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Hydrogen Hijacked

"These fuelish things," ran a headline in The Economist, referring to hydrogen fuel cells and what it termed all the "hoopla" over them. The implication is that hydrogen is not really a fuel and that the concept is inherently foolish. On the first point, the magazine is correct. Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is an energy carrier. Just like electricity, it is only as clean as its means of production; and only renewables can make it sustainable. On the second point, it is not necessarily the innocent fuel cell that is foolish, but the people who believe that hydrogen holds the magic key to a future of clean and never-ending supplies of energy that will free the world from fossil fuels. Sustainability is not that simple.

If something sounds too good to be true, the chances are that vision has lost touch with reality. Fantastic claims are being made for hydrogen. According to the EU?s high level working group on the subject, hydrogen can "effectively de-carbonize fossil-based energy carriers" through the use of technologies that "capture and retain damaging emissions" thus allowing "fossil hydrogen to be used on a large scale with limited greenhouse gas emissions." Specific to wind power, hydrogen will "open access" to the transport fuel market. It will also provide a means for "load levelling," thereby increasing the technical potential for high levels of wind power on electricity systems. Bunkum. All of it.

Now for some facts. Hydrogen can no more "de-carbonize" fossil fuels than electricity can. Producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons results in carbon emissions. If viable techniques should be found for capturing and retaining emissions, then electricity, not hydrogen, will remain the superior energy carrier, both economically and environmentally. For transport, hydrogen might have overall clean air advantages in spark ignition engines were it not for the matter of finding a practical solution to compressing and transporting the gas. Even the better efficiencies of using fuel cells in vehicles does not make that problem disappear. On the subject of efficiency, a favorite argument of fuel cell proponents is that they are "highly efficient." But even if fuel cells run at the 50% efficiency claimed for them, losses are incurred at the electrolysis stage of hydrogen production. On a really good day, fuel cell cycle efficiency cannot better about 40% -- only a slight improvement on coal. Cleaner and more efficient at the point of use they may be, but not in the overall cycle.

As to wind, much of this magazine's in-depth analyses of hydrogen myths and renewables' realities (published May 2003) is devoted to exposing two serious fallacies. First, even if dedicated back-up for wind power were necessary, which it is not, it would be daft to use hydrogen to provide it. Second, if the transport sector were to demand large amounts of hydrogen, this would not, as claimed, open up a huge new market for wind power -- a point the European Wind Energy Association makes with great force. There are as yet no economic or environmental advantages to using hydrogen in either case -- and thus no drivers to open markets for wind. The economic downside is important. Economic viability is as much a part of sustainability as the development of clean, safe technologies and secure supplies. Sustainable energy solutions are those which do not compromise the well-being of future generations. That, by the way, rules out nuclear.

So why, with all its drawbacks, and 200 years after the first combustion engine was fuelled by hydrogen, has it become all the rage? Look no further for an answer than the enthusiastic embrace extended to it by big oil and the coal and gas industries. Under increasing pressure to clean up their act, investment in a bit of hydrogen dabbling is a least-cost way of hedging their options, especially with cash handouts from taxpayers to ease the pain. It is also a good ruse for hampering renewables by distracting attention away from investment in them. For the past several years Windpower Monthly studiously ignored the hydrogen topic in the belief that common sense would prevail long before any politician got the bright idea of siphoning money from wind into hydrogen. How naive we were. President George Bush is bent on doing just that. John Kerry seemed to have similar ideas.

Freeing the hostage

Make no mistake about it, the visions being mapped out for a hydrogen economy on both sides of the Atlantic provide an excuse for the revival of nuclear and give environmental legitimacy to fossil fuels. Falsehoods about wind power?s reliance on hydrogen are rampant in strategy papers, which lack the environmental imperative that would reveal the truth -- that renewable energy, not hydrogen, is the essential fundamental of clean energy supply. The hydrogen campaign is hugely funded and cleverly managed. The money is coming from fossil fuel. It has hijacked hydrogen for its own gain, with cynical disregard for the economic and environmental downsides of elbowing renewables out of the way. To the world at large, renewables are beginning to look like a poor cousin to glamorous hydrogen, busy airing its voluptuous abundancies to entrap the foolish.

There is an upside to all this. By and large, environment lobby groups like Greenpeace, the Climate Action Network and several energy and environment institutes are rushing forth to free the hydrogen hostage, launching vicious attacks on big oil, gas and coal in the process. What a grand opportunity that presents for wind to leap aboard the hydrogen PR vehicle and proclaim the industry?s credentials -- as the leading zero emissions energy option. In time, wind energy might even open up some uses for hydrogen.

"Hydrogen Hijacked" was originally published as an editorial in
Windpower Monthly and reprinted on RenewableEnergyAccess.com with
permission from the author.

About the Author...

Lyn Harrison, Editor of Windpower Monthly, is a familiar face at international wind energy conferences and exhibitions. A British trained journalist with several years of newspaper and public relations experience, she moved to Denmark in 1982. She is a co-owner of Windpower Monthly, which was founded in 1985.

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