The green hydrogen hype

The Week Staff
·3 min read

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Companies around the world are making a "trillion-dollar bet" on a hydrogen-fueled future, said David Fickling at Bloomberg. A series of planned investments in hydrogen power from Europe, Australia, and Chile — the latest coming this week from a consortium of seven energy companies — could eliminate "roughly a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions." The dramatic leap, though, depends on improvement in the technology for producing "green" hydrogen by splitting water molecules. Hydrogen has been advanced as a potential clean fuel source for decades, but currently "99 percent of the world's industrial hydrogen is not green but 'gray,' produced from gas or coal with the carbon emissions to match." Green hydrogen has often been dismissed as too expensive for practical uses. In the mid-2000s, however, most economists "didn't think wind and solar could compete economically with fossil fuels," either. There's "good reason to think" green hydrogen can follow the same path to explosive growth.

Hydrogen is certainly "a buzzy topic in clean energy circles," said Chris Tomlinson at the Houston Chronicle. Outside of powering vehicles, hydrogen's more immediate use might be for storing wind and solar energy. "As everyone knows, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine." But the excess renewable power that's created on those sunny and windy days could be used to make hydrogen for fueling turbines all days of the year. General Electric has been doing this on a small scale for decades, but researchers are inventing ways to make it more affordable. Texas has the infrastructure in place, because many of its petrochemical facilities already "use hydrogen to make ammonia" for fertilizer and rubber. In Michigan, General Motors is going all-in on commercializing its fuel cells, said Kalea Hall at The Detroit News. The 112-year-old automaker believes its Hydrotec cells can offer future vehicles "longer range than their battery-powered peers." Though it recently ended a partnership with the troubled clean-vehicle maker Nikola, it is still pushing to adapt power-train technology so any vehicle that now has a gas-powered engine could eventually have a "fuel-cell system powering it instead."

Just be careful with the hype, said Rochelle Toplensky at The Wall Street Journal. "It will be years" before many of these projects "reach an industrial scale," and they "depend heavily on the evolving technology for hydrogen production." Making gray hydrogen "currently generates more carbon emissions globally than the airline industry." There are plans for many more green-hydrogen production facilities worldwide, "but fewer than half will be available by 2035." The promise of hydrogen "has been repeated so often it sometimes seems to have achieved silver-bullet status," said Katherine Dunn at Fortune. We wrote about hydrogen-powered hybrids way back in 1999, before President George W. Bush filled up a GM minivan at the nation's first hydrogen Shell station in Washington in 2005. Green hydrogen's prices "would need to fall by 85 percent" just to be competitive with regular hydrogen's. It could be 2050 before green hydrogen is a major energy source. Meanwhile, though, it's already "burnishing the climate-friendly reputations of plenty of politicians."

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