The 3 Big Problems With Hydrogen Hype
Mike Barnard wrote a great piece yesterday on the hydrogen folly. As I was going through it, and building on months (or years) of reading, listening, and thoughts on this topic, I just decided that a few things could and should be put very bluntly in another short article on this topic.
Just note that these skip the whole efficiency problem, which is an underlying reason for why hydrogen isn’t sensible on a physics of economics level.
First of all, it’s a big money grab, as far as I can tell. Hype about hydrogen, and an idyllic hydrogen economy, and green hydrogen fields forever may seem harmless on the surface. But the hype turns into something — generous subsidies from governments around the world. The hype, combined with oil & gas lobbying, leads to a billion dollars here and another billion there to subsidize hydrogen projects. Who benefits? A lot of oil & gas companies and some small-scale enablers. Does society benefit? No, not really. In fact, if those hundreds of billions of dollars went to deployment of solar power, wind power, and electric vehicles, it could go much further in cutting climate pollution and air pollution.
As Mike Barnard, Mark Z. Jacobson, and others have explained, there are places where green hydrogen is useful (steel production and ammonia production, for example), but this is not what’s sucking up hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and limiting funding for more critical zero-emissions energy and transportation tech.
The problem is that powerful oil & gas companies, through their PR and lobbying teams as well as their C-suites, are getting governments to shovel money into this hydrogen furnace. And this money comes from government spending pools earmarked for climate action that should be going to companies, projects, and technologies that lead on cutting climate pollution.
Money Grab, Act 2
Problem #2: investors are being duped. Money talks. If oil & gas majors can hold investor interest longer with promises of ponies and hydrogen pipelines, they can prop up their core oil & gas businesses even as their futures look increasingly dim. Instead of having to stop the charade, they just change scenes. This keeps trillions of dollars in the O&G column and prevents it from flooding cleantech companies that could do a lot more good with the money. 2020 showed the biggest shift out of this charade, but there’s still an enormous amount of money in the fossil economy and fossilizing index funds. And the hydrogen fairytale helps to keep the status quo.
Once investors really start to bail on Big Oil, a bunch of super rich execs and board members are going to see their net worth drop, their jobs gone, and their worlds turned upside down. As long as they can delay that with 1,000 press releases a month about green hydrogen, they are happy travelers (sort of).
Hydrogen Fooled Consumers = Inaction & Counterproductive Action
Problem #3: the complacent consumer. I was initially just going to focus on the two topics above. But I put the title for this piece in drafts late last night (ahem, early this morning) and forgot what I was going to focus on when I came back to it this evening. As I was trying to recall my two points, this third one came to mind. The hydrogen hype does also hurt real-world action on the consumer side. Many people have delayed buying battery-electric cars and have criticized them without warrant because they have dreams of driving around hydrogen vehicles that fit their current habits but emit water (which is a cool concept, admittedly, so I can see how people get stuck on it). Instead of gas stations, we’ll have fueling stations. Instead of driving hundreds of miles without stopping (as if that’s smart) and then quickly pumping gasoline into your car, you will quickly pump hydrogen into your car. Except not. That’s not happening because of physics, economics, and the fact that we live on planet Earth. But the concept has split the community of people who want green, futuristic cars and delayed an enormous amount of zero-emissions vehicle purchases and advocacy. It also gets back to #1 and makes it easier for policymakers to ignore the true solution, or harder for them to figure out what the right path is (and when confronted with a dilemma, inaction is a common response).
On the electricity side of the equation, the complacent consumer can just dream about the problems being solved by industrial giants who now only have our best interests at heart and will transform from harmful oil & gas polluters to benevolent hydrogen kings. No worry is needed — the big boys will get the job done. That means delayed action on rooftop solar power, community solar power, renewable energy advocacy, and battery storage. That means less pressure on policymakers to get down to business and roll in the solar panels and wind turbines ASAP.
CleanTechnica Ain’t No Saint, But We’re Working On It
Companies don’t spend millions or billions of dollars into a hype campaign for no reason. They do it because it works. I’ll admit that I think CleanTechnica has gotten sucked into the hydrogen hype at times, even years after first calling it out in the transportation sector. Green hydrogen hype snuck in with one press release after another persuaded some writers to publish stuff that was probably more counterproductive than productive. Projects to use renewable energy to split water and create clean, green hydrogen are appealing and convincing to many.
And, indeed, we do need some green hydrogen for steel production, ammonia production, perhaps long-distance heavy-duty transport and aviation (though, there is debate on this claim), and some other minor needs. However, that doesn’t mean we need to hype up a green hydrogen utopia that is made out to be much more than it will ever be. In fact, there is little or no benefit to such hype, while there is decent harm that could be coming from it. If you look at how much money is getting funneled to oil and gas giants by governments in order to … well … deliver on the hype and increase it, the dread of the harm starts to hit.
We have always strived to stimulate good cleantech action here on CleanTechnica. But sometimes we just get caught up in covering news that sounds cool. As coverage of green hydrogen got more common and controversy over it got louder, one thought came to mind: what good is this content doing? Publishing for publishing’s sake, or even for basic curiosity and intrigue, is not our thing. We’re in business to make a difference. What differences are we making with green hydrogen coverage? I’m not finding much that’s on the positive side. So, aside from occasional updates to show the lay of the land, we’re trying to focus more on topics that will have positive influence.
Hydrogen will still help CleanTechnica a great deal, though — combined with oxygen and keeping our writers hydrated.