Once again, the world is staging ClimateFest 26, aka the United Nations Conference of the Parties, where peddlers of alternative energy schemes try to plunge their dippers into the river of climate change funding that flows around the world. This funding is generated by governmental 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. Although it’s the most abundant element in the universe, it 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 wish list 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; and “Support for potential manufacturers with investment incentives, funding programs, subsidies and long-term policies.” Ironically, when you think about recent government actions toward Canada’s other potential energy exports, the list also includes 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 found on Earth, which hydrogen is not. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is not very common as a freely available substance on Earth. Diatomic hydrogen (H2) is found in the atmosphere at only 500 parts per billion. Oxygen, by comparison, is found in the atmosphere at about one part per million. The vast majority of elemental hydrogen is bound up with other elements found on Earth (such as oxygen teaming up with hydrogen to make water—H2O). 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. If the input energy could have been directly useful in other ways, it makes the whole conversion to hydrogen something of a waste of both time and energy.
Another problem with hydrogen is that it’s explosive when concentrated above about four per cent in air. To contain and transport hydrogen, you have to concentrate it so that it can easily breach that four per cent mark in the event of a leak, and to recall the Hindenburg, “boom.” How would you like a few dozen cars with hydrogen fuel tanks parked down in the parkade underneath your building, hmm? Thought not. Or perhaps neighbourhoods 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 nobody has ever seriously tried to use hydrogen as a fuel, despite the fact Henry Cavendish characterized it as an element in 1766, and, as the most abundant element in the universe, it hasn’t exactly been unavailable to humanity.
What hydrogen-as-fuel is useful for, however, is as another environmental red herring (such as wind and solar power) that people are supposed to believe can replace the conventional, reliable forms of energy that built and power our societies today. Hydrogen fuel dreams are also useful for extracting money from the global river of international aid funding that flows thanks to the aforementioned efforts of the United Nations Conventions of the Parties.
Canada’s governments, contrary to the importuning of hydrogen fuel boosters, should eschew giving taxpayers’ hard-earned money to rent-seeking private firms that want to build yet another artificial, inefficient, government-funded energy industry. Let the real energy industries, those created through actual free (but still regulated!) markets, do what they do best and keep our lights on and our heat working at costs we can afford.
Kenneth Green is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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