The European Commission presented its hydrogen strategy in July 2020. It is convinced that it will be possible to make ‘clean’ hydrogen a viable solution for a climate-neutral economy and to build a dynamic value chain for this resource in the EU. It is even convinced to do that over the next five years. The European Commission is convinced that “from 2025 to 2030, hydrogen needs to become an intrinsic part of our integrated energy system, with at least 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and the production of up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU”. For 2030 hydrogen produced with renewable energy should be deployed across all the EU. In doing so, it follows the example of Germany, which launched its hydrogen strategy a month earlier. The Commission know that this will be a conflict with the market law and propose therefore to create a value chain by boosting the demand for hydrogen that does not exist presently; this will require a “supportive framework” i.e. an imposition to the market by policy.
A false solution to a real problem
Since more than 40 years, the EU is promoting renewable energy first in supporting the development of new technologies and since 2001 obliging by legislation the production of renewable electricity and from 2009 also for others renewable energy. Since 2000 the EU and its Members States have spent more than €1 million millions to reach with wind and solar energy 2.5% of its primary energy demand. The aim now is to reach 100% by 2050. Despite a strong development during 2008-2015, investment in intermittent renewable electricity in the EU is not keeping pace. But some Member States are continuing their headlong rush towards a stillborn solution. Let’s also remind that for the EU renewable energy means practically wind and solar. For them, hydropower, which is the flagship of the permanent, controllable, economical and clean renewable energies that were massively installed in the 1950s, is a taboo subject. Wind and solar energy production being by nature intermittent, in case of insufficient demand, the excess must be disposed of by paying to get rid of it, and this cost is borne by all consumers, and particularly the domestic consumers.
Storing this excess of electricity is therefore a must, but the utopian promises made by politicians and certain industrialists regarding batteries have not and will not be kept for intrinsic reasons linked to electrochemistry but also to geopolitics, because China controls the battery market through its stranglehold on rare earths. It remains the solution to convert into hydrogen the electricity that the market does not want. This is the rationale behind the strategy: to find a solution to the problem of intermittency of wind and solar electricity.
A very inefficient solution
The conversion of this unwanted surplus electricity into hydrogen will be realised by electrolysis of water and then either use it as fuel or convert it back into electricity in fuel cells. That is a marvel: clean electricity producing clean fuel that only produces water when it is consumed. As a bonus, this will be an alternative to electric vehicles in case this other imposed strategy doesn’t work either! Let’s observe that Germany, Japan, South Korea and even Russia have just announced major investments in hydrogen-powered mobility, so as not to depend too much on rare earths and Chinese batteries. Enthusiasm is at its height: trains, ships and even aeroplanes are going to run on hydrogen. They haven’t yet thought about hydrogen-powered bicycles and trotinettes, but it won’t be long before they do!
This goes far beyond the utopia of biofuels at the beginning of the 2000s, imposed by the EU despite common sense and scientific data, and whose echo of failure remains very discreet. In 2008, the EU had decreed a 10% production of biofuels for transport by 2020 but in 2018, the same EU decided to move from a “minimum” to a “maximum”. They could not ban it despite the negative impact on the environment because their 2008 directive had led industrialists to invest in the sector. So, we continue to subsidise a production that is bad for the environment. With the new hydrogen strategy, we are rushing towards the same failure and the same waste of subsidies because it is totally inefficient from an energy point of view.
Here is the proposed mechanism:
- Produce intermittent and therefore sometimes excess electricity using wind and solar power.
- Transform this electricity into hydrogen by electrolysis of water.
- Compress or liquefy the hydrogen to store and transport it.
- Burning it to produce electricity.
None of these steps require new technology, they just need the investment to be realised. But industrial chemical processes are never 100% efficient. Step 2 is at best 80% efficient, and step 3 is 70% efficient. Step 4 with fuel cells – an expensive technology that is not yet mass-produced despite 30 years of public support in the EU and the USA – is 50% efficient today. The efficiency of the whole process is therefore 0.80 x 0.70 x 0.50 = 0.28. Of the 100 units of energy produced by wind turbines or solar panels, not even 30% remains. The process is totally inefficient and therefore will not have any industrial application without subsidies. The inefficiency is, of course, translated into a higher cost.
An old dream
Hydrogen is a fascinating topic and therefore we should not be surprised that it has been looked for for decades. The first reference to hydrogen that I found dates back to 1972, i.e. before the first oil crisis. It was a report of the Research Center of the European Commission. The idea was, at a time of enthusiasm for nuclear power, to use high-temperature nuclear reactors to break the water molecule. This is still a possibility today by using a very high temperature reactor (VHTR) and may one day be a solution, but we are far from this possibility. Moreover, with the anti-nuclear sentiment in the EU, if it becomes an economic reality, it will be outside the EU.
A long article by Giorgio Beghi, an official of the Research Centre of the European Commission, published in the 1979 Belgian Journal of Engineers (#2, p. 11) present the fascinating solution that hydrogen will offer to the modern society. Heed that at that time there was no climate change policy. This official of the EU explained that “the coupling between combustion engines and hydrogen as a fuel goes back a long time, almost to the origins of engine development. There were no industrial applications, but the first inventors and technicians working on engines integrated hydrogen into their studies: in the 19th century there were already a few examples of this and there is talk of patents for engines capable of running on hydrogen as early as 1854”. Beghi was heralding with scientific arguments the same promises then as now, with the same conditionals. I will quote just one sentence that speaks for itself: “For air transport, the prospects are very encouraging and the energy density by unit of weight – the interesting parameter in this case – is much higher for hydrogen than for other possible solutions. Experimental realisations can be envisaged in the 1990s. ”
When I was in charge of turning coal into liquid (to produce chemical raw materials and petrol) – because we were scared with the coming end of oil! – I did a lot of work on hydrogen, an essential element for producing synthetic fuels. Then, with the oil counter-shock, the dream of hydrogen faded but did not disappear completely.
It came back in force in 2003, when President George W. Bush and the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, signed a cooperation agreement on the development of a hydrogen economy, accompanied by an agreement for cooperation in the field of fuel cells. The press release announced, “Hydrogen and fuel cells […] are key to achieving the EU objective of replacing 20% of vehicle fuels with alternative fuels by 2020, including hydrogen”. On 16-17 June 2003 450 enthusiast delegates participated to a US-EU conference. But politicians don’t care about chemistry, for them, where there is a will, there is a way. But then what about hydrogen? Political propaganda, dreams and nothing else.
Hydrogen, a corner stone for the chemical industry
Hydrogen does not exist in nature (there are only marginal resources). It must then be manufactured by the chemical industry. This chemical substance is produced from natural gas in a common and worldwide spread process called “steam cracking”. The steam reacts with methane to produce hydrogen and CO2. 85% of the world’s hydrogen is produced by this reaction.
CH4 + 2H2O ➔ 4 H2 + CO2
The other 15% is mainly a by-product of chlorine and soda production from the electrolysis of sodium chloride (NaCl).
This molecule is hugely important in the petrochemical and related chemical industries, it is used to remove sulphur from crude oil to produce sulphur-free fuels for the transport system. But its main use is for the production of ammonia, which is used in the production of fertilisers. With a growing world population, the demand for hydrogen for the production of agricultural fertilisers will grow in line with food needs. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), EU economies currently use up to ten times as much fertiliser as developing economies on a per capita basis. This underscores huge potential for hydrogen growth worldwide. This basic molecule, which is already highly sought after, will become increasingly sought after. Thanks to this real surprise in the geopolitics of energy that is natural gas, its global market is increasingly competitive and fluid, which will result in a reduction in its price on international markets. We must therefore anticipate a decrease in the production price of hydrogen, on the one hand, because the primary product will be cheaper and because the market is expanding.
Whatever the EU policy, hydrogen will be produced worldwide by the cheaper technology i.e. with the abundant and cheap natural gas. Since a product can only have one price in an open market, “renewable” hydrogen will have to be subsidised as long as natural gas is available, i.e. for at least a century. Of course, some EU industries will benefit from the windfall of the hydrogen strategy – understand the manipulation of the market by politics – as others did in the biofuels era; they will benefit from guaranteed prices and a green image, of course, at the expense of taxpayers/consumers. It is therefore not surprising that on March 10 this year they entered an alliance with the European Commission, as others did for batteries and biofuels.
Moreover, hydrogen is essential for the petrochemistry but it is not for energy use especially since the subsidised hydrogen is produced from energy. Therefore – unless you want to create a vast smuggling market – hydrogen will to be used in chemistry and not as a fuel because – obviously – it has a much higher value as a chemical feedstock than as a fuel. Burning hydrogen to generate energy when hydrogen has been produced by energy is like keeping oneself warm burning Louis Vuitton handbags. Inevitably, any hydrogen produced will end up in chemistry and not in a motor vehicle.
That the rich EU thinks about it is tolerable, but that the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) says that this is “a strategic opportunity to green the global recovery” is unacceptable for an international institution when it knows full well that only 35% of Africans are connected to the electricity grid; the urgency should be to electrify Africa and not to produce hydrogen when there is such a shortage of electricity. It is absurd, it is unworthy, it is ethically unbearable.
Russia’s Gazprom is said to investigate thermal methane pyrolysis. They announced – with a lot of conditionals and very little scientific literature – that they can produce hydrogen and carbon thanks to the use of plasma. If the process is not producing CO2, it will produce carbon black that will hardly find a market if the hydrogen production build-up. But it remains the hard fact that we stated at the beginning: multiplication of inefficient process leads to a total inefficient process. Gazprom’s avowed goal is to reduce CO₂’s emissions of the gas they want to sell to Germany by injecting hydrogen into the natural gas pipeline. By doing this they will decrease the calorific value of the gas sold because the calorific value of methane is higher than that of hydrogen and all this for a limited reduction of CO₂ emissions because there are many reasons why large quantities cannot be injected. In any case, this will not happen because it would be adding a high value-added product (produced from methane!) into cheap methane. It would be like adding Clos Vougeot to discount wine to better dispose of it, which is rather surreal.
Often in life, when we do one thing wrong, we do another in order to hide the first. That is what happens with hydrogen. It is appalling to see the green stubbornness and indoctrination into which European politicians have fallen.
Scientists and engineers should always be open to new solutions and believe in technological progress. On existing process, it is still possible to improve marginally the efficiency and therefore the economy. But in the case of hydrogen It has been so long since we have known the whole circumference of the question that to believe benevolently in a dramatic improvement in efficiency is not a sign of wisdom. What the EU is promising in this area is nothing more than tax expenditure for a solution that no one in the world will adopt.
Samuele Furfari’s latest work is a 1200-page, two-volume book “The changing world of energy and the geopolitical challenges“. See furfari.wordpress.com