A luddite look at the hydrogen economy

May 1, 2023

A few remarks in this post arising from an episode of Nate Hagen’s always interesting ‘Great Simplification’ podcast, in this instance with chemical engineer and hydrogen expert Paul Martin.

A key message I took from Martin’s remarks is that hydrogen has various important uses as an industrial chemical – principally for agricultural fertiliser – but is pretty much a non-starter as the currency of a future green industrial energy economy, for various reasons connected with its energetic, physical and chemical properties.

While hydrogen is being talked up as a potential solution for decarbonizing industry, in Martin’s view it’s less a decarbonization solution than a decarbonization problem, partly because of its climate forcing effects in the atmosphere and partly because almost all of it in human use is derived from fossil fuels. A lot of future hope is pinned on using low-carbon electricity to make ‘green’ hydrogen as the medium for various industrial and energetic processes, but Martin says it almost never makes sense to use electricity to produce hydrogen as a combustible energy source, mostly because of poor energy returns on investment. It’s better to use electricity directly to replace processes based on fuel combustion in the fossil economy, like heat pumps for gas boilers and electric engines for petrol ones.

All this is quite relevant to some of the concerns of my recent writing, in particular manufactured food. The most heavily touted approach involves feeding hydrogen, among other chemicals, to species of hydrogen-oxidising bacteria, resulting in high-protein edible biomass. But to do that in a renewable and climate-friendly way, first you need green hydrogen. There’s not much of it around currently and, per Paul Martin’s comments, whether it makes sense to produce it is questionable. In sectors that have traditionally burned fuel to do a job, the new-fangled idea is to do it directly with electricity and without fuel (back to the electric vehicles and heat pumps). By comparison, in the food sector there isn’t a way of producing food directly with electricity. But there is a direct, zero carbon energy source for food – that big ol’ ball of fire tracking across the sky each day. So – farming. Not, I confess, a new-fangled idea, but old-fangled isn’t always the worst way to get things done.

The only reason it makes any sense to even contemplate a green hydrogen rather than a solar route for food production is because solar energy is diffuse, meaning that farming is land-hungry, especially if people want to eat high up the food chain, which they generally do. And the problem with agricultural land hunger is that it potentially crowds out other species – which is often bad for us, and is always bad for them.

So we arrive at this line of reasoning:

  1. Farming may be bad for wildlife
  2. We may be able to replace (some) farming with (some) food produced via a green hydrogen route
  3. Producing green hydrogen may be less bad for wildlife than farming
  4. The land saved from farming by green hydrogen food may become available for wildlife

There are a lot of ‘mays’ in that chain, each one vulnerable to the counter-possibility that it ‘may not’. I’d suggest the analogue in the food sector to Martin’s point about bypassing the hydrogen energy economy and taking the direct route to the goal is to focus on the ‘may’ in Point 1 and let go of all the other mays. So let’s farm, while trying to make it less bad for wildlife. More on that another time.

Let’s now turn from energy forms to energy flows. Life can be tough if you have no or little access to useful energy beyond what’s in the food you eat. But if you have access to too much energy – as an individual, as a country or as a species – life can also get tough for yourself, for other people servicing your demands, or for other species. So we need to find a sweet spot that works for people and other species worldwide, grounded in plausible clean energy futures.

Let’s go back to those electric vehicles and heat pumps for a moment. My household lives an off-grid but pretty high-tech lifestyle, with domestic life energized mostly by an array of twenty photovoltaic panels and a small wind turbine, along with wood for space and winter water heating from the adjacent woodland we planted (plus a bit of LPG for cooking). We have just about enough electricity from our generating setup to run a typical modern high-energy home, although it’s a bit touch and go in the winter. We don’t have enough to run an electric car (we’ve got an electric goods delivery trike, which is challenging enough to energise year-round), nor enough to run an air-source heat pump.

A lot of the discussion on the podcast focused on the relative costs of different forms of energy, in money or energetic terms. Which is fine. But I’d like to hear more about absolute availabilities or, to put it another way, expected flows. Sure, you get more energy return for energy invested from a heat pump, but if I tried to run one from my setup in the winter I’d have no energy left to do anything else, and probably not even enough to run the pump properly a lot of the time.

My bad, maybe, for running such a piffling little off-grid system. Although by global or historic standards, it’s not that piffling. And it confronts me with the daily reality of just how little energy by contemporary standards all this high-tech circuitry, battery arrays, PV panels and suchlike provides. So my question is not so much whether things like heat pumps are a good choice on a present energy price or EROEI basis, but whether they’re a feasible choice for society at large on an expected energy flow basis.

On a trip the other day, I witnessed huge diesel-powered construction machines scouring the earth and putting steel and concrete bridge architecture in place, three huge tractors in one field ridging it for potatoes, a tractor in another field spraying synthetic fertilizer and, in the harbour at the end of the trip, a ferry, cruise liner and fishing boats belching diesel fumes from smokestacks that make the one on my tractor look as thin as a hair. Plus uncountable numbers of fossil-powered trucks, cars and buses plying the roads. Non-renewable fossil energy everywhere I looked. I get that electrification offers efficiency gains, but you’re telling me we’re going to electrify all that in the next few decades? How?

On top of that gargantuan task, the boosters of manufactured food are wanting us to use yet more generated electricity to make food. With that, the gargantuan task gets way bigger still. Then there’s population and economic growth and the expected or ongoing transitioning of low/middle income and energy economies to higher income and higher energy to contend with.

Maybe I’m missing something that everybody else can see, but I’m just not finding the evidence to suggest that all this prodigious and growing energy use can be sustained on the back of low carbon electricity. Hardly anyone seems to be even discussing it. Nate and Paul Martin didn’t really discuss it, even though they’re super well-versed in energy issues – though, to be fair, Nate’s discussed it with other guests on his podcast like Simon Michaux, whose argument in a nutshell is no it can’t be. The International Energy Agency has just brought out a big report which necessarily is more upbeat in its messaging, but reading between the lines looks to me not far off saying no it can’t be too. The vibe I got from Nate’s podcast was basically that this is the big challenge of our age that we need to overcome. Well, what if we can’t?

Paul Martin made some thought-provoking remarks during the podcast that bear on this. He raised the idea that humanity has been having a fossil fuel party for the past 300 years which, he said, has released us from abject poverty and slavery. But now the party’s over and people are latching onto all sorts of foolish things like the hydrogen energy economy in a vain attempt to prolong it. Later, he admonished listeners not to be Luddites, not to blame technology or to think that there was some great agrarian past we can return to when everyone was in harmony with nature.

I think there’s some grain in these comments that needs sorting from the chaff. Yes, the party’s over, and yes people are latching onto foolish things like manufactured food to try to prolong it. And no, indeed there wasn’t some great agrarian past we can return to when everyone was in harmony with nature. But there may be opportunities to create an agrarian future that’s better than the present, a future where people will have a greater chance to be in harmony with nature than most of us today (they could hardly be less). And in that future people may be open to learning from numerous premodern pasts, many of which did not involve abject poverty or slavery (conditions that in any case the modern energy economy has manifestly failed to extinguish, and has often exacerbated).

To foster those opportunities there’s a lot to be said for embracing Luddism – that is, for assessing whether new technologies are likely to benefit in the round the people or other organisms they affect and, if not, organising against them. In that respect, I thought Martin’s criticisms of green hydrogen boosterism and his exhortations for people to do work that makes the world a better place were excellent examples of low-key Luddism in action.

But invoking the low-energy past as a kind of bogeyman of unredeemed misery constrains thinking about the future and delivers us back into the techno-fix space, even when – as per Martin’s criticisms of green hydrogen – we’re well aware of the ‘latching on to anything’ it involves. Hence, I think, the void in public culture around realistic energy futures. With our scornful view of the past, we just can’t conceive of energy solutions involving less, so we imagine there’ll be more because there has to be more. I’m beginning to think of this scorn for low energy pasts as perhaps the biggest impediment to a liveable future.

The issue of nitrogenous fertilizer touched on in the podcast is also relevant here. As discussed therein, about half the nitrogen in human bodies nowadays comes from the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis process, which greatly boosted crop yields when it was introduced. But even as it boosted crop yields it destroyed work – this ‘nitrogen capitalism’, in Aaron Benanav’s term, was, says Benanav, the major destroyer of livelihoods in the 20th century. Some of those lost agrarian livelihoods got reconfigured as urban industrial ones, but there’s no guarantee this can be sustained. And the fact that half of our nitrogen nutrition now relies on Haber-Bosch doesn’t mean that half of us would die without it, as incautious commentators are apt to claim. It probably does mean we need to rethink the nature of livelihood. And ‘abject poverty’. And Luddism. And how much energy is enough. But doing all that is long overdue.


Teaser photo credit: Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. Machine-breaking was criminalized by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as early as 1721, the penalty being penal transportation, but as a result of continued opposition to mechanisation the Frame-Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available: see “Criminal damage in English law“. Chris Sunde; original uploader was Christopher Sunde at en.wikipedia. – Original unknown, this version from (archive) Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, hydrogen economy, manufactured food, small farm future