I’ve written about hydrogen (here, here and here) before and I would like to write more about it. Hydrogen is fascinating. It is a sole proton with an electron around it. Well, that’s the element, but it typically doesn’t exist in that form. Instead, it exists primarily as 2 protons bound together by a covalent bond supported by the existence of the 2 electrons sharing their electron orbitals within the covalent bond cloud.
Many people today believe that hydrogen is one of the fuels that the world will eventually transition to in the net zero world. This is one of the main reasons people are excited about hydrogen projects and hydrogen production (‘this is the future’). Much of that is grounded on the elusive quest to find some monolithic solution for the carbon conundrum. Not that the world will universally converge upon a single solution but that all solutions that are ultimately low carbon will stem from hydrogen or find its linkages to it somewhat.
But is hydrogen the future? Sure, hydrogen cars are really quick and easy to refuel. And indeed, a lot of industrial heating process currently running on natural gas can be supported by combusting hydrogen. And even better, hydrogen combustion merely produces steam, a byproduct that can be used for other purposes. There’s something beautiful about the non-toxicity and purity of the byproduct, the elegance of the molecule and perhaps the fact hydrogen is used in different processes in petrochemical industry. Hydrogen will be part of the future, but will it be ‘the future’? I think a lot more other supporting elements needs to come in place. An orderly energy transition is about proper sequencing and targeted shifts rather than trying to leapfrog or take potshots.
Over the past decades of stability, we’ve allowed the whole idea of economic growth and making money to take centerstage in the lives of the most productive people in the world. With the climate challenge, it is getting important to channel that resource and capability towards the energy transition. I’ll write more on my vision for an orderly transition from here. And if we all can align on the mission, we can start evaluating and piecing together various different routes and work through breaking the barriers and blockers. More on that soon.
I wrote about the conversation I had around biofuels and e-fuels that are produced through power-to-fuel approaches. They have rather different chemical pathways, costs and constraints. I’d really like to see someone consider the resource intensity of these different approaches. The challenge for most studies is that they consider biofuels from a standpoint of resource potential as though the agriculture activities are inert. Of course there’s the whole question of whether land should be used for cultivation of food or energy. I won’t get into that.
But I’d be curious to see if people who can organise the supply chain across the land, the supply of food alongside the supply of feedstock towards the bioenergy plants had done their analysis on resource intensity. A good comparison of the resource intensity from the water-intensity, output logistics standpoint would be really good. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged lifecycle assessment – back of envelope calculation would be helpful.
There is a view that bioresources are limited by the amount of feedstocks available. There is only this much used cooking oils (UCO) that you can convert to hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVOs) or into biojet fuel (typically via the Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) pathway). And that power-to-liquid is theoretically not limited in terms of resource potential. That is not exactly true because we are still limited in our green options for power generation and green power itself can eat into resources required by other sectors. The conversion process to fuel also requires carbon dioxide feedstock of suitable concentration as well as pure water to be electrolysed to produce hydrogen.
It’s strange to think that we can have unlimited power or that we can easily power the world – remember those times when people actually calculated the amount of solar panels and space on land that is needed to power all the earth? The investment to be made in terms of building lines to distribute power, and the factories to take that power and convert them into the fuel needed would multiply the complexity problem of supplying the world’s energy needs.
Huge amounts of subsidies goes into fuel and energy. The companies are not necessarily being the ones subsidised to produce the fuel but rather, domestic markets of net exporters tend to be protected somewhat from international energy prices through subsidies. The notion is to help maintain internal price stability and hence cope with cost of living.
Australia is one of the few markets who are net exporters of natural gas for example and yet do not really “shield” its domestic market from international price impacts. The result is that the recent price spike in natural gas had Australians screaming in pain and for perhaps the first times in decades, businesses and households are seriously considering disconnecting from the grid and electrifying.
But there can be a middle ground. Subsidies can exist for these energy exporters to protect their domestic users given that these exporters stand to gain when the energy price increase. How can they share these windfall with their own economy and the users in local market? The government can subsidise users but make the subsidy transparent. This way, households are not paying the full prices and they are also given information about how much the government is helping to make them affordable. At the same time, it becomes more politically acceptable to pull back on such subsidies for those heavy users who are higher on income brackets and can afford it.
For far too long, we shield the markets from the proper price signals and artificially create false sense of affordability by subsidies, we reduce the resilience of our economies and contribute further to wastage and carbon emissions. Making subsidies transparent is a great first step, towards removing this political gridlock around domestic energy tariffs.