A Hydrogen Future? Some Basic Facts

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By Paul Homewood – Not A Lot Of People Know That

There has been a wide ranging debate about hydrogen in the last couple of days, so I thought it worthwhile to recap some of the basic facts. Most of these are from the Committee on Climate Change’s Net Zero report last year, otherwise I will provide links.

I have referred to many of these facts before, but they sometimes get lost in the fog of technical debate. If anybody disagrees with these facts, please explain where the CCC went wrong.

Production

There are essentially two methods of producing hydrogen:

1) Steam reforming

This process typically usually uses natural gas as the feedstock, but produces CO2 as a by-product. Therefore, for the process to be “low carbon”, carbon capture and storage would be necessary. Unfortunately even then not all of the CO2 is captured. Allowing for upstream emissions as well, the CCC estimate that the process will only reduce emissions by 60 to 85%, compared to burning natural gas instead.

The cost of producing hydrogen via steam reforming with CCS is estimated to be triple the current wholesale price of natural gas (ie before adding distribution costs).

2) Electrolysis

The CCC explain why electrolysis can only offer a limited contribution:

According to IEA figures, the cost of production via electrolysis is about three times as much as steam reforming, in other words nine times that of natural gas.

Hydrogen for heating

The CCC estimate that the cost of decarbonising heating in buildings will be £28bn a year. They have considered three scenarios:

1) Full electrification – (mainly heat pumps)

2) Fully hydrogen

3) Hybrid hydrogen – which mixes heat pump and hydrogen heating applications.

They say that there is little difference in costs between all three scenarios. However their favoured option is hybrid because:

1) Heat pumps cannot meet peak demand in winter

2) A full hydrogen pathway would lock in high emissions, while electrolysis would be too expensive and entail extremely challenging build rates for electricity generation capacity.

The annual cost of £28bn does not include the costs of seasonal storage, which they estimate could add another £6bn a year.

Rather deviously, the CCC also base their costs on the assumption that insulation and other efficiency measures reduce energy consumption for heating by 30%. However, the above costs do not factor in the extra costs of such measures. A failure to achieve such savings would, in their own words, imply higher costs for a decarbonised heating system.

Finally, the national switchover to hydrogen use in buildings would cost between £50bn and £100bn in upfront costs, excluding network costs.

Transport

There seems to be little prospect of a switch to hydrogen cars in the foreseeable future. Although running costs appear to be similar to petrol cars, the costs of purchase are prohibitive, something like double the price of a conventional car. According to BMW, a fuel-cell powertrain is currently still around 10 times more expensive than an equivalent electric one.

The lack of any proper refuelling infrastructure is obviously another insurmountable obstacle. This is obviously a chicken and egg situation – nobody will buy a hydrogen car if they cannot easily refuel, but nobody will build such refuelling stations if there is no demand.

On a more fundamental level, the huge investment being made in EV and battery technology is likely to dwarf investment in hydrogen cars. For instance, there is no logic in spending billions of public money in charging points, upgrading electricity networks etc, if we are going to be driving hydrogen cars instead.

Hydrogen cars at the moment appear to be the betamaxes of the car world.

Little wonder than that Mercedes has already pulled the plug on development of hydrogen cars. Car manufacturers simply cannot afford to spend billions developing both electric and hydrogen technology at the same time.

That of course leaves heavy transport, such as lorries, buses and coaches, where hydrogen could be of some use. However HGVs and buses only account for 5% of emissions,  so certainly would not warrant any major expansion of hydrogen production capacity or radical changes in the energy infrastructure.

The CCC reckon that switching HGVs to hydrogen would add about £3bn a year to costs of transport, although this is cheaper than the electric option.

As we have known for a long time, the cost of decarbonising the UK economy will be crippling. There is no evidence that large scale use of hydrogen will change that fact.

References

Further information is available here:

https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/is-hydrogen-a-solution/

https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2019/06/07/decarbonising-heating-will-cost-us-28bn-a-year/

https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-technical-report/

Ref.: https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2020/07/05/a-hydrogen-future-some-basic-facts/

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