Green Hype-drogen

It's Wednesday, my dudes. Here's what we're looking at today: big moves from the Biden administration on some clean energy, Russia's pullback hit oil market, renewables displaced gas rather than coal in Europe, Illinois introduces bill to replace its nuclear ban, oil bailed out New England grid last month. 


  • Biden-Harris administration advances cleaner industrial sector to reduce emissions and reinvigorate American manufacturing. (WH)

  • Prince Andrew settles lawsuit from Jeffrey Epstein accuser. (FT)

  • Trudeau enlists banks to help stop protests in emergency move. (BBG)

  • Putin says some Russian troops are returning to their bases and talks should continue. (NYT)

  • Testimony from US Marines casts doubt on Pentagon's account of Kabul airport attack aftermath. (CNN)


  • Alberta to toughen oil sands emissions standards that reward big Canadian polluters. (Reuters)

  • US corn-based ethanol worse for climate than gasoline, study finds. (Reuters)

  • Germany plans to force gas firms to secure reserves for winter. (BBG)

  • Development needs delay Nigeria's energy transition. (FT)

  • Oil plummets after Russia says some troops returning to bases. (BBG)


  • China to focus Gobi desert for new solar, wind power bases. (TEC)

  • "Paradigm shift" as new renewables replace costly gas instead of dirtier coal power. (Ember)

  • UK to move to annual renewables auctions from next year. (PVM)

  • Solar prices rising with demand. (PVM)

  • Construction begins on New York's first offshore wind farm. (TV)


  • Could Nebraska and Iowa go nuclear as part of shift away from fossil fuels? (OWH)

  • Manufacturing starts on largest ever marine reactor. (WNN)

  • NuScale, KGHM agree to deploy SMRs in Poland. (WNN)

  • Bill to repeal Illinois nuclear construction ban introduced. (ANS)

  • Automation adjustments delay OL3 grid connection. (WNN)


  • California lowers electric sector GHG target, directs procurement of more than 40 GW of clean energy sources. (UD)

  • Oil-fired generators helped meet electric demand in New England this January. (EIA)

  • Iron-air battery maker Form has an unexpected new customer: Georgia Power. (CM)

  • Renewables integration in the electricity grid causing strain. (Euractiv)

  • UK's National Grid to get grid stability services for first time. (Reuters)

Green Hype-drogen

The Biden administration just released its plan to clean up manufacturing's emissions this week. The plan also aims to "reinvigorate" manufacturing and provide lots of jobs. It includes over $9 billion for "green hydrogen." The hope is that substantial progress in green hydrogen can help decarbonize difficult sectors like steel manufacturing and shipping. A laudable goal, but this doesn't add up. 

Three kinds of hydrogen exist: grey, blue, and green. Around 95% of the hydrogen the world gets today is grey and comes to us through a carbon-heavy process involving natural gas. Blue also relies on natural gas, but it keeps the carbon out of the air. What the Biden administration wants is green carbon, which can use electricity from low carbon sources to split water into oxygen and hydrogen--about 0.03% of existing hydrogen

It's an energy-intensive process, and thus an expensive process. That's why this plan from the administration is meant to dovetail with the DOE's push to drive the price of green hydrogen down to $1/kg within the next decade. 

None of this is particularly new. We've been dumping billions into hydrogen for twenty years. And the problems remain the same. We'll start with making the stuff.

Making green hydrogen would require gobs of electricity from renewables or nuclear. The Biden administration, despite working to help the current nuclear fleet, isn't planning an aggressive buildout of nuclear to provide abundant baseload clean energy. So it'll mostly be left to intermittent wind and solar to split the h's from the o's. Here's a look at our wind and solar usage compared to everything else:

Not a lot. To bring wind and solar up to scale to produce hydrogen would be a mammoth undertaking. Hydrogen production would also fall second in priority to basic electricity production, which renewables have not been able to do without fossil fuel backups. 

But let's say we could produce enough to start making a dent in the carbon emissions of industrial processes without greatly increasing the price of their necessary products. What other problem might we run into? Transporation. Robert Zubrin wrote a piece on this for New Atlantis in 2007. This is what he had to say about the issue:

...before the hydrogen can be transported anywhere, it needs to be either compressed or liquefied. To liquefy it, it must be refrigerated down to a temperature of 20 K (20 degrees above absolute zero, or -253 degrees Celsius). At these temperatures, the fundamental laws of thermodynamics make refrigerators extremely inefficient. As a result, about 40 percent of the energy in the hydrogen must be spent to liquefy it. This reduces the actual net energy content of our product fuel to 792 kilocalories. In addition, because it is a cryogenic liquid, still more energy could be expected to be lost as the hydrogen boils away during transport and storage.

As an alternative, one could use high-pressure pumps to compress the hydrogen as gas instead of liquefying it for transport. This would only require wasting about 20 percent of the energy in the hydrogen. The problem is that safety-approved, steel compressed-gas tanks capable of storing hydrogen at 5,000 psi weigh approximately 65 times as much as the hydrogen they can contain. So to transport 200 kilograms of compressed hydrogen, roughly equal in energy content to just 200 gallons of gasoline, would require a truck capable of hauling a 13-ton load. Think about that: an entire large truckload delivery would be needed simply to transport enough hydrogen to allow ten people to fill up their cars with the energy equivalent of 20 gallons of gasoline each.

Instead of steel tanks, one could propose using (very expensive) lightweight carbon fiber overwrapped tanks, which only weigh about ten times as much as the hydrogen they contain. This would improve the transport weight ratio by a factor of six. Thus, instead of a 13-ton truck, a mere two-ton truckload would be required to supply enough hydrogen to allow a service station to provide fuel for ten customers. This is still hopeless economically, and could probably not be allowed in any case, since carbon fiber tanks have low crash resistance, making such compressed hydrogen transport trucks deadly bombs on the highway.

Seems like a huge hassle. Why not just build pipelines? Well, hydrogen is such a small molecule it embrittles everything that tries to contain it. This means wildly expensive and highly fragile infrastructure that demands frequent replacement and monitoring.

Given all this, I have a hard time understanding just how this is going to decarbonize let alone reinvigorate anything at a meaningful scale. It has all the engineering problems of natural gas, but harder and orders of magnitude more expensive. We'll get more hype than hydrogen.

Crom's Blessing

Ramon Dekkers was an 8-time Muay Thai boxing world champ in five different weight classes. He fought hundreds of times in his career and pioneered western entry into the sport. Dekkers passed in 2013 at the age of 43. Rest in Glory.