It’s said that reliable fusion power is always just ten years away. It’s certainly been just around the corner ever since I was a spotty little Herbert starting high school. It’s the same story with the end of the world: for as long as I can remember, we’ve always had just ten years to save the planet: yet here we still are.
Then there’s “clean energy”: as usual, the latest “clean energy” wonder technology that’s going to sweep the globe is always just a few years away. Except that, every time, it turns out to be at best a niche technology (geothermal) or hideously expensive and unreliable, with shocking environmental “externalities” (wind and solar).
Ah, but now there’s hydrogen. The clean energy technology, right here, right now. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the US President:
“Hydrogen fuel technology: a cleaner and more secure energy future… With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these (hydrogen fuel cell) cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free… hydrogen is the key to a cleaner energy future.”
That was, of course, President George W Bush, speaking in 2003. That “child born today” is driving their first car now: how much do you want to bet that it’s not powered by hydrogen?
It’s not like Dubya didn’t put his money where his mouth was: half a billion dollars was pumped into helping scientists and engineers overcome obstacles to cheap, abundant hydrogen.
Money about as well spent as Obama’s hundreds of millions sunk into Solyndra.
But hope – and taxpayer’s money – springs eternal. NSW premier Dominic Perrottet has just announced a $3 billion “green hydrogen strategy” which, he claims, “is nation leading, world leading and sets up our state for future success. We know the world is moving toward a renewable energy future”. Dubya, meet Dom.
And of course, where there are taxpayer billions, there are wealthy rent-seekers holding their hands out: Perrottet made his announcement flanked by none other than mining billionaire-turned-hydrogen spruiker, Twiggy Forrest. I suspect nobody was gauche enough to mention that Forrest makes his billions courtesy of the world’s single largest carbon emitter.
But is hydrogen really, really on the cusp of realising the pipe dreams of “green energy” enthusiasts, rather than just lining the pockets of troughers and rent-seekers?
The biggest problem with hydrogen is that, while it is the most abundant element in the universe, it almost exclusively exists on Earth as a compound, for instance in natural gas, coal or water. So, to get hydrogen, you have to separate and extract it.
Guess what? That takes energy. Energy that has to be generated… somehow… before you even get the hydrogen out.
The method of choice for green energy enthusiasts is “green” hydrogen, which is produced by electrolysing water into hydrogen and oxygen. But – electrolysis requires electricity. How do you generate the electricity in the first place? And, doesn’t it seem kind of pointless to generate power (by whatever means) only to use it to, um, make power cells? Why bother with hydrogen cars when you can push back the laws of thermodynamics at least one step and have electric cars?
No wonder Elon Musk calls hydrogen-powered cars “mind-bogglingly stupid” (but, of course, he would, wouldn’t he?).
But the problem remains of producing the electricity to run the electrolysis. Hydrogen enthusiasts insist that will be done via “renewable” energy – which, (besides the aforementioned issue of why bother?) also raises the spectre (which no one, curiously, seems to want to discuss) of just how much renewable electricity is needed to produce hydrogen at scale?
Forrest grandiosely claims that Australia can soon produce up to 50 million tonnes of hydrogen. If all that was done by electrolysis, it would require something on the order of one and a half trillion kwh, or 5.94 exajoules of energy. That’s more energy than Australia consumes, in all forms, right now.
Not to power the nation, just to produce hydrogen.
If that sounds barking mad to you, congratulations: you’re probably not a greenie.
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