Hydrogen and the hydrogen economy

Benefits of hydrogen

Hydrogen is all the rage.

The US has announced $1 billion in hydrogen subsidies in the form of tax credits and Canada will soon follow. So what is hydrogen? And what is the “hydrogen economy”?

Hydrogen is the smallest and most abundant element. It is found in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Hydrogen is talked about in the same breath as solar and wind. But hydrogen is inherently different—solar and wind are power sources, hydrogen is power storage. Think of a bucket full of water. Solar and wind are the water, hydrogen is the bucket.

Because air and water are all around us, we make the assumption hydrogen is cheap and freely available. In reality, making usable hydrogen is very energy intensive. In order for hydrogen to be in a useful format, a great deal of energy has to go into separating it, then compressing or liquifying it.

Is hydrogen a clean fuel or a dirty fuel? That depends on where you get the energy. You can use energy from a coal fired power plant and that would make hydrogen a dirty fuel. You can use energy from solar power and that would make hydrogen a clean fuel.

What is the “hydrogen economy"? Think about the world-wide system that puts gas into cars. Companies extract and refine oil into gasoline. It is distributed around the world in tankers, then trucked to gas stations to fill underground holding tanks. As a driver, you go to the gas station, fill up your vehicles and drive away. You could call that a “gasoline economy.”

In order for hydrogen to become useful, we need a similar system—places that separate hydrogen, compress it and transport it to where it is used. We already have a fledgling “hydrogen economy.” It’s just tiny and scattered. Hydrogen is currently used to refine petroleum and to create ammonia fertilizer. Nearly all this hydrogen is created using methane/natural gas, making hydrogen a dirty fuel.

Why are governments investing money in a hydrogen economy? We have low-carbon solutions for many of our problems. We know how to make homes energy efficient. We can generate electricity with wind and solar. We know how to make passenger cars run on electricity. But there are several unsolved problems. How do you create the super high temperatures used to make cement or steel? How do you power tractor-trailers hauling freight coast to coast? How can you fuel overseas aircraft flights? In each case hydrogen would provide a dense, high-powered fuel.

There is another realm where hydrogen might be critical. Currently we are ramping up solar and wind production. Eventually the world will be divided into the haves -- regions with enough renewables to serve their populations, and the have-nots where renewables aren’t sufficient. Hydrogen could be created by clean power and transferred by tanks or pipes from the haves to the have-nots.

Japan, with a large population and small land mass isn’t able to produce enough renewable energy. Nearby Australia has sun and land area to spare. Recently, a large number of projects were announced, creating hydrogen in Australia and shipping it to Japan and Indonesia.

Should you get excited by hydrogen? Yes. Hydrogen could play a critical role in high temperature processes like making steel. It could provide the key to long-distance transport. However, every time you see hydrogen in the news, stop and ask yourself, “Is this clean hydrogen or is this dirty hydrogen, made the traditional way from methane/natural gas?

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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