstacles because we have never had the right energy to deal with them. The only way that is sensible for hydrogen production is to electrolyse water but it requires the right energy to handle the process. That energy must be free of running costs, steadily flowing unconditinally, and of course clean(renewable). 

Our Mother Nature is not just another planet. She is so exceptional. She has manipulated whatever she has got all her life to procure something for every life on her. Even humans whose way of life is so different than any other creatures. What she has to offer to humans is not her stuff but rather her powers. It will be so sad and shameful if we can't fiqure out how to harness these powers to attain that right energy and go on this route we have been doing since we have learned how to outsource energies around us. 

The whole dicussions look so grim that's why I want to step in with a new perspective to harness these hidden powers for that right energy we desperately need. Thus those two recalcitrant obstacles will be removed for good. I am here seeking collaborations, I can't do this alone.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Feb 8, 2020 2:34 am GMT

Ronald, It is not just to avoid infrastructure for hydrogen. It is impossible to build infrastructure for hydrogen. Fortunately, the beautiful qualification of hydrogen is the readiness to deliver the energy we need without any process before it becomes a fuel. So we don't even need the infrastructure for it. 

But before we even get there we need the apparatus being able to deliver a steady flow of electricity on every minute around the clock giving the plenty of electric current to extract significant amount of hydrogen from water and the house is also powered 24/7. Thus the two recalcitrant obstacles (Production and Distribution) of hydrogen are removed. Hydro-Electrenergy is such an apparatus to make this happen. This is a paradigm to remove humans out of fossil fuels for good. All this is made possible by the mighty powers of our Mother Nature.

Barry FITZGERALD's picture
Barry FITZGERALD on Feb 10, 2020 6:57 pm GMT

So far no one has addressed how you electrolyse water without demoloshing electrodes every few 1000 hours at best, decrease heat based losses from 40% +/-, reduce fuel cell heat losess from teh 40-60% levels ....all to get BACK the electricity you started with (albeit severely diminished).....hmmm, batteries? Skip all the intermediate lossy steps...voila!

Ronald F. Cascone's picture
Ronald F. Cascone on Feb 10, 2020 8:58 pm GMT

Interesting, Rick, that when anyone touts nuclear, there is a paucity of discussion of end-of-life.  No one has been able to demonstrate the technical / logistical / political feasibility of a solution for disposal, even after a lifetime of operations.  By lifetime, I mean my lifetime.  Chicago Pile 1 was the world's first nuclear reactor, built in 1942 by Enrico Fermi. I was born in 1944. Meanwhile, nukes like Indian Point, just a few miles from my home, have huge stockpiles of about-ground stored wastes, vulnerable to terrorism, natural disasters, and leakage. France, which is all-in on nukes, has protocols for cooling and re-processing spent fuel, but managing all radioactive waste (including radioactive structural components) still poses overwhelming issues. Cooling spent fuel takes an inordinate amount of time and there is no known, long-term definite solution for its disposal.  Climate Change is not the only Inconvenient Truth - how about nuclear power?

Kenneth Gibson's picture
Kenneth Gibson on Feb 17, 2020 12:57 am GMT

To put it succinctly, what Llewellyn calls Blue hydrogen is not a good idea. To be clear, producing Hydrogen from natural gas releases a number of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. The best way to store natural gas wastes is to leave the natural gas in the ground. However, sewage waste releases methane as solids settle and decompose from the water. This methane can be used to produce hydrogen and thence electric power. The released gases are less potent climate changers than the methane (based on my assuptions about peak warming as our efforts to stop and reverse global warming take hold.)

Hydrogen should be produced by hydrolizing water, releasing only oxygen. Such hydrolizing facilities can be positioned at ports, at distribution centers and along major highways. Diesel fuel dispensers could transition from the old to the new or die facing the competition of the future. Energy storage can be accomlished the same way with the hydrogen stored under some compression until it needs to be converted back into electric power. I'd urge a steady increase in taxes on diesel fuel to accelerate the transition. Fixed storage of hydrogen should quickly become cheaper than lithium for large scale energy storage.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 18, 2020 2:42 pm GMT

Such hydrolizing facilities can be positioned at ports, at distribution centers and along major highways. 

Location of these facilities is often overlooked in discussions, glad you brought this up Kenneth. Are there any companies you see on the market that are looking into this in the right way?

Kenneth Gibson's picture
Kenneth Gibson on Feb 18, 2020 8:00 pm GMT

https://nelhydrogen.com/

Nel Hydrogen is in the market, but I don't have any intimate connection. Its largest investors are major institutions. It is a publicly traded listed company in Norway. The company is not making a profit yet and the cash burn rate is up a bit, on the other hand, it just issued more shares with a successful private placement and the order backlog for its products is substantial. Take a look.

Barry FITZGERALD's picture
Barry FITZGERALD on Feb 18, 2020 6:11 pm GMT

Do a bit of research on electrolysis and you will find that 40-60% of the source energy goes up in heat. Fuel Cells also have similar losses. Further, one study I am aware of gave a maximum lifetime of the electrodes at 2000hours (Based on 2008 info). I am 100% in favor of research to change these numbers, not deploy the technology in it's current state.

With those loss levels, batteries will be a better choice for a very long time unless there are break throughs.

You are right that biogas is a great option since methane is a far worse GHG than even CO2 but limited in quantity. Keeping natural gas naturally in the ground it a great idea.

Kenneth Gibson's picture
Kenneth Gibson on Feb 18, 2020 7:54 pm GMT

See my reply to Matt. I don't know precisely what technology Nel is using but I expect there has been some progress since 2008. Heat energy "losses" in the production of electricity is surely the norm. If the original source of the energy is the solar furnance bearing down on us from a distance of 93 million miles are we really losing anything. The goal is to avoid creating heat locally by burning fossil fuels (that have stored solar heat away safely) or using nuclear fuel (that brings solar style heat generation unnecessarily close to home, here on the planet.)

On the other hand, there is another new development in battery technology using aluminum instead of lithium. We can welcome more than one solution to the challenge of storing our renewable energies for days (and nights) when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow. Different technologies will find big niches to fill in heating buildings through long winters in Fairbanks and lighting Disneyland at night in addition to all sorts of transportation needs.

Barry FITZGERALD's picture
Barry FITZGERALD on Feb 19, 2020 6:11 pm GMT

Your premise seems to be that teh source power is essentially free so teh heat losses are not THAT important. But then the comparrison still holds that batteries lack that loss factor so would it not be better to rely overwhelmingly on them? H2 seems to have a single advantage in ease of refresh (filling a tank).

I have seen some technologies demonstrated, not at scale, that are able to break water using direct sunlight. My suspicion is that atechnology like this or similar would be needed to get the job done. I just hope separating the two elelments after break up is easy or you have one hell of an explosion.

Kenneth Gibson's picture
Kenneth Gibson on Feb 20, 2020 7:17 pm GMT

My understanding is that hydrogen rises so fast when it is released that a fire of hydrogen combining with oxygen floats away or drips down as water.

I'm more concerned about the challenges of managing hydrogen under high pressure, especially in a collision of a large truck or bus with a wall or low bridge. The pressure vessels should be designed so that any release moves away from a driver or passengers.

Hydrogen powered buses are in operating services run by our AC Transit District bus service in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in Callifornia. So far they are using Hydrogen from methane, not water. The hydrogen seems quite manageable and the bus ride has the smoothness you would expect from electric motors. Battery weight is a constant disadvantage asa vehicle operates. Compressed hydrogen fuel weight declines as the tank is "emptied." Thus the operating weight of the vehicle declines. This could make hydrogen more efficient than battery power for large vehicle operation. I'm sure batteries will retain the advantage for automobiles that are not in operation more than 16 hours per day and must be recharged every 300 miles.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Feb 22, 2020 2:53 am GMT

Right, Kenneth. Hydrogen is the only thing that will get us out of this mess we are in with fossil fuels. It will win over any thing but first we have to win over hydrogen conundrum.

Hydrogen from natural gas(methane) is wrong. Hydrogen has to come from water only. It requires a lot of energy to hack hydrogen out of water. The energy to do this must be from the apparatus that runs every minute around the clock unconditionally with no running costs. Yes, it will be the setup costs but when it's up and running it will be free for everyone no matter how much the energy being used.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 24, 2020 9:19 pm GMT

"The energy to do this must be from the apparatus that runs every minute around the clock unconditionally with no running costs."

That rules out renewables, Bob. The efficiency of renewable electricity converted to hydrogen by electrolysis, then back to electricity again, is abysmal (percent in single digits). With capacity factor, you'd be able to time-shift 1% of the output from a solar farm for use while the sun is down.

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Feb 27, 2020 2:54 am GMT

That's right Bob, This one certainly rules out all the known renewables. Because this is an approach with higher level of cognizance. Not the same level that could not come to solve our tenacious conundrum in the realm of energy. It is an uncharted territory left un explored not yet being entered by any humans. 

This idea is to produce a significant amount of hydrogen from steady flow of electricity unconditinally and use it as our fuel not to convert to electricity again.

The power of the sun is not for our energy. Mother Nature manipulates the power of the sun to support lives on her, that's it. That's the reason for the sun to come and go away. Because our Mother Nature is intentionally doing that. That's how you and I are here and have food to eat. Without her doing that (creating day and night) all living organisms have never subsisted and never will. So Those who still believe in the solar power and all the known renewabls will be our future energy. Please understand that is only a dream. If you guys choose to dream, go ahead but I don't. I am here to speak the truth and ready to take action if given a chance.

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