The Daily Caller (DCNF) recently posted an article by contributor John Hugh DeMastri describing significant issues likely to limit the effectiveness of the Biden administration’s plans to invest up to $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to “green hydrogen.” DCNF’s analysis correctly concludes that green hydrogen is expensive and adds complexity to power generation that makes little sense when other fuels are available.

The Department of Energy (DOE) says they will develop green hydrogen infrastructure with a “demand side support mechanism,” which they say will “provide multi-year support for clean hydrogen produced by competitively selected projects,” which are affiliated with the DOE-supported Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs.

Hydrogen fuel itself is not new, it can be made from natural gas or methane, but “green” hydrogen, as opposed to other methods of generating hydrogen, uses only renewables like wind or solar to convert water into hydrogen for fuel.

In the DCNF article, “Biden’s Billion Dollar Hydrogen Program Makes No ‘Economic Or Common Sense,’ Industry Experts Say,” various energy sector experts explain why, despite the technology’s long existence, it hasn’t found large scale commercial success. 

From the post:

The process of manufacturing green hydrogen — known as electrolysis — converts water into hydrogen using renewable power, and the hydrogen it generates is nearly 14 times as expensive as natural gas to generate the same amount of power, Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment told the DCNF.

While proponents of green hydrogen “envision massive facilities” using electrolysis, such facilities are not cost-effective, Jonathan Lesser, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute studying energy, told the DCNF. In addition, hydrogen is difficult to transport, because it can damage the steel used in existing oil and gas pipelines and has the potential to leak, creating an explosion risk, said Lesser.

Lesser told DCNF that there are no large-scale power plants that use green hydrogen because it is prohibitively expensive, and because hydrogen’s low density means it requires much more storage space than other fuels. In addition, electrolysis requires larges volumes of water.

Lesser is correct. While the calorific value (energy content) of hydrogen is high by mass, it is very low by volume because of the low density of the fuel. In fact, The Engineering Toolbox reports that hydrogen has a gross calorific value of only 341 BTU/ft3, compared to natural gas at 1090 BTU/ft3. In other words, natural gas by volume has three times the energy content of hydrogen.

This is a similar issue with biofuels like ethanol, or wood-pellet biomass, as explained in several Climate Realism posts, here and here, for instance, where their low energy density makes them poor substitutes for fuels like natural gas and coal.

Additionally, the pipeline issue has already become a stumbling block. The extent of existing hydrogen pipelines is limited and existing natural gas pipelines cannot, in their current state, carry hydrogen. The DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies office describes a few issues with using existing natural gas pipelines:

  • The potential for hydrogen to embrittle the steel and welds used to fabricate the pipelines
  • The need to control hydrogen permeation and leaks
  • The need for lower cost, more reliable, and more durable hydrogen compression technology.

Existing pipelines would need to be altered to accommodate widespread hydrogen use. The DOE says that while a mixed gas like methane + hydrogen would require only “modest” modifications, a pure green hydrogen pipeline “may require more substantial modifications.”

For example, since hydrogen is a much smaller molecule than methane, existing pipelines would likely suffer far more leaks carrying pure, pressurized hydrogen. Add that to the fact that hydrogen is highly explosive, and there is an added safety hazard with widespread hydrogen use.

Since hydrogen fuel is already so much more expensive than natural gas to make the same amount of power, these investments would substantially increase energy costs. 

DCNF reports in the article that Energy Secretary Granholm said that the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment funds would clear up “market uncertainty” that “too often delays progress” on green hydrogen projects. That is, the government will use tax dollars to make sure it is implemented even though it makes no economic sense and is, in fact, a net economic loss. So much for waiting for demand to motivate green hydrogen adoption, its supply side all the way.

The Biden administration expects green hydrogen will be able to replace natural gas in home use and transportation, as well as provide backup electricity for when solar and wind fail.

Expanding green hydrogen to all those functions is unreasonable, because if land-hungry sources like wind and solar are used to power electrolysis to generate green hydrogen, and hydrogen power is supposed to provide backup electricity for when wind and solar don’t work, there would need to be a massive expansion of wind and solar. Expanding it to every home will require retrofitting the pipes into every home and to every appliance using the fuel.

Climate Realism has described the issues with just expanding wind for electricity generation on its own, here, here, and here, for example. If solar is used for the hydrogen generation, the best regions of the world for solar, like the American Southwest, also happen to be the ones that struggle with water issues, which green hydrogen production would surely exacerbate.

Hydrogen burns clean, with only water as its output, and is already widely used in industrial applications, but when it is made “green” it suffers from high costs, complex infrastructure, and limited usefulness, the same as other green tech. The Biden administration seems to be hoping that subsidizing the technology enough will make the issues disappear. However, like The Daily Caller correctly explains, there are more than just price tag issues holding mass expansion of green hydrogen use back.

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