It’s now clear that we have the technology we need to run a completely decarbonized electricity generation system. South Australia is the world leader[1] generating more than 50 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, and aiming for 100 per cent renewables by 2030.

The unit cost of renewables is now well below that of carbon-based generation (and nuclear). The remaining big question regarding the economics of the transition is the cost of storage, taking account of the variable nature of solar PV and wind.

As I’ve pointed out before, any reversible process that uses energy is a potential storage technology – that’s true of batteries, pumped hydro, flywheels, stored heat and many more. But hydrogen is a particularly appealing storage technology, because it offers the potential to decarbonize major industrial processes.

Electricity can be used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysis)[2]. The process can be reversed by combustion, and for a long time the main interest in hydrogen was as a replacement fuel for motor vehicles. But with progress in electric vehicles, that’s become less important.

Interest now is focused on hydrogen as a replacement for metallurgical coal in steelmaking and for natural gas (methane) across the board.

The central technology for steel is direct reduction (DRI), using hydrogen to combine with the oxygen in iron oxide (ore) leaving metallic iron. The HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) initiative has just started operations at a pilot plant in Sweden.

Hydrogen can also replace methane in just about all its applications, from home heating to industrial uses. However, this will require a substantial investment in hydrogen-safe polyethylene pipes and new equipment. Also, while not as bad for the climate as methane, hydrogen leakage into the atmosphere is still a potentially significant problem.

It it were up to the Australian political class, particularly at the national level, none of this would matter. We are stuck in a pattern of denial and delay. But things are much more promising in the EU and other developed countries. Biden is promising some fairly radical action, which would reinforce existing trends in the US, but of course we have to wait to see whether Trump loses, and if so, whether he concedes. We still have a chance to stabilise the global climate and avoid catastrophic damage.

fn1. But the EU is not far behind with 40 per cent renewables (an average that is pushed down by Eastern European countries like Poland and Czechia).

fn2. Hydrogen can also be produced from lignite, an idea currently being pushed here in Australia . But this process produces CO2 as a byproduct. In the absence of a viable technology for carbon capture and storage, which will never happen, it’s worse than useless as far as the climate is concerned. Hopefully, that fact will ensure that such projects

20 thoughts on “Hydrogen

  1. Making hydrogen on the spot and then using it for industrial purposes. Thats a pretty satisfying idea.

  2. John Quiggin,
    You state in your post above:
    “Hydrogen can also replace methane in just about all its applications, from home heating to industrial uses.”

    Why bother? Heat pumps are far more energy efficient and more cost-effective for home heating and lower temperature (i.e. up to 160°C) industrial processes compared with fossil gas (and hydrogen).
    See: https://bze.org.au/wp-content/uploads/electrifying-industry-bze-report-2018.pdf

    Even AGL is saying: “Over half of Australians* still rely on gas as a source of energy, but few realise that there’s a more cost-effective, energy-efficient option – heat pumps.”
    See: https://discover.agl.com.au/your-home/heat-pumps-why-are-they-more-efficient/#:~:text=Because%20they%20use%20electricity%20to,50%25%20to%2095%25%20mark.

    Independent energy advisor Tim Forcey has been banging on about getting off fossil gas in homes and save on energy bills, and runs a Facebook group called “My Efficient Electric Home”.
    See: https://twitter.com/ForceyTim/status/1297353813230116864
    Also: https://twitter.com/ForceyTim/status/1298353143609094144

    “A growing number of U.S. cities are taking a stand against gas stoves, long billed as a more convenient way to cook, because of their contribution to climate change.”
    See: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cities-are-banning-natural-gas-in-new-homes-because-of-climate-change/

    ACT moves to end mandatory gas connections.
    See: https://reneweconomy.com.au/canberra-households-reject-gas-as-act-moves-to-end-mandatory-connections-47346/

  3. Gday John, you might be interested to know that Australia has already replaced most of its gas distribution system with HDPE pipes that are hydrogen compatible (because they cost less to maintain) and there are trials underway in SA, NSW and ACT for blending hydrogen with natural gas.

    You may also be interested in the national strategy for hydrogen in Australia published last year by the COAG. I believe the feds put around $500m in funding behind it. Perhaps this time we won’t obfuscate and delay!!

  4. How much does an industrial electrolyser cost? You would think this basic fact could be easy to establish, but not so. From an IRENA report in 2019 (my italics): https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2019/Sep/IRENA_Hydrogen_2019.pdf
    “The best case considers a lowcost electrolyser of USD 200/kW, which at a broader scale is expected to be achieved only from 2040, although Chinese manufacturers claim that it is a reality already today.

    That’s an astonishingly wide uncertainty range. You would think the $200 claim should be easy to check. Companies do not normally lie about their price lists. If $200/kw is anywhere near the truth, we would be seeing a massive boom in hydrogen projects. Wait, we are.

  5. Hydrogen has some issues as well as advantages. It’s the smallest molecule possible, so tends to leak; leaks tend to explode; it makes steel brittle; and it has a boiling point (-253 deg C) far lower than methane’s already tricky -162 deg C. Transport by ship will be expensive. These snags are manageable, but they can be avoided entirely by upgrading hydrogen (at a cost in equipment and energy) to a hydrocarbon or ammonia. Conversion to methane is the lazy way out, as it allows you to keep using all your costly fossil gas infrastructure, but creating large volumes of a potent greenhouse gas that leaks is a bad idea. Ammonia – NH3 – is not a hydrocarbon and its combustion products are harmless nitrogen and water, plus some nasty nitrous oxides you have to filter out. The other great thing about ammonia is its high boiling point, -33 deg C. It can be transported like propane as a liquid in simple pressurised steel containers without chilling. A lot of work is going on to explore the use of ammonia as a fuel for ships and as a vehicle for long-distance energy trade.

    There is one hydrocarbon we should keep, made from green hydrogen: butane for cooking. The WHO gives the annual death toll from indoor air pollution as 3.8m, mostly people in Third World huts cooking with wood, charcoal, dung and kerosene. Solar stoves stop after dark, offgrid solar electricity doesn’t have the peak power needed for cooking without pricey batteries. Butane is a proven existing technology, and the bottles are transportable anywhere you can reach on a moped. In my Spanish estate of comfortably off foreign retirees, without piped gas, the butane truck comes round every Thursday,

  6. Everyone is always in favour of general ecological sustainability and particular exceptions for themselves. (Apologies to Antony Eden.)

  7. James,
    That report at 4:12 am was really a top notch report. That teaches me, the most important news does not always come at 3 am after all.

  8. Curt: I live in Spain, 8 hours behind Brisbane. No midnight oil was burnt to bring you My Thoughts. Thanks anyway

  9. Iko: Was your comment aimed at me on butane? If it’s produced by upgrading green hydrogen as I suggested, with carbon coming say from the residue from biodigesters, butane cooking is perfectly sustainable over a short horizon. It would largely be replacing cooking with biomass, so there should not be a net increase in gross CO emissions. What is your alternative to 3 million poor brown people killing themselves every year with soot?

  10. I’m inclined towards industrial uses, especially iron smelting, rather than transport, at least until well established and proven.

    And conversion of existing, sunk costs gas plant to run on Hydrogen – or mostly Hydrogen – as backup to wind and solar, using on-site production and storage.

    Lots of existing gas plant can cope with large proportions of H2 in the fuel mix, some above 90%. They sit at the convergences of power transmission networks so they can draw on far flung solar and wind resources for on site electrolysing and storage. Without having to transport the H2 it can be stored at lower pressures, with reduced engineering requirements and costs, operating entirely within independent industrial locations ie no economy wide infrastructure.

    Total storage is hard to estimate but a few weeks seems likely to suffice even for prolonged weather and seasonal shortfalls from solar and wind in Australia. I have doubts this could be cost effective building plants from scratch but with gas plants already there – and competing against Big Batteries and struggling to make money – it might extend their usefulness and improve their emissions profile.
    If started from scratch, with lowish H2 production costs, I think fuel cell power plants might be competitors, as well as batteries. And pumped hydro could end up significant for long duration storage and change the commercial viability.

    As always, actual deep and long running commitment from our Lib-Nat-Lab owned political system – currently committed to doing the least that can be gotten away with rather than most that can be done, and much, much less than is needed – would provide greater enduring benefit than any specific technology.

  11. “You may also be interested in the national strategy for hydrogen in Australia published last year by the COAG. I believe the feds put around $500m in funding behind it. Perhaps this time we won’t obfuscate and delay!!”

    LIzbet do you know if this is on the spot hydrogen they are after? Or are these morons going to waste most of that money trying to transport the hydrogen around? I suppose I’m going to have to read it for myself and marvel how stupid people take all the best jobs.

  12. “Hydrogen presents a major opportunity for the Australian economy. The COAG Energy Council (the Council) seeks to support the development of a clean, innovative and competitive hydrogen industry that benefits all Australians and is a major global player by 2030.”

    Major global player? Its not a global product. Its got to be used locally or not at all. Its idiots we are dealing with here. The ultimate dope, Alan Finkel is behind this thing.

    “The Working Group will have six work streams: hydrogen exports; hydrogen for transport; hydrogen in the gas network; hydrogen for industrial users; hydrogen to support electricity systems; and cross-cutting issues.”

    Hydrogen exports? Can’t we just sack these lunatics and start again? Having public servants who cannot do the job is not in keeping with energy efficiency, carbon internment, or any kind of goal to reduce the consumption of hydrocarbons. Are we serious about these problems or not? If we are serious we cannot have morons running things.

    We’ve got to sack Finkel and sack everyone associated with getting him the job, and then punitive sackings to warn the tax-eaters not to do this sort of thing ever again. We have to get capable and patriotic people into these positions of influence and power. Its hard to know whether Finkel is gas lighting us, or is he really that much of an idiot.

    Its very clear that hydrogen is fine, just so long as you can make it and then use it on location.

  13. TryToRemember: I suggest thinking first about future trade in energy before going into detail on one carrier, hydrogen.
    1. There will be much less future trade in energy as almost al countries can technically become autonomous. Trade will be by choice not necessity.
    2. Comparative advantage will still operate, more weakly.
    Example 1: Denmark. On track to be autonomous overall with wind, but needs to import for balancing. Denmark has 0 mountains, peaceful Nordic neighbour Norway has thousands, and can offer cheap despatchable hydro at any plausible volume. Already happening.
    Example 2: Morocco and Algeria. These have limitless solar potential. Electricity is already traded by 1.4 GW cables across the Straits of Gibraltar, and this is being expanded. But Iberia can easily go autonomous too, at slightly higher cost. Wait and see.
    Example 3: Japan, the one of interest to Australia. Domestic solar is limited by high latitudes and a shortage of flat land; onshore wind by intense NIMBYism affecting mountains. That’s why Japan is putting money into imported hydrogen options. But progress in renewables may put the import need into question, with limitless domestic potential for now-proven floating offshore wind, a large potential for agrivoltaics allowing double use of scarce farmland, and (a longish shot) ocean current generation.
    3. Cheap hydrogen may shift trade downstream, with coastal DRI plants in Australis making sponge iron pellets or slab steel for export to rolling mills in Japan and China, rather than exporting lower-value iron ore as now.

  14. James if the hydrogen is not going to be produced on-location and used almost right away its a stupid idea and it cannot work. The Japanese experiment will not prevail, because its a non-viable right from the start. It just has to be seen as an experiment on the part of the Japanese that we already know will not be successful.

    What we don’t know is how much money entropy-demons can steal and waste prior to these undertakings being abandoned. While money is being borrowed or created from central banks it appears you can have a great deal of waste and destruction before basic thermodynamic reality catches up with you.

  15. I think being able to transport hydrogen fuel is useful enough that people will just pay the (couple of percent) additional energy cost to get it up to pipeline pressure. Good geology for storing H2 isn’t everywhere.

    The public perception of safety though is a bigger worry. I’m guessing a hydrogen explosion as disruptive/deadly as the (fossil gas) Esso Longford one would get very different media treatment. Given how much methane the industry leaks some bad things happening are pretty much inevitable.

  16. Just curious are the environmental,
    and social costs of rare earth mining fully internalised in these estimates. Renewable energy is heavily reliant on these metals, the vast majority of which continued to be mined and processed in China

  17. How much cement do we really need? Every medium sized hill has rocks. Why not many of these hills have small scale computer assisted rock cutting? A superior product, and not all that much energy content done right.

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