Can two problems become the solution that super-powers Britain?

Hydrogen isn’t a fuel. It’s a way to store energy.

That’s what many of our readers have mailed in. Along with some impressive detailed analysis of the energy market and grid.

The point they’re making is simple. You can’t find hydrogen lying around. You have to make it. Then turn it into the form we can move around and store. And then provide it in the form we can use to power buses, trains, ships and dump trucks.

Those are the key challenges for hydrogen, even if its potential is vast.

So, can you imagine what’d happen to the company that solves those problems? And the country that leads the world in hydrogen production because it solved those problems?

Back to the point our readers made.

If hydrogen is something that has to be made – a process which requires a great deal of energy – then it is really just a way of storing power, not generating it.

You need coal, gas, wind, solar or a number of other things to make hydrogen, in a variety of different ways. The use of their power becomes hydrogen, which can in turn release its own energy.

Hydrogen is like a liquid battery, not an oil. It stores spent energy in a way that’s releasable on demand. It doesn’t create or unleash that energy.

Which brings us to something I haven’t seen discussed, let alone calculated. Perhaps you can help me again, reader.

It’s about the energy input and output of hydrogen. If hydrogen is more like a battery than a power source, how efficient is it?

It takes a certain amount of energy to create the stuff, and the stuff puts out a certain amount of energy.

But how do the two compare?

It depends on what you’re using to make the hydrogen, of course. And how you’re using it at the other end too. As well as any storage and transport costs.

The Japanese use hydrogen to power homes, but also capture the heat the process generates, adding a second benefit.

Obviously, there are many ways to both make and use hydrogen. So my question isn’t going to have a simple answer.

But I haven’t seen anyone point out that the process of generating hydrogen is efficient in terms of energy inputs and outputs. I mean oil and coal obviously provide more energy than they take to get, otherwise it’d be pointless bringing them up. Hydrogen, presumably, does not create more power than it costs to make. Making it a battery, not a power source.

And yet, hydrogen enthusiasts don’t despair. For a simple reason. The reason we began this article with. Hydrogen’s power, pun intended, is in its battery-like potential, not its power generation potential.

Which sounds disappointing. But it isn’t. The world happens to need batteries like hydrogen, desperately.

Renewable energy’s problems are hydrogen’s solutions

Although hydrogen may be a silver bullet in terms of emissions at the point of use, the real problem is just shifted elsewhere. To the point of creating the hydrogen in the first place.

It’s a classic case of what government solutions do. If the politicians want to reduce emissions of vehicles, then they just happen somewhere else, usually in a less efficient way.

But cutting emissions to zero at the point of use is nevertheless no small feat. I mean, it was first achieved in 1842, after all.

Still, shifting a problem around is great if you have a solution to the problem you’ve created as a result. An efficient and clean way to make the power needed to make hydrogen.

And so the race with hydrogen isn’t really about hydrogen itself. It’s about the energy source needed to produce the hydrogen. And the method – how energy efficient it is.

Remember, there are many different ways to make hydrogen. Some pollute more than others. Some cost more than others. Some waste more energy than others. And some have the potential to super-power Britain.

My point is that hydrogen enthusiasts need to be enthusiasts for something else too. Usually some form of renewable energy given hydrogen’s merits are related.

Obviously, a renewable energy boom is underway, however you feel about it. But what’s noteworthy about the hydrogen and renewables partnership is that they really do solve each other’s problems rather well.

Renewable energy is not reliable and its location can be inefficient. Usually, batteries or power transmission are the solution – what we discussed recently. But hydrogen has the ability to turn renewable energy’s challenges into an advantage because its own flaws dovetail so nicely with renewable energy’s.

Overcapacity of renewables can be used to make hydrogen. Hydrogen is reliable, storable and transportable energy – what renewable electricity lacks. By combining the two, you get a complete solution.

I was going to go with a breastfeeding metaphor at this point, but thought better of it…

Turning a lose/lose equation into a win/win is why hydrogen is going to boom. It turns renewable’s disadvantages into advantages, and the same the other way around.

The Sydney Morning Herald profiled just how incredibly rapidly the hydrogen economy is developing:

in South Korea, hydrogen is already a reality. It has developed a roadmap to build a “hydrogen economy”. By 2040, hydrogen gas will account for 5 per cent of its gross energy.

The CSIRO recently released its latest Australian National Outlook report, which describes the hydrogen export industry as a critical piece of our future by 2060, and our Chief Scientist released a National Hydrogen Roadmap.

2040 at 5%? Critical piece by 2060? That’s a bit disappointing, isn’t it?

It is for them…

Meanwhile, this is happening in Britain. It’s no wonder our tech analyst Eoin Treacy sees Britain as having an edge…

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Southbank Investment Research

Category: Energy

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