The H Stands for Hype

Published by Christy Reed on

The H Stands for Hype

Robert Bryce

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Publication Note: The Fire Time Magazine appreciates the opportunity to republish this article, which was originally released on May 9, 2024. It is reprinted with permission from Robert Bryce. Be sure to subscribe to his Substack: Further use, duplication, or distribution is prohibited without the author’s written permission.

The Sun is mainly made of hydrogen. But there is nothing new under the Sun, and that includes hydrogen.

That Old Testament reference—“what has been will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—is appropriate here because the hype about hydrogen seems nearly as old as the Bible itself.

On June 10, 1975, during the 94th Congress, the House of Representatives held the first of two “investigative hearings on the subject of hydrogen—its production, utilization, and potential effects on our energy economy of the future.” The hearing was chaired by Mike McCormack, a Democrat from Washington state, who claimed hydrogen “has the potential of playing the same kind of role in our energy system as electricity does today.

In 1996, the Chicago Sun-Times declared “The first steps toward what proponents call the hydrogen economy are being taken.” In 2003, Jeremy Rifkin, an “economic and social theorist,” published The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on EarthIn that book, Rifkin claimed that “Globalization represents the end stage of the fossil-fuel era.” Turning “toward hydrogen is a promissory note for a safer world,” he averred.

President George W. Bush bought the hydrogen hype. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, he said, “With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles” to taking hydrogen-fueled automobiles “from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.” A few months after that speech, his administration announced a collaborative effort with the European Union for the “development of a hydrogen economy,” including the  technologies “needed for mass production of safe and affordable hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles.” The White House claimed in a 2003 press release that the effort would “improve America’s energy security by significantly reducing the need for imported oil.”

The history of the hype matters because we live in ahistorical times. Or, as author Jeff Minick explained in 2022, we are plagued by “presentism.” Presentism, Minick wrote, “is the reason so many young people can name the Kardashians but can’t tell you the importance of Abraham Lincoln or why we fought in World War II.”

Presentism helps explain why, on April 30, the New York Times published a piece headlined, “Hydrogen Offers Germany a Chance to Take a Lead in Green Energy,” which ignores the long history of hydrogen’s failure to live up to the forecasts. But blaming presentism can’t account for the vapidity of the article, which hinges on this passage:

“The concept of hydrogen as a renewable energy source has been around for years, but only within the past decade has the idea of its potential to replace fossil fuels to power heavy industry taken off, leading to increased investment and advances in the technology” (emphasis added).

The idea of hydrogen may (or may not) be taking off, but hydrogen is not a “source” of energy. It’s an energy carrier. 

Hydrogen is abundant in the universe. But it’s not a source of energy. Instead, like electricity and gasoline, it must be manufactured. The most common ways are by splitting water through electrolysis, or via steam-methane reforming, which uses high-pressure steam to produce hydrogen from methane.

There are other forehead-slapping statements in the Times article written by Stanley Reed and Melissa Eddy, who traveled to the German city of Duisburg to visit a factory that makes electrolyzers. “If adopted widely,” they wrote, “the devices could help clean up heavy industry such as steel-making, in Germany and elsewhere.” Well, yes, if “adopted widely.” But despite decades of frothy predictions from Rifkin and others, electrolyzers haven’t been adopted widely because making and using hydrogen on a large scale is—as my friend, Steve Brick, puts it—“a thermodynamic obscenity.”

Reed and Eddy ignore the energy intensity of making hydrogen, only offering that by using “electricity to split water” the electrolyzer “produces hydrogen, a carbon-free gas that could help power mills like the one in Duisburg.” That’s true. But how much electricity is needed? And where the heck is German industry, which is already being hammered by expensive gas and power, going to get the juice? At what cost? Those questions are not addressed.

To be clear, lots of other media outlets are hyping hydrogen. And the hype is surging because of fat government subsidies. Reed and Eddy explain that the German government has earmarked some $14.2 billion “for investment in about two dozen projects to develop hydrogen.” Here in the U.S., the 45V tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act provides lucrative subsidies for hydrogen production. Big business is lining up to get those subsidies. In February, energy giant Exxon Mobil warned that it might cancel a proposed hydrogen project at its Baytown, Texas refinery depending on how the Treasury Department interpreted the “clean” hydrogen rules in the IRA.

Regardless of tax credits and subsidies, making and using hydrogen is a high-entropy, high-cost process. As a friend in the oil refining business told me last year, “If you like $6-per-gallon gasoline, you’re gonna love $14-to-$20-per-gallon hydrogen.”

As for Brick’s “thermodynamic obscenity” line, the numbers—which I’ll examine in a moment—are easy to understand. Hydrogen is insanely expensive, in energy terms, to manufacture. It takes about three units of energy, in the form of electricity, to produce two units of hydrogen energy. In other words, the hydrogen economy requires scads of electricity (a high quality form of energy) to make a tiny molecule that’s hard to handle, difficult to store, and expensive to use.

Among the biggest challenges in handling and storing the gas is the problem of “hydrogen embrittlement,” which can occur when metals are exposed to hydrogen. That means we can’t use existing gas pipelines or tanks to move and store the gas. As for using the gas, yes, it can be blended with natural gas and put into turbines or reciprocating engines. However, the best way to use it is in a fuel cell. And from where will those devices come? I’m old enough to collect Social Security. I’ve been reporting about the energy sector for nearly four decades, and yet, in all that time, I’ve seen precisely three fuel cells.  

How much would the hydrogen economy cost? In 2020, Bloomberg NEF estimated that producing enough “green” hydrogen to meet 25% of global energy demand would require “more electricity than the world now generates from all sources and an investment of $11 trillion in production and storage.”

The obscene thermodynamics of hydrogen can be understood by looking at an announcement made last year by Constellation Energy. According to a March 10, 2023 article in Nuclear NewsWire, a new hydrogen production project at the company’s Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in New York, “is part of a $14.5 million cost-shared project between Constellation and the Department of Energy.” Of that sum, $5.8 million was coming from the DOE. The article explained that “Using 1.25 megawatts of zero-carbon energy per hour,” the plant’s electrolyzer will produce “560 kilograms of clean hydrogen per day.”

The math is simple. The plant uses 30 megawatt-hours of electricity to produce 560 kg of hydrogen per day. One MWh of electricity is equal to 3,600 megajoules of energy, and one kg of hydrogen contains about 130 MJ of energy. Therefore, Nine Mile Point uses 108,000 MJ of electricity to produce 72,800 MJ of hydrogen, or 1.5 MJ of electricity for 1 MJ of hydrogen.

Such a lousy EROEI (energy return on energy invested) should immediately disqualify hydrogen from serious energy policy discussions. But that, of course, hasn’t happened. It must also be noted that the EROEI is worse than what I stated above because the hydrogen, once produced, must be stored and fed back into another energy conversion device to make electricity or heat. In that process, more energy will be lost.

I’ll end with a bit more history. In 2004, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering published a 267-page report called “The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs.” In the concluding section, the report said, “making hydrogen from renewable energy through the intermediate step of making electricity, a premium energy source, requires further breakthroughs in order to be competitive.” It continued:

“There are major hurdles on the path to achieving the vision of the hydrogen economy; the path will not be simple or straightforward. Many of the committee’s observations generalize across the entire hydrogen economy: the hydrogen system must be cost-competitive, it must be safe and appealing to the consumer, and it would preferably offer advantages from the perspectives of energy security and CO2 emissions. Specifically for the transportation sector, dramatic progress in the development of fuel cells, storage devices, and distribution systems is especially critical. Widespread success is not certain.”

Widespread success of the hydrogen economy wasn’t certain in 2004, and it’s not certain now. Or, to put it in ecclesiastical terms, there’s nothing new under the hydrogen sun.

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is a Texas-based author, journalist, podcaster, film producer, and public speaker. Over the past three decades, his articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Review, Field & Stream, and Austin Chronicle. He has given nearly 400 invited or keynote lectures to dozens of groups including the Marine Corps War College, Sydney Institute, Jadavpur University, Northwestern University, and a wide variety of professional associations and corporations. He has also appeared on dozens of TV and radio shows, including NPR, BBC, MSNBC, Fox, Al Jazeera, CNN, and PBS.

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