The Renewable Part of Hydrogen Is the Hype

Commentary, Climate, Government, Kenneth P. Green

Once again, the world’s climate warriors are engaging each other during this week’s COP26 Climate Change Summit, aka the United Nations Conference of the Parties, in Glasgow, Scotland. Peddlers of alternative energy schemes strive to try to plunge their dippers into the river of climate change funding that now flows around the world generated by governmental funding pledges cadged out of economically developed countries at prior COPs.

One of the perennial candidates as a lower-greenhouse-gas-generating energy source is our old friend, hydrogen, which, considering it’s the most abundant element in the entire universe, continues to be woefully misunderstood and misrepresented by those who dream of replacing traditional sources of energy (like natural gas, diesel fuel, or gasoline) with hydrogen, element number one on the Periodic Table of the Elements we all memorized (right?).

This year, the Hydrogen Booster wishlist as brought to us by the Canadian Energy and Climate Nexus (CECN) includes: instituting new government environmental regulations and fuel standards; public funding of “small regional ecosystems” to showcase hydrogen as an energy source; “Support for potential manufacturers with investment incentives, funding programs, subsidies and long-term policies;” and (ironically when you think about recent government actions toward Canada’s other potential energy exports), initiatives to “help grow the potential export market, and encourage upstream investment.”

There are, however, a few problems with the CECN hydrogen wish list. The biggest one is that hydrogen, while a lovely element in its own right and an adequate carrier of energy, makes a poor substitute for other energy-carrying substances that are actually found freely on Earth, which hydrogen is not. While hydrogen is, as noted, the most abundant element in the universe, it is not very common as a freely available substance on Earth, with diatomic hydrogen (H2) being found in the atmosphere at only 500 parts per billion. (Oxygen, by comparison, is found in the atmosphere at about 1 part per million.) The vast majority of elemental hydrogen is bound up with other elements found on Earth (such as that oxygen it teams up with to make water – H2O), and to be used as a fuel, hydrogen has to first be stripped off those other compounds (typically fossil fuels) using energy to do the stripping. As is the way of physics, there is no free lunch, so you can never reclaim all the energy used to liberate the hydrogen when you use it as fuel, which, if the input energy was directly useful in other ways, makes the whole conversion to hydrogen something of a waste of both time and energy.

Another problem with hydrogen is that, well, it’s explosive when concentrated above about 4 percent in air, and to contain and transport hydrogen, you have to concentrate it such that it can easily breach that 4 percent mark in the event of a leak, and to quote the Hindenburg, “boom.” How would you like a few dozen cars with hydrogen fuel tanks parked down in the parkade underneath your building, hmmm? Thought not. Or perhaps neighborhoods and activist groups will be more welcoming to hydrogen pipelines or tankers with compressed hydrogen coursing along the rails, highways, and byways where fossil fuels now travel?

Finally, there’s the problem of economics: hydrogen used as a fuel is simply not competitive with other potential fuels because of the factors mentioned above. That could explain why, historically, nobody has ever seriously tried to use hydrogen as a fuel, despite the fact it was characterized as an element by Henry Cavendish in 1766, and, once again, as the most abundant element in the universe, hasn’t exactly been unavailable to humanity.