Tuesday, September 21, 2010

hydrogen zombies from murdoch hell

For those of us who generally spend too much time on news sites, it was curious to see Rupert Murdoch decide to put his papers behind a paywall. Whilst it's cut The Times' website traffic by 90%, there are those who reckon it's nonetheless increased the revenue.

But it's also stopped most of us having anything to do with The Times. Chicken Yoghurt notes the clear air and cheers on the process.

Isn’t the world a nicer place with The Times behind its paywall? If nothing else now only a few thousand hardcore masochists are having their mornings spoiled (either directly or indirectly) by David Aaronovitch’s brainfaeces. Once Rupert Murdoch finishes shovelling the rest of his offal behind the paywall we can get on with finally founding Utopia.

I had occasion to buy a paper copy of The Times the other week. It wasn't for me, it was for a friend. Really it was.

The Greater London Assembly has been enthusiastic about hydrogen vehicles despite the fact that they make no sense in terms of economics or climate impact. Even the Green members support it. So it was no surprise to see Kit Malthouse, Tory member of the Greater London Assembly, trotting out an article for the Times extolling the virtues of hydrogen cars.

Times subscribers can read it here, but you don't have to fork out a quid if you don't want to. Any pro-hydrogen article will have the same old twaddle, zombie arguments long disproven yet still they walk among us.

Fantastic news: by 2015 you will be able to buy a reasonably priced family car that runs entirely on hydrogen

Mmm-hmm. The magic switchover to hydrogen cars has been five years away for about twenty years now. Mr Donkey, meet Mr Carrot.

Nasty 19th-century internal combustion will be out; pure 21st century electrochemistry will be in.

Sexy! Shiny! Space-age! Actually, not. The hydrogen fuel cell is 19th century technology, invented by Sir William Grove in the late 1830s.

Electric propulsion is, of course, the solution. But there is a divide about how to store and release the power: battery or hydrogen?

With a battery, you charge it up and off you go. Perfect for town, where short, frequent journeys are the norm. But there is a teeny problem: instant refuelling... electric cars take between six and ten hours to charge.

No they don't - their batteries take that time to charge. If you have ready-charged batteries waiting at filling stations, swapping your empty one for a full one takes the same time as filling up with petrol, or indeed hydrogen.

That requires new infrastructure at filling stations, but not as much as hydrogen. Additionally, you can recharge your car yourself at home overnight on cheap electricity when you have got hours spare. For convenience and availability, electricity wins because it's everywhere, whereas hydrogen is available nowhere.

Malthouse deftly avoids any mention of hydrogen's cost. There's a reason the protoypes have only been available on lease instead of to buy. As Shell Hydrogen’s CEO Don Huberts bluntly conceded

‘at the end of the day, hydrogen and other alternative fuels will be three to four times as expensive as oil based products, and if no one wants to pay for that, we can't make those fuels’(1).

Or, to compare, Ulf Bossel of the European Fuel Cell Forum said,

The daily drive to work in a hydrogen fuel cell car will cost four times more than in an electric or hybrid vehicle. 

Still, at least Malthouse does mention some other drawbacks.

Don't get me wrong, there are problems with hydrogen too. The main one is that it is pretty inefficient - it takes more energy to produce than it produces as a fuel.

And the understatement of the year award goes to...

In a recent post I mentioned the way the word 'recyclable' is used to imply that a product has no environmental impact so we can just use as much as we feel like, throw it away and get more. This also applies to 'renewable electricity'; it apparently has no impact to manufacture, install and maintain generating equipment, and is freely available in infinite quantity. Kit Malthouse certainly thinks so, and it lets him off the eye-watering inefficiency of hydrogen.

But if we use renewable energy to make the hydrogen in the first place, is this still an issue?

In a word, yes.

To replace our vehicle fuels with hydrogen would take as much electricity as we presently use for everything else combined (2). Do we think we can double electricity generation whilst doing away with fossil burning? Or is renewable-electricity hydrogen a non-starter?

Meanwhile, the Tory market values championed by the likes of Malthouse will see to it that we don't actually use renewable electricity. It is, by a huge margin, far cheaper to make hydrogen from natural gas than any other source. Renewable electricity, conversely, is by far the most expensive. Unless we have a stringent big-government regulatory regime, gas will be the raw material.

Making hydrogen from gas then using it in a fuel cell emits about 90g of CO2 for every kilometre you drive, about the same as a modern efficient petrol car (3). So when Kit Malthouse says that hydrogen cars

emit only water

it's true in the sense of what comes out of the exhaust pipe, but that's because the carbon emissions have happened at the hydrogen factory. The climate, of course, doesn't care where you emit the carbon, only that you do it at all. This use of gas as the raw material means that hydrogen is just another fossil fuel.

Perhaps the maddest scenario we could head towards is shifting from oil to another fossil fuel that's just as carbon-intensive and just as scarce, which then runs out after a couple of decades, leaving us with all this hydrogen infrastructure, making us squander our electricity on making hydrogen instead of the more efficient battery vehicles.

Bank-busting, ash-spewing Iceland has started to harness all that free geothermal power, aiming to be the hydrogen Saudi Arabia by 2060.

This is hardly, as Malthouse wants to imply, a reason for the UK to compete. Exporting hydrogen is very unlikely to happen on any major scale, as it contains a fraction of the energy of oil.

Iceland may produce its own hydrogen some time in future, but that is for several reasons that don't apply anywhere else. It is not only sat on more renewable energy than it can use (a few huge hydroelectric plants and a hell of a lot of geothermal energy); it is also little more than a city state. It has a population the size of Bradford and two-thirds of them live in one city.

Even then, its trumpeted 'hydrogen economy' has been and gone several times. In 2000 Iceland was to be the Bahrain of the North and the big breakthrough was five to ten years away. In 2002 it was touted as the Kuwait of The North with hydrogen cars to be on the roads in 2005. Shell put three hydrogen buses into action in Reykjavik in 2005. Two years later, two were scrapped and the third put in a museum.

The hydrogen vehicles are a gimmick, fluttered about by oil companies so we think the breakthrough is around the corner and therefore we can carry on with our cars. The wonder is that we're fooled by it over and over.

The electric vehicle may be more efficient, but the batteries take a lot of minerals and energy to manufacture. It too is being hyped as a decoy, just the way hydrogen has been.

To think there is an easy and renewable alternative to fossil fuels is a fundamental misunderstanding of what fossil fuels are; millions of years of stored energy. We have to stop thinking every individual can have the energy needed to carry a ton of metal and glass with them everywhere they go.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

1 . Looking Ahead: Fuel Producers Weigh in on Hydrogen’s Fit in Cleaner Energy Production, Fuel Cell Industry Report, January 2003.

2.Decarbonising the UK – Energy for a Climate Conscious Future, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 2005, p74.

3. Well-to-Wheels analysis of future automotive fuels and powertrains in the European context, Version 1b, European Commission Joint Research Centre, January 2004, p50, Figure 8.4.1b.


Dunc said...

Fantastic news: by 2015 you will be able to buy a reasonably priced family car that runs entirely on hydrogen

But does it fly? Will my monkey butler or domestic robot be able to drive it? Is there enough space in the back for my jet pack?

John B said...

The only thing I'm querying here is your use of the word "friend", rather than "raving idiot who I pity", in paragraph 3.

Danny said...

Great stuff, as ever. One thing to add, though: the latest version of the Centre for Alternative Technology's Zero Carbon Britain report points out that some forms of long-distance public transport, like coaches, passenger ships, or airships(!) would be difficult to run on electricity because the batteries would need changing too often. They suggest that hydrogen generated from renewables - whilst far less efficient than electric batteries - might be useful in a few "niche" cases.

This is obviously very different from the examples in your post, with hydrogen being touted as an easy replacement for all vehicles today that will allow us to all keep driving private cars. That's clearly nonsense. The real question is: how do we get enough democratic control over energy and transport decisions to make sure that we use these kinds of technologies appropriately, rather than leaving it up to profit-seeking corporations and responsibility-ducking politicians who'll use it in whatever stupid way brings them short-term benefits (helped along by an unquestioning corporate media)?

There are, of course, lots of possible answers to this. If anyone has any favourite suggestions, please do let me know...


merrick said...


Whilst batteries drastically limit the range of vehicles, I wonder how well hydrogen would do for such things as shipping.

BMW's liquid hydrogen fuelled car, the H7, needed burned a litre every 2km, three times what the petrol version consumed.

If this is a decent ballpark, then we need fuel tanks three times the size, or refuelling after a third of the distance. Additionally, hydrogen needs to be cooled to -253 degrees C before it liquefies; making it do that takes a lot of energy, as would keeping it that cold on a ship.

The alternative is compressed hydrogen gas, which takes no energy to maintain, but has a far worse energy density.

I can't really see how the long-distance thing works for hydrogen in anything lie the way oil does, even if it is far better than batteries.