Let’s not try to boil the ocean… Or the “case for grey hydrogen“

I totally get why articles like this are being published: Why the world’s first hydrogen rail may not be as environmentally friendly as it seems.

It seems inevitable that just as we’re seeing all kinds of green hydrogen announcements (Germany/Canada deal, Amazon/Power Plug, etc.), there’s going to be a focus on how our existing hydrogen infrastructure relies on polluting resources. We’re even seeing professors make the case that green hydrogen shouldn’t be used to heat homes that inspires others to tweet about how we shouldn’t be building out the infrastructure to burn hydrogen for power at all.

But I’m not buying all this negativity.

It’s largely because of the chicken vs egg dynamics of leveraging hydrogen energy. I’ve become convinced that we’ll make the fastest progress towards climate progress if we build out both the supply and demand for green hydrogen. Let me explain with three reasons we shouldn’t fear promoting grey (or “blue” if there’s enough carbon capture involved) hydrogen for our short-term needs.

1. Location of Green Energy Production.

There are quite a few interesting ideas for how we can produce green hydrogen at scale and many of the options, such as in Canada and Australia are in relatively remote locations and far from their intended energy production. By storing the energy in hydrogen molecules, (as oppose to trying to transmit the energy over wires), the energy production facilities will be in a much better position to leverage that energy when and where they need it… (as in: It should be easier than ever for a country like Australia to send green energy to a country like Korea).

2. Likelihood of substantial price decreases in green hydrogen production.

Word on the street is that green hydrogen could be cost competitive with grey hydrogen in the next two years and cheaper by 2030.

Doing things like decreasing the cost of green hydrogen (such as providing a $3/KG subsidy) is definitely going to help make green hydrogen a reality.

So, if the process of leveraging gray/blue hydrogen in the short-run helps build out the infrastructure that can be leveraged by green solutions in the long-run, I think we make the most of the opportunity.

3. Better to have the oil companies involved.

If we want to move quickly to a green energy future, it’s way more likely to come if we have the existing powers-that-be on board.

In the article I mentioned about how burning green hydrogen is a bad use of our resources, the professors seem keen on talking about the lobbying done by big energy and the cost of rebuilding their existing infrastructure for hydrogen, but far from bothering me, if feels like that just gives them skin in the game. In other words, let’s get big energy producers “inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” If that means that we rely on grey/blue hydrogen with only minimal benefits of solutions like natural gas production, I’m still a fan as it helps pave the way for solutions that are sustainable.

In summary…

There are some people with very good intentions who want to see us move towards a green energy future for all the right reasons and, yet, it seems short-sighted for them to be looking for holes in how we produce hydrogen in the short-run.

Personally, I could easily see a world a decade from now where we’ve started to leverage tidal, wind and/or solar energy to “boil” the ocean to make green hydrogen energy. However, I just don’t see how that’s going to happen without a concerted effort to build out both the the supply and demand for green hydrogen.

Assuming we want to 1) produce energy in places/times far from where it will be consumed, 2) at extremely cheap costs and 3) make allies with the people/companies who can make it happen quickly, then we’re going to need to dramatically increase the production of green hydrogen and that feels way more likely to happen if we also increase demand for hydrogen.

Our biggest stumbling block will be if we try to boil the ocean all at once… and insist on solutions that are anything less than perfect. An even better approach would be to super-charge the development of green hydrogen production would be to get cars, commercial trucks, scooters, airplanes, power plants, etc that are powered by hydrogen on the roads and in our communities.

With real demand, we’ll be way more likely to fund the entrepreneurs who are looking to build the greener solutions we so desperately need.

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