Hydrogen – clean or dirty energy

Hydrogen made from electrolysis of water powered by solar or wind could help humans survive beyond the 21st century. The elemental gas could store surplus renewables power for resolution of grid demand variances and hydrogen could decarbonize sectors such as long-distance air and road transport and manufacturing processes for steel, concrete and other carbon-intensive products.

Hydrogen should have an important role but international agency Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung proposes that a revised policy framework is needed to free decarbonization options from the imperatives of private profit. It argues:

…policies that have been pursued over the past two decades or so in an attempt to “incentivize” the wider energy transition have resoundingly failed to do so, leading not to an energy transition, but rather an energy expansion, in which the use of essentially all forms of energy continues to rise.

Of course, decision making by politicians and public institutions can fail. In 2017, BC NDP promised a well conceived program but quickly dropped it after forming government. The plan offered clear benefits to British Columbia but was opposed by self-interested unions. Work to retrofit buildings would proceed in every community across the province instead of at large-scale worksites where labour organizations exercise control.

PowerBC involved:

  • Energy efficiency retrofits to public buildings,
  • Energy efficiency retrofits in industrial and commercial buildings and private homes,
  • Upgrading of BC Hydro infrastructure with low-cost projects like Revelstoke Dam Unit 6 and by renewing outdated turbines and transformers,
  • Development of wind, solar, battery technology, and other renewable energy sources.

Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung provides a comprehensive examination of hydrogen as a potential energy solution. Excerpts:

It can be used to produce electricity chemically through fuel cells, which can power vehicles or be fed into electrical grids. It can also be used as a fuel for heat or to drive gas turbines, or can be converted into ammonia or other fuels. Hydrogen has an energy density triple that of gasoline or diesel, and over a hundred times that of current lithium-ion batteries.

This makes hydrogen far more suitable for use in larger, heavier vehicles and for longer distances, where the additional weight of batteries required to provide adequate range or power would be prohibitive. It can be pumped as quickly as gasoline or diesel, allowing for refueling much more quickly than electric batteries can be “recharged.”

Hydrogen burns at a temperature comparable to that of “natural gas,” making it a potentially vital source of heat for heating or industrial uses. Perhaps most importantly, in principle hydrogen can be produced from “carbon-free” sources and used as a fuel in ways that produce only water as “waste.”

One key point of debate is whether “blue” hydrogen (produced from fossil fuels, with the resulting emissions “captured” and thus prevented from being released to the atmosphere) can play a significant role as a “bridge” technology toward full decarbonization.

Transition must be consistent with the social, ecological and other goals Achieving that broader but essential set of aims will also require robust democratic accountability that can keep the risk of any state-led “extractivist” expansion of energy exploitation and use in check.

British Columbia is committed to promoting production and utilization of hydrogen. However, the government’s primary aim is to encourage blue hydrogen made from natural gas. To excuse continuing subsidies to the gas extraction industry, BC falsely claims blue hydrogen is acceptable because the province has “expertise in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.”

Of course, that is just another lie from a government that uses disinformation and deception as common political tools.

In fact, carbon capture and storage is a complex and expensive process. Many projects initiated years ago have been abandoned as too expensive or too technically difficult. As a result, private industry will not carry the financial burden of CCS.

As when environmental cleanup is needed after fossil fuel sites become disused, producers expect the public to pay for decarbonization. Politicians like those in the parties of John Horgan and Kevin Falcon have demonstrated willingness to subsidize fossil fuel producers with billions of dollars. Government may end discredited reward programs like the one for Deep Well Royalty Reductions but that money will be doled out in new ways.

Little progress will be made in addressing the climate crisis in Canada until political leaders remove themselves from the grasp of industries that rank profit above human survival.

New Scientist

Categories: Energy

5 replies »

  1. Chicken Feathers!!!! to store Hydrogen????

    Way back in 2013 my brother (older) came up with this little known fact about chicken feathers at: (2009)

    ‘ ….. using carbonized chicken feathers would only add about $200 to the price of a car, while making a 20-gallon hydrogen fuel tank that uses metal hydrides could cost up to $30,000, and one that uses carbon nanotubes could cost $5.5 million. ….”


  2. The devil is in the details with hydrogen.

    It is clean when used in a fuel cell, but emits some nitrous oxides when burnt.

    It is significantly less energy dense than gasoline when stored at practical volumes and pressures, it’s only more energy dense by mass. It is hard to store, and burning leaks are hard to see.

    Production of clean hydrogen uses electricity that could be used more efficiently directly.

    There are currently fewer than 10 public hydrogen filling stations in the whole of Canada.

    These issues explain why battery electric cars are already vastly more common on the road than fuel cell cars. For example, you may occasionally see a Toyota Mirai fuel cell car around Vancouver, but can easily see dozens of Teslas (and others) every day. The market has already determined the winner for zero-emission cars, and it is not hydrogen.

    For heavy vehicles like buses or excavators, hydrogen may make sense, using fuel cells or internal combustion engines (JCB has prototypes). But note, Whistler used to have hydrogen fuel cell buses, during the 2010 Olympics, and they were taken out of service afterwards because they were uneconomic to run. Time will tell what improved battery chemistries can do for heavy vehicles.


    • Indeed, hydrogen is not a simple energy solution at this point. Durability of hydrogen storage systems is inadequate and standardized interface technologies and other hardware items need development. As well, commonly accepted operating procedures are lacking.

      It would be better to utilize electricity directly wherever possible. However, battery technology will have to improve greatly to be useful in long distance transport. Weight of power storage devises is a major issue when operators’ payload is important.

      Airbus experimental ZEROe aircraft are hybrid-hydrogen, powered by hydrogen combustion through modified gas turbine engines. Liquid hydrogen is used as fuel for combustion with oxygen. They are decades away from gaining material improvements in the global fleet.

      Hydrogen propulsion to power future aircraft

      By the way, the hydrogen buses were a Gordon Campbell vanity project that was unworkable from the start. They were hauling hydrogen from Quebec to Whistler using diesel trucks. Operating costs for the hydrogen buses were more than double the costs of ordinary buses and environmental improvements overall were elusive and unproven.


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