On July 14, 2023, ForeignPolicy.com published an essay by Adam Tooze titled: Hydrogen Is the Future—or a Complete Mirage
Below is the World Business Academy’s response.
Dear Mr. Tooze,
With great interest and appreciation, I have read your essay Hydrogen Is the Future—or a Complete Mirage in Foreign Policy (July 14, 2023). At World Business Academy, a Santa Barbara, California-based think tank since 1986, we have intensively studied and analyzed the transition to clean energy in the past twenty years. Please allow me to share some of our insights and findings in response to your essay.
At the beginning of your article, you pose the big question: Is hydrogen a key part of the world’s energy future? We think hydrogen is indeed a, if not the key part of the world’s energy future. From our research, we conclude that the ultimate—and only—energy solution to reverse global warming is the green hydrogen economy. There is no other clean and sustainable fuel that can both generate electricity, power heavy industry and act as an efficient storage medium for all forms of renewable energy (e.g. wind, solar, etc.).
When we started researching the future of energy in 2005, nobody could spell hydrogen, let alone think it was a critical component. We now know that hydrogen is going to be required for the entire mobility sector, including cars, buses, trucks, and locomotives. For example, People think all the trains in Europe run on electricity, but the vast majority of Europe’s locomotives are powered by diesel.
You rightly observe that electricity cannot easily power heavy industries like cement and fertilizer. Hydrogen is the ideal energy solution for these so-called hard-to-abate ‘industrial’ uses of coal. It turns out that pure hydrogen can achieve the high temperatures needed to produce steel without using any coal at all. A green steel plant is now under construction in Sweden and has already pre-sold five years’ worth of steel. You write: How do you power aircraft flying thousands of miles?
We think that any energy transition offers critical opportunities for innovation. The point is: We must not just try to tinker with the fuel, we must change the aircraft itself. We have not fundamentally changed anything in aviation since 1959, when the first Boeing 707 was delivered. We are using better materials, and we have better designs, better engines, etc., but fundamentally, aircraft today are not that much different than what was manufactured more than 60 years ago. We believe that the aircraft of the future, for most applications, will be one hundred percent green and will use a lifting gas to avoid drag to propel the ship through the air using fuel cells and hydrogen. H2C is a California-based company pioneering this innovative airship technology.
Containerships can and will likely be powered by fuel cells augmented with large composite “sails.” As you mention, many people think we need ammonia as a transition fuel much—like natural gas—before we can get rid of these big polluters. However, fuel cells have an interesting capability similar to personal computers.
Nobody expected that PCs could replace the big mainframe computers. But they have because PCs can be connected in a daisy chain in the thousands and become a ‘server farm’ without losing efficiency. Fuel cells can provide the same ‘stacked’ power.
In fact, heavy freight trucks already show the power of the fuel cell. An 18-wheeler truck can be powered with just two of the fuel cells that power the Toyota Mirai passenger car. Powering heavy-duty trucks with batteries is impractical. The batteries are too heavy, the distance they can travel is too short, and the amount of time to recharge is too long, as the port of Los Angeles and Caltrans recently concluded.
There is a place in the energy systems of the future for the battery-powered electric vehicle. However, there are numerous problems with battery vehicles. We don’t have enough lithium in the world right now to make all the battery cars that are currently on the drawing boards. People think that we can start mining and make more lithium tomorrow. However, the reality is that it takes two to three years to bring a new mine online. In the meantime, there will be shortages of lithium, and some of those shortages are being filled in the exact same way that blood diamonds were filled by slave labor.
You express concerns about the “gigantic” costs that the production of hydrogen with green electricity is going to take. However, we submit that—again—we should rethink current infrastructure and not just replace one fuel with the next. Let’s take a look at the electricity grid.
Global temperatures keep hitting new records. It has already happened that consumers have been asked to turn off air conditioners to make sure that electric vehicles can be charged. What do you do when you add millions of TVs that need charging in mid-day?
The current grid is already shaky. We are not going to solve that problem by building more wind and solar farms. The grid does not have the capacity to take more renewable energy.
The entire transmission system needs to be replaced. Over eighty percent of all the forest fires in California are caused by high transmission wires. We believe that the grid as we know it is not going to be there in 10 years. It is going to be replaced by a ‘honeycomb’ of interconnected fuel cell-assisted microgrids. Microgrids use a hydrogen fuel cell to provide power when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. Fuel cells make it possible to stabilize microgrids and provide constant base power.
We should not forget that the costs of solar energy were once “gigantic” too, and today, solar is the most efficient source of energy in most places around the world. Yes, electrolysis is still expensive today. However, the price of electrolysis equipment has already started falling quite dramatically. We believe we will see the same curve as solar panels because as you build volume, the price per unit drops. And there are other ways. There is a green hydrogen plant operating in California that uses cow fat as its source of hydrogen. There are companies working on producing green hydrogen through the pyrolysis of dried wood harvested from forests.
You mention that hydrogen has a “tendency to explode”. With that observation, you follow the argument that hydrogen is a dangerous fuel. That wrong perception is the result of one very well-known historical event. A century ago, airships were successfully used for commercial travel between Europe and the United States. Until on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg docked at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey and burst into flames. The disaster took 36 lives and has tainted the image of the airship ever since.
Subsequent research has found that the fire was most likely caused by static electricity in the air or by a small bomb in the tail directly behind a giant swastika. A spark hit the highly flammable paint of the airship. It was the paint coating made from aluminum hydroxide – a solid fuel used for rocket boosters – that caused the Hindenburg disaster, not the hydrogen. The point is that hydrogen is a safer fuel than oil, diesel, petroleum gas, or natural gas. Hydrogen is lighter than air, and, in case of an accident, the gas quickly rises and disperses below the explosive concentration level of 4 percent. By comparison, liquid gasoline stays on the ground and is flammable at a concentration of just 1.4 percent.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric automobiles and trucks have been subject to extensive testing. It is well documented that a rifle fired at a tank filled with gasoline, diesel fuel, or natural gas will cause the tank to explode like a bomb. However, the same rifle shot from short range at a tank filled with hydrogen will cause a hole in the tank from which the hydrogen will be released, but it will not explode.
Ultimately, there is no human endeavor without risk. The Lancet reported in 2007 that the production of coal causes 24 deaths per terawatt hour (TWh) of energy produced. For oil, the death toll per TWh is 18, and for natural gas, 3. Hydrogen carries risks as well. However, rigorous testing has confirmed that hydrogen is the safest fuel known to humans.
At the same time, green hydrogen also saves lives because it cleans the air. In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that air pollution is “the single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being.” The organization estimates that annually more than 4 million people die prematurely as a result of inhaling polluted air. The point was underlined during the pandemic: The number of heart attacks went down across the globe as air pollution decreased.
We see the biggest challenge on the way to the hydrogen economy in the fact that green hydrogen can be produced at competitive prices in places where renewable energy is cheap, but these places—the Middle East, North Africa, and Chile—are far away from the main markets where the hydrogen will be used. More than anything, the missing link in the hydrogen economy is the delivery.
We argue that a traditional approach based on transporting ammonia as a hydrogen carrier in large tanker ships (which multiple ocean carriers are refusing because it is so toxic) and subsequently reforming the ammonia to produce hydrogen to be distributed through new or retrofitted pipelines is cumbersome, extraordinarily expensive, and slow. The planet cannot wait.
The better delivery solution is based on airships. An airship can vertically take off and land anywhere. It does not require any (air)port, and it can deliver goods straight to the destination. Airships offer the most cost-effective way to move hydrogen over long distances. H2C in California envisions a ‘Pipeline-in-the-Sky’, a fleet of 1,000 feet (300 meters) airships with a 125 to 200 tonnes cargo capacity that pickup liquid hydrogen from places where it can be produced cheaply and transport the fuel directly to storage hubs in consumer markets.
It is true that the hydrogen economy has been heralded for decades and it is fair to critically analyze the hydrogen plans and policies that are now rapidly being launched around the world. And yet, I propose that your essay does not take enough into account that a transition of energy systems also needs—and triggers—major innovation. The ‘electrification of everything’ will change many ways of production and transportation. Hydrogen is not a “complete mirage,” but rather a necessity, as we have no better way to respond to the existential crisis humanity is facing today. We are happy to answer any questions you may have or to continue this interesting dialogue.
Executive Senior Editor
World Business Academy