Flat White

Hydrogen: hype or net-zero hero?

22 October 2021

4:00 AM

22 October 2021

4:00 AM

In the climate wars, hyperbole is weaponised and groupthink rewarded. We are standing witness as hydrogen becomes the latest trend in carbon piety to capture the attention of elites.  

For decades hydrogen (H) has been used as a coolant in large generators, a propellant in rockets, and as a building block for fertiliser. Hydrogen’s latest incarnation invokes the Hollywood-like properties of saving the world. The phrases ‘net-zero’ and ‘green hydrogen’ have been thrust into the lexicon faster than ‘flatten the curve’ became ‘vaccine passport’.  

Net-zero is greenhouse gas emissions lowered to the point where the planet’s natural carbon cycle scrubs the atmosphere of all traces of human activity. This is supposed to stabilise the climate by eliminating all long-term temperature change, cancelling extreme weather events, and forever halting sea-level change on every shoreline on the planet. 

Green hydrogen is produced by passing electricity through water. But some hydrogen is more ‘green’ than others, and green electrolysis must be generated by wind and solar. Blue hydrogen is extracted from natural gas (methane) and brown hydrogen is extracted from coal. Has been for decades. 

Keen observers may have noticed the renewable industry, its lobby groups and compliant media enthusiastically promote green hydrogen, without clearly describing how it can be used or its true production costs. As with most too-good-to-be-true products, once you scratch the surface the difficulties with hydrogen emerge.  

  • Metal embrittlement, via molecular weakening of steel, ensures hydrogen cannot be loaded into existing gas pipelines beyond a small percentage mix. 
  • Electrolysis consumes 50 kWh (an average household consumes 16 kWh) and 9 kg of water for every kilogram of hydrogen gas. But one kg of hydrogen gas can only produce enough electricity for one household (18 kWh) 
  • Low energy content by volume (one third the energy content of natural gas), means that mixing hydrogen into a natural gas pipeline dilutes the energy content, consuming more gas overall. 
  • Modelling assumptions by the CSIRO (National Hydrogen Roadmap, Table 45) place green hydrogen costs at around $6,000 per tonne with an 85% capacity factor, but the green hydrogen dream is powered by wind and solar with a lifetime 30% capacity factor; meanwhile hydrogen from coal (by gasification) costs around $2,000/t. 
  • Hydrogen gasElectricity required for hydrogen gas production is five times the amount generated by a gas turbine burning hydrogen. 

Media and lobby groups want us to believe the environmental benefits of green hydrogen lay in its ability to replace coal, gas and oil in heavy industry such as steel, transport and fertilisers. They fail to address how these industries are expected to retool, reinvest and rebuild to become the massive hydrogen consumers required to meet net-zero targets. Not to mention the resources necessary to produce and transport the enormous amounts of hydrogen required to replace coal, gas and oil — a complete industrial revolution. 

Twiggy Forrest is preaching 15 million tonnes per year of green hydrogen production in Australia. This will require 750 TWh of electricity production, more than three times Australia’s total annual electricity demand (224 TWh), along with 135 million tonnes of water. In keeping with green hydrogen theology, that 750 TWh requires 285,000 MW of intermittent wind and solar capacity. That is almost five times Australia’s total generation capacity from all sources (60,000 MW). It is a lofty goal considering the last twelve months of wind and solar generation in the entire country would produce just over 1 million tonnes of green hydrogen. 

In these figures lies the truth behind the renewable lobby’s support for green hydrogen. The last two decades’ subsidies and targets for wind and solar are miniscule compared to the bonanza of taxpayer money about to be sacrificed on green hydrogen in the name of net-zero. Since green hydrogen stands on the shoulders of wind and solar, the renewables lobby is being handed the keys to the kingdom — a wind and solar industry so large the domestic electricity market is a mere side effect.  

It is telling that the planet is not already powered by hydrogen. There is no green hydrogen industry. There are only corporates and lobby groups with their hands out for taxpayer funding, and a bunch of politicians only too willing to hand it over.  

Ben Beattie is an electrical engineer in the power and natural gas sector. 

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