Hydrogen does not make economic sense and may never do so because of its high costs and redundancies

Ian Madsen: Hydrogen is the latest impractical green energy dead-endClimate crisis advocates are promoting hydrogen (H2) as a renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels. However, like many alternative energy proposals, integrating H2 into future energy production, distribution, and consumption poses numerous challenges.

The first challenge is production. Currently, the most cost-effective method is producing H2 from methane, the main component of natural gas. While natural gas isn’t as heavily demonized as oil or coal, climate activists still oppose it due to its carbon dioxide emissions, which require costly sequestration.

With methane out, the next source of H2 is water electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate water into H2 and oxygen. The oxygen can be commercially utilized or harmlessly released into the atmosphere. However, electrolysis is expensive due to the high cost of the equipment and the energy needed to generate electricity, even from renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro. Though some predict that H2 produced this way could be cost-competitive with methane-derived H2 by 2030, methane itself isn’t cheap either.

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Advocates argue that hydrogen could smooth out intermittent wind and solar energy by acting as a storage medium, generating electricity during periods without wind or sunlight. H2 also has industrial uses in smelting and high-temperature industries, such as aluminum, steel, cement, and glass production.

While H2 seems promising because it burns cleanly at high temperatures, one major issue is its handling and transport. It weakens most standard high-strength steel alloys used in existing natural gas infrastructure through a process called hydrogen embrittlement. Special alloys are needed, which cannot be cost-effectively retrofitted into existing systems, requiring complete replacement.

Additionally, storing H2 is problematic. It must either be expensively cooled and pressurized to become liquid or stored in costly high-pressure vessels if kept gaseous. Without high pressure, larger vessels would be needed, increasing material costs and land requirements.

Unlike natural gas, which needs very little storage because it is delivered directly from the extraction site to the customer, H2 storage is designed to provide energy during dark or calm periods, which can last days, as Texas and Germany disastrously discovered.

Using hdrogen for transportation is also impractical. Its low energy density requires either highly pressurized storage or expensive cooling and liquefaction, making it unfeasible for motor vehicles. Moreover, no existing H2 fuel distribution system exists and would need to be built along with new pipelines.

With hundreds of billions of dollars now invested in existing natural gas infrastructure, replacing it or building a parallel system for hydrogen would be exorbitantly expensive for no real gain.

H2 does not make economic sense and may never do so due to its high costs and redundancies.

Ian Madsen is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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