an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

an interminable conversation 12: more on hydrogen, and wondering about local power costs

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filched from an anti-global warming dinosaur – all’s fair….

Jacinta: So we’ve learned a lot about the problems with hydrogen as a potential fuel, and its problems as a chemical, in the production of fertiliser, in the petrochemical industry, and the need to clean up such usage, for example the contribution of ‘fugitive methane’ to carbon emissions. We also learned that carbon capture and storage, mooted for decades, seems to be going nowhere, largely due to its unprofitability re the private sector…

Canto: So now we’re going to listen to Rosie Barnes, of “Engineering with Rosie”, at a Hydrogen Online Conference, one of many interactive conferences apparently being planned. I’ve heard Rosie before, expressing some skepticism about hydrogen in general, so I’m surprised that she’s prepared to enter the ‘lion’s den’ of what I naturally presume to be hydrogen advocacy.

Jacinta: Yes I’m not sure I want to listen to the post-talk interactive session of this video, as I’m a bit squeamish about confrontation. Why can’t everybody just be nice and agree about everything?!

Canto: Yeah well Rosie begins with the question – which hydrogen projects should we prioritise?  And she also mentions the hydrogen energy supply chain, which is apparently a liquid hydrogen transport project between Australia and Japan, about which I know nothing.

Jacinta: Though actually we did write about this before, in a piece that now seems haplessly naive (linked below, FWIW). Anyway, the ScienceDirect website has this ‘headline’ in its overview of liquid hydrogen:

Production of liquid hydrogen or liquefaction is an energy-intensive process, typically requiring amounts of energy equal to about one-third of the energy in liquefied hydrogen.

which don’t sound promising.

Canto: But Rosie seems to think the hydrogen future is a bit more rosy these days. Another focus of her talk will be ‘giga projects’, presumably meaning ginormous projects, such as the ‘Asian renewable energy hub’ and the ‘western green energy hub’, about which more research is needed – by us.

Jacinta: So she was hearing a lot of hype, mainly from politicians, a couple of years ago, about all sorts of hydrogen ‘applications’, but mainly about ‘power system balancing’, which hopefully we’ll hear more about – maybe to do with balancing for the variability of wind and solar –  and for vehicular transport. And clearly she didn’t get it, especially in respect of other applications, no doubt, such as home heating. I mean, why hydrogen?

Canto: Indeed. She identified four red flags at the outset – and we need to dig deeper into these. First, ‘will developers keep building wind and solar if prices are negative?’ I don’t know what that means…

Jacinta: Economics is definitely not our strong suit. Actually we don’t have a strong suit. So here’s Wikipedia:

In economics, negative pricing can occur when demand for a product drops or supply increases to an extent that owners or suppliers are prepared to pay others to accept it, in effect setting the price to a negative number. This can happen because it costs money to transport, store, and dispose of a product even when there is little demand to buy it.

Canto: So it’s not immediately clear what that has to do with hydrogen, but let’s mention the other 3 red flags: 2 – will negative electricity prices persist? 3 – round trip efficiency, and 4 – the head start for and rapid improvement of other renewable technologies. Just putting those out there for now.

Jacinta: The questionable nature of the first one is – if electricity production becomes virtually free (negative pricing) then hydrogen production will be virtually free too, using renewables. I think. So the first two red flags are clearly connected. Businesses need to be profitable, so they won’t build (wind or solar) if there’s no market or if the market is saturated. With green hydrogen anyway, the production costs are, or have been quite extreme and those costs would have to come down by a factor of three to be equivalent to ‘dirty’ hydrogen production, to say nothing of cheaper electricity competing for the grid. To wait for the energy to be ‘negatively priced’ and only then use it for electrolysis seemed risky and possibly unworkable. A lot of equipment, etc, for little return.

Canto: Much of this was looking back at 2020 – not so long ago – and looking to Germany as an example of a highly renewable grid, but now she considers our Australian state – South Australia, which produces a lot of wind, first, and solar, second. Over the past 12 months, 65% or so of our grid electricity has been from renewables. Largely wind and solar, rather than base-load renewables (meaning nuclear perhaps, in the case of Germany?)

Jacinta: Yes, presumably nuclear, also hydro could be base load, as presumably it is in Tasmania. Rosie mentioned that we don’t have a lot of geothermal, and that rather shocked me, as I thought there wasn’t much geothermal anywhere, that it was one of those eternally future technologies….

Canto: The USA’s EIA (Energy Information Administration) tells us more:

The most active geothermal resources are usually found along major tectonic plate boundaries where most volcanoes are located. One of the most active geothermal areas in the world is called the Ring of Fire, which encircles the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the geothermal power plants in the United States are in western states and Hawaii, where geothermal energy resources are close to the earth’s surface. California generates the most electricity from geothermal energy. The Geysers dry steam reservoir in Northern California is the largest known dry steam field in the world and has been producing electricity since 1960.

Jacinta: Well, thanks for that. Something new every day…

Canto: So Rosie tells us we have had persistent negative electricity prices in SA – which is interesting considering that our household bills are painfully high. She presents a couple of graphics that I don’t fully understand… I certainly can’t understand negative pricing. Clearly not talking about consumers…

Jacinta: I’d like to know why our electricity costs are so high. Right now please. We can get back to Rosie later.

Canto: Well it’s a worthwhile detour to pursue, but it’ll require a bit of research. So maybe next time. So having watched Rosie’s not-so-rosey presentation, without watching the Q & A, because I tend to be a bit squeamish about that format, I find myself wondering…. there was little mention of Prof Cebon’s concerns about the questionable future of blue hydrogen and CCS, or of the problem of fugitive methane in the production of hydrogen from natural gas, or of the obvious failure in the take-up of hydrogen for passenger transport, or of the cost and difficult logistics of hydrogen compression and transport. And as to its possible use in storage, the battery solution seems more likely, surely?

Jacinta: She did point out, either in this talk or her earlier one, that hydrogen often looks like a solution looking for a problem, and this seems surely to be the case for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. It seems that EVs have won that race, and the improvements continue to be rapid. Well, we might pursue the hydrogen issue, and why so many people are hooked on hydrogen, and the details of hydrogen production, and many other issues relating to renewables, for a while yet, but let’s have a look at the cost of energy here in South Australia, where rooftop solar is very popular, and wind farms are kicking up a storm, but our electricity bills are still painfully high….


a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?


Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2022 at 6:52 pm

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