The sales pitch for hydrogen is heating up, although not as much as the Hindenburg did in 1937. In the UK, there are even advertisements for the fuel on the London Underground, which is quite an odd thing to see next to posters about the latest iPhone and vitamin supplements. It’s not like the average employee on their way to work is going to rush out and buy some H2 before reaching the office. No, this is more of a sign that there is a PR campaign to implant hydrogen in the public imagination as the savior of all our lifestyles in the face of climate change.
For a certain type of tabloid-reading consumer, it’s working, with many claiming they won’t buy battery-electric vehicles because they are “waiting for hydrogen”. The bigger problem is that governments are listening too and it’s not necessarily such a good thing. Recently, the EU has made a pledge to move to 2.6% renewable fuels such as green hydrogen (produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar) and replace 50% of grey hydrogen (produced from methane) with green hydrogen as well. This would be all well and good if we had abundant renewable energy to call upon, but we don’t. Research organization Transport & Environment has found that this would put undue pressure on the wind and solar we have when it is direly needed for other applications.
The UK government is also putting a lot of emphasis on hydrogen, with some dramatic numbers about how many jobs could be created and how much the industry could be worth by 2050 (100,000 jobs and £13 billion / $17 billion). The UK has already switched a lot of its generation grid to renewables, particularly wind, which sometimes now supplies over half the country’s electricity. But that still doesn’t mean there will be loads of surplus to be used for producing hydrogen. The bullish employment and market value predictions appear to hide some major obstacles.
This threatens to derail our route to decarbonization more than ease it. The arguments against hydrogen as our lord and savior are increasingly well known, and mostly revolve around the laws of physics. Hydrogen may be abundant in the universe but harnessing it for use is not so easy. Although there are some ways of harvesting hydrogen as a byproduct of other processes, it usually must be extracted from fossil fuels or electrolyzing water. The latter is the truly green option but takes plenty of energy and loses about a third of the power input compared to just sending the electricity over the grid. You lose even more using fuel cells to convert the hydrogen back to electricity, and even more with hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels. Only mild improvements in efficiency are expected over the coming decades, too.
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The chief thing that hydrogen has in its favor is convenience and that seems to be central tenet of the cult surrounding it. Hydrogen fans are fixated on the fact that it takes five minutes to replenish an H2 vehicle, just like fossil fuel. Even more enticingly, evangelists are being fed the story that they will soon be able to use a hydrogen-based synthetic fuel in the cars they are driving right now, with no change necessary.
These ideas appear to have been propagated to delay the uptake of battery-electric vehicles. In Europe at least, it doesn’t seem to be working yet, with every month an improvement on the last for EV sales. In the UK, sales of BEVs in November were twice what they were in November 2020, which in their turn were twice as much as November 2019. In contrast, there are just a few hundred hydrogen cars in the whole of Britain. Certainly, in the car industry at least, if hydrogen is coming to save us, it better hurry up before it’s too late.
The problem with all the unrealistically positive rhetoric about hydrogen for cars is that the fuel type does have a place in the decarbonized energy economy. But its inefficiency must be balanced against its convenience and where direct electrification is not an option. Michael Liebreich of BloombergNEF has created a handy pyramid of the relative value of different hydrogen use scenarios, with applications like fertilizer being essential, but any form of transport from trucks, coaches, and short-haul aviation downwards being better served by batteries, or other forms of electrification. The essential hydrogen applications are called “no regret” scenarios, a phrase coined by German think-tank Agora Energiewende, because their need is uncontroversial, whereas transportation is already proving to be more efficiently served by batteries.
The cult of hydrogen being the future has merely provoked a massively negative reaction from those who are already driving BEVs and realize that they are not just the future, but here and now. That detracts from the uses where hydrogen does have a benefit, for example as a portable energy source for areas where there is no electrical grid. The Extreme E race series uses hydrogen generators as a clean way of creating electrical power to charge its battery-powered SUV race cars.
The problem is that the underlying battle is between two types of energy provider – electricity grid suppliers versus oil and gas companies. The latter are generally in favor of hydrogen because currently most of it is made out of their methane or coal. They also want to maintain their financial model of forcing consumers and industrial customers to go somewhere to pay for fuel, rather than having it supplied to their homes and businesses. Electricity providers, in contrast, want to sell more electricity wherever it can be supplied.
The question should be “which is greenest?” The main component of this is that governments realize where hydrogen is best used and invest accordingly. The EU is refocusing its hydrogen push away from personal mobility, but not transportation entirely. There are some valid possibilities here, but in all except some very specialized situations hydrogen has almost no reason to be used. Cars are very much not one of those valid possibilities, which is why those who still promote this are starting to sound like a cult. As the Agora Energiewende report concludes, “Just a decade ago, fuel-cell electric cars seemed to be the future of the automotive industry. Today, the dream is over.”