Why Hydrogen Now?

I’m fascinated by the idea of reengineering our economy based on hydrogen and thought I’d take on the tough task of trying to articulate “why” today.

I’ve become a believer that using hydrogen to store energy offers us the potential to put a serious dent in the damage that we currently do to the environment through our reliance on fossil fuels… But know that especially for the uninitiated, this might take a bit of time to explain. Luckily I have a bit of time on my hands, so here goes.

In this article, I thought I’d break things out by first reviewing some of the science that feeds the concept of the hydrogen economy and then follow it up with some of the changes we’re seeing from both a supply and demand perspective.

Let’s jump right in.

Energy Requirements Driving the Hydrogen Economy

No surprise, our modern life requires vast amounts of energy and the way we generate energy generally falls into three buckets:

  1. Renewable resources (solar, wind, tidal, etc.)
  2. Non-renewable resources (fossil fuels)
  3. Nuclear sources (fusion / fission)

At the highest level, the idea behind a hydrogen economy is that for many uses hydrogen can help us store and leverage energy produced by renewable sources far more efficiently than alternatives.

For example, you could use something like wind, tidal or solar power to separate hydrogen molecules out (generally, water molecules) and then store those hydrogen molecules until you need them later. Then, when you want to create energy, you expose the hydrogen molecules to oxygen molecules in such a way that energy and water (H20) is produced. In other words, use some naturally occurring energy source to break a water molecule apart and then recombine the molecules at a later date to get some energy back out.

Surrounded by hydrogen atoms

That’s the idea, although currently, much of the hydrogen that we use in buses, cars, trucks, etc. is produced from non-renewable resources, since it’s even less energy intensive to get hydrogen molecules from fossil fuels than water. Although, absent some serious carbon scrubbing equipment, this creates the similar levels of carbon dioxide gases that are currently contributing to climate change.

And while nuclear energy is always part of the discussion as a clean energy source because it doesn’t emit CO2, it comes with tons of baggage including being a prime target for all kinds of unpredictable and nefarious things. While I get there are reasonable people who recommend we go back to putting an emphasis on nuclear power, I’d much rather see a world where we build up a hydrogen economy powered by renewable resources.

With the basic overview of the Hydrogen fuel cycle, it’s seems clear to me that if we’re going to make a major impact on climate change, one key approach would be to improve both the supply and the demand for green hydrogen.

If you’ve been following the news lately, then you know I’m not alone!

Increased Supply of Green Hydrogen to fight Climate Change

Just over the past week or two, it feels like we’ve turned a major corner recently with governments putting money towards substantial hydrogen investments. to give you an idea, here are three recent announcements:

In terms of their impact, industry players seems most excited by the idea that clean hydrogen can get up to $3 per kg of tax credits from the IRA (via Charlie Currie).

My understanding is that the current price for “dirty” hydrogen (i.e. generated from oil, shale, etc.) is around $2 to $2.50 per kg, whereas “clean” hydrogen (i.e. generated from renewable sources) is about $5 per kg. (These are super rough numbers as the actual cost depends on tons of factors, and only meant to put things in perspective). By giving companies $3 per kg to produce clean hydrogen, the price of renewable sources quickly becomes competitive with the cheaper, but often polluting, sources of hydrogen that are largely used today.

Glenn Zorpette has a solid overview on the potential of a hydrogen economy.

However, it’s going to take more than just governments getting involved in the production of green hydrogen, which is why it’s great to see announcements this week like:

In other words, if you’re hearing about the hydrogen economy in the news more lately than ever before, it’s probably because both governments and large companies have gotten serious about developing hydrogen from renewable resources at scale!

However, producing hydrogen at scale is only part of the equation. At the same time we’re producing more hydrogen, for the hydrogen economy to have it’s intended impact, we’ll want to see the demand for hydrogen increase as well.

Increased Demand for Hydrogen Products

The best use case for hydrogen is when it replaces fossil fuels, either because it’s cheaper or more efficient to use (or both). In general, I can think of three large buckets where hydrogen could replace fossil fuels. 1) Industrial uses (such as power plants like this one in Korea), 2) heavy vehicle uses or 3) consumer vehicles.

I don’t have a lot of insight into the industrial uses, although I image that what the German government is envisioning with this deal they’re doing with Canada. However, on the heavy vehicle (commercial trucks, airplanes, etc.) and the consumer (cars, scooters, etc.) side of things, there’s been some awesome news about products being developed this week:

From a consumer point of view, the big hump for fuel cell vehicles is definitely going to be the perception that the elective vehicles have already “won” the future… and we don’t really need a second solution. That may be right, although the case for fuel cells is solid:

  • Fuel cell cars have a refueling time similar today’s gas cars vs the 30 min plus for an electric vehicle… with potential to have cartridges that could make for even faster refuels.
  • Especially for long-haul, airplanes, etc. use cases, batteries aren’t always practical as you’re carrying around “dead” weight much of the time, whereas the hydrogen fuel turns into water and is gone from the vehicle once used
  • Batteries require more rare minerals and other scarce resources, which is likely to continue to keep pricing rising for the foreseeable future.

On the negative side, fuel cells require a regular source of “fuel” that require a delivery mechanism, whereas that the electrical grid needed to power EVs is already built out in the developed world.

And while I’m a fan of my hydrogen powered car, I could easily see a world where hydrogen “wins” as a storage mechanism for both industrial and commercial uses, but our consumer vehicles become powered by batteries… Much more important is that we do all we can to quickly move the energy production that powers both batteries and hydrogen to renewable resources.

Did I get some of the science wrong? Or make a case for something that’s just not realistic/true? I’d love to hear it! I’m way more interested in learning than being “right”.

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