Why Hydrogen Won’t Save Us

For a long time now, I’ve been fairly annoyed with the media and political hyperbole surrounding the future use of hydrogen. Most of the attention I’ve seen seems to revolve around the (admittedly worthy) advances in the devices (fuel cells, mostly) that help us convert hydrogen into energy for use in cars, consumer devices, etc. That’s great as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.

Consuming the hydrogen is only one piece of the puzzle. Not only must the hydrogen be stored, transported, and distributed (no easy feat given its form as the lightest of gases), but we have to figure out how to produce it in quantity. That’s the piece I see left out of the discussion most often. Hydrogen is not an energy source, it’s an energy carrier. It’s not something we mine out of the ground. We have to produce it. Currently, the most efficient (cheapest) way to produce it in quantity is to use a process called steam reformation to make it from natural gas. Why not just burn the natural gas? You’re going to release the carbon one way or another. Electrolysis of water sounds attractive, but where do you get the electrical energy to do the electrolysis?

Slashdot pointed me to an article on the Popular Mechanics web site that I think does an excellent job of outlining the challenges and unanswered questions that come between us and developing hydrogen as a true alternative to gasoline and other fuels. It’s by no means an exhaustive scientific study, but it does something I haven’t seen before: it provides estimated numbers on the various costs involved in getting the hydrogen from various sources. Specifically, it estimates the resources and costs necessary to meet Bush’s goal of using hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in all passenger cars by 2040. It’s not really a completely fair chart. It doesn’t take into account some kind of future technological breakthrough, but what it indicates to me is that the goal depends on such a breakthrough.

By the way, what it also underscores is that we use an immense amount of oil to power our cars. I will freely admit that I’m probably a bigger fan than most of acceleration. One way or another, though, we as a nation are going to have to figure out how to cut our energy consumption. My current hypothesis: it will happen when energy finally gets expensive here. $3.00/gallon gasoline sounds bad, but we haven’t seen anything yet.

So, what am I trying to say? I think research and development on hydrogen power should continue. We may find that breakthrough (controllable fusion with a net positive energy output, making electrolysis practical, maybe?). In the meantime, though, I’m sick and tired of politicians making political hay claiming that they know how to save the world using hydrogen. The truth is we don’t know how to get there yet.

7 thoughts on “Why Hydrogen Won’t Save Us

  1. Well, I can see other alternatives such as solar, wind, and tidal energy being used to do electrolysis in plants much like our current oil refineries. That may help the migration from fossil fuels, since it would create portable storage of energy from those technologies, something that we do not really have today without large batteries and slow recharge times. I am not sure that those alternatives would be able to produce enough energy to power vehicles along with the electric grid, though.

  2. In terms of being an energy carrier: ABC World News had a piece last night on a guy that outfitted his house with solar energy and used excess energy to electrolyze water. He then stores the hydrogen for later use in fuel cells when solar won’t work for him.

    All the concerns that we have about alternative fuels always just seem to me to be an unwillingness to go after a market—the present petroleum system didn’t get to where it is overnight, either. I guess the public policy concern in my mind is whether you go after multiple paths [we’ll push hydrogen generation and infrastructure development, biofuels, and other things] or whether you place most of your bet on one fuel and hope for the best. There’s arguments to be made on both sides, and it’s mainly a question of technological risk and economies of scale…

  3. Well, I can see other alternatives such as solar, wind, and tidal energy being used to do electrolysis in plants much like our current oil refineries. That may help the migration from fossil fuels, since it would create portable storage of energy from those technologies, something that we do not really have today without large batteries and slow recharge times. I am not sure that those alternatives would be able to produce enough energy to power vehicles along with the electric grid, though.

    If we could just figure out a way to extract a larger percentage of solar energy for electricity, we’d be a long way toward cutting out fossil fuels. I think typical converson efficiency for current-generation photovoltaics is about 10%. Until we do, I’m not sure that these forms of energy are practical even for just the electrical grid, forget automobiles.

    I tell you what, though… I think as energy costs begin to really rise, I think we may begin to see solar energy make a comeback for individual home use. The technology works pretty well for cutting water heating costs. I think the installation costs will be more easily justified the further we go.

    I think that can be said about a lot of things that improve energy efficiency, though. Our homes and our appliances here in the US are, in general, badly behind the technology curve for efficiency. Cheap energy helps keep the least common denominator low, so even those of us who might be willing to pay more are discouraged to because of poor resale value of these improvements. The value of my home is gauged from the price my neighbor’s home sold for, and efficiency improvements aren’t something on which the buyers (and the appraisers) put much financial value. I’m wondering if that’s about to change.

  4. this block added as explanation on 17 September 2017
    This is in response to a comment (now lost) that I apparently never approved. –JHM

    All the concerns that we have about alternative fuels always just seem to me to be an unwillingness to go after a market—the present petroleum system didn’t get to where it is overnight, either.

    You’re exactly right. The existing system has a huge built-in advantage because it’s already in place.

    I guess the public policy concern in my mind is whether you go after multiple paths [we’ll push hydrogen generation and infrastructure development, biofuels, and other things] or whether you place most of your bet on one fuel and hope for the best.

    *nod* It’s nearly impossible to predict which technology is going to end up being the right one. That’s the biggest reason why I don’t advocate that research on hydrogen power (or pretty much any other alternative) be stopped.

    Honestly, I’m coming back to one of my main thoughts again: I think the “right” alternative will shake out once energy costs drive the market to develop the technology. There’s too little incentive right now. Plato had it right: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think things have to get worse in order to force them to get better, and I see no way to shortcut that.

  5. Honestly, I’m coming back to one of my main thoughts again: I think the “right” alternative will shake out once energy costs drive the market to develop the technology. There’s too little incentive right now. Plato had it right: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think things have to get worse in order to force them to get better, and I see no way to shortcut that.

    That is a dangerous theory. Vested interest make inefficient technologies survive. We, the people have to make it happen. It would suite many corporations to go an inefficient route. Why do you think we have used an inefficient ICE for 100 plus years? Unfortunately the government sees big business as our savior. In many cases that is clearly not the case. The answer is clearly the BEV, however that receives a fraction of the funding that inefficient H2 receives.

  6. BrianOH:

    I think we’re actually more in agreement that you think we are.

    Vested interest make inefficient technologies survive. We, the people have to make it happen. It would suite many corporations to go an inefficient route.

    There’s nothing in there that disagrees with what I said in my post. It is almost by definition in a corporation’s vested interest to do what makes it the most profit. Developing radically new technologies and engineering products that push the boundaries of energy efficiency isn’t where the money is in this country yet. Why? Because of exactly why you said: we (the consumers) have yet to demand it (en masse). Why haven’t we? Because energy is cheap. Actually, the development (and consumer acceptance) of hybrid vehicles and flagging sales of monster gas-guzzling SUVs are signs that the trend is beginning to shift. When the buying trends shifted, the car companies took notice. Back when gas was less than $2.00/gallon and monster SUVs were in high demand, the American car companies didn’t give a crap about efficiency. It was consumer buying trends that started the shift, and those trends happened when gasoline started jumping toward $3.00/gallon. Energy wasn’t as cheap, and that’s what made consumers care, which in turn made the car companies care. So, I actually agree that it’s the consumer that has to drive it, but what other than high energy prices do you think is going to motivate a significant number of consumers? Innovation (and conservation) will happen when energy gets expensive.

    Why do you think we have used an inefficient ICE for 100 plus years?

    A whole bunch of reasons. A lot of it is exactly what you imply: inertia. What incentive is there to change? Switching to any other system involves a higher cost both for manufacturers and consumers.

    It’s not just cost and inertia, though. For automobiles, there are legitimate technical barriers… particularly here in the US because of the automobile’s unique ability to serve as a symbol of freedom, prosperity, etc. Any change that results in cars that won’t go as fast, won’t accelerate as well, won’t travel as far, etc. will be resisted. When you compare apples to apples (two cars of equivalent size, weight, and cargo capacity), I do not know of any alternative fuel technology that doesn’t fall short of the good old ICE in at least one of these categories.

    The answer is clearly the BEV

    The answer? Clearly? Your crystal ball works much better than mine does. I agree that the battery-powered electric vehicle is certainly a strong contender. I don’t see how we can know that it’s the answer, yet, though. BEVs have been around for years and are used quite extensively in certain non-road applications. The battery itself, however, is still very much a limiting factor for automobile applications. Primarily, if you look at energy density (as measured by weight or by volume) of a chemical storage battery versus gasoline, there’s a huge gap. So, the BEV has to either be heavier, slower, or have a shorter range (or, more likely all three) than an ICE-powered vehicle. It’s not just energy density, either. Batteries are severely limited in how quickly they can be charged or discharged. In order for BEVs to be a viable alternative, there has to be a huge breakthrough in storage battery technology or an astronomical reduction in what the average consumer expects out of a car. For the record, I think the BEV has a really good shot. I just don’t think we can know that it is “clearly the answer.”

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