Is Elon Musk Right Or Wrong To Dismiss Hydrogen Use For Low-Carbon Energy Storage?
Originally published on Forbes.com on May 15, 2022
Small and large-scale hydrogen projects are in planning stages, or already operating, and further innovation will cement hydrogen’s value as a niche energy component of a low-carbon future.
The context is transitioning from fossil energy to renewables. One key aspect of this is transport via gasoline or diesel vehicles and its transition to electric motors driven by batteries or hydrogen. The fossil fuel industry should be concerned about the efficiency and cost of sustainable transport, because that will determine the speed of the transition which will likely affect the decline of oil production and perhaps the oil and gas industry itself.
Elon Musk knows batteries. He builds them: to propel cars and trucks, at one bookend, to grid-scale behemoths that store and stabilize electrical power for hundreds of homes and commercial enterprises, at the other bookend.
Last week, May 12, 2022, Musk said hydrogen “is the most dumb thing I could possibly imagine for energy storage.” This is not the first time, as Musk has made similar negative comments in past years. A few years ago, Musk told reporters that hydrogen fuel cells were “extremely silly.”
The dumb hydrogen storage comment was a sweeping statement. Was Musk referring to grid-scale storage of electricity? Or to storage in electric vehicles — EVs such as cars trucks and buses? Or both?
Let’s take a deeper look at applications of hydrogen energy and its role in storing electricity as opposed to batteries.
The Big-Battery at Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia. Source: David Box.
Grid-scale storage of hydrogen.
At first sight, it appears that Musk was talking about electricity storage on a grid-scale, because he talked about huge tanks of liquid or gaseous hydrogen fuel that would be needed for hydrogen storage. Another report supports this.
But don’t forget the big-batteries that Tesla builds at grid-scale are huge also. At the time, the largest big-battery in the world was built by Tesla in 2017, in Hornsdale, Australia to store 100 Mega Watts (MW) of electricity. In 2020 it was upgraded to 150 MW.
The battery stores and stabilizes power from windfarms that are making electricity in South Australia almost carbon-free. The battery can power 8,000 houses for 24 hours or more than 30,000 houses for one hour.
But Musk might have been talking about hydrogen as a power source in cars and trucks…
Hydrogen energy for car and truck EVs.
By far the most common source of power for EVs is electricity stored in batteries.
But electricity can be sourced from a chemical fuel cell in which hydrogen reacts with oxygen in a battery-like cell to produce electricity and water. Many different types of fuel cells exist. But hydrogen is flammable and can cause fires or explosions. A fuel cell can be dangerous, especially if an EV crashes.
Hydrogen fuel cells have certain advantages: (1) much greater energy storage density than lithium-ion batteries, (2) greater driving range, (3) lighter and occupy less space, and (4) much shorter recharging time.
In a perplexing twitter comment, on April 1 of this year, Musk announced that he would introduce Tesla cars that use hydrogen fuel cells. This appears to be a clever April Fool’s joke.
“A modern car battery can store 250 watt-hours of energy for every kilogram of lithium-ion. A kilogram of hydrogen, meanwhile, has 33,200 of those watt-hours per kilo. No, that’s not a mistake. Yes, hydrogen is more than 100 times as energy-dense as a li-ion battery.”
“Battery-powered electric vehicles are phenomenally efficient. Depending on the model, they can boast a well-to-wheel efficiency of around 70 to 80 percent. By comparison, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric vehicle (FCEV) is positively parsimonious, with an overall efficiency of somewhere around 30 to 35 percent… The fact remains that converting electricity to hydrogen only to then convert it back is never going to be as efficient as directly feeding a battery.”
According to this report, the shorter refueling time is what saves hydrogen fuel cells. Present charging stations require about 6 hours to refuel a 500-mile range battery-driven semi-trailer. But Toyota and Kenworth already have hydrogen semi-trailers that can be refueled in 15 minutes. This is a game-changer for zero-carbon long-haul trucking.
Hydrogen trucks by Hyzon.
Although lithium-ion batteries are the commercial market for passenger and other lightweight EVs, hydrogen power is being tested for long-haul transport with a lighter weight propulsion system.
Hyzon Motors is a company in Rochester, New York, that develops fuel cells and builds trucks. After researching for 20 years, Hyzon has come up with fuel cell stacks that have the highest power in the world, are lighter in weight by about half, and are cheaper by half.
Pilot trucks were expected to be on the road by this year, 2022. For the smallest truck, 5 hydrogen cylinders can be stored on a single rack. A second version is designed to hold 10 hydrogen cylinders for longer trips.
Other needs for hydrogen fuel.
In the transition away from fossil energies toward renewables, there exist so-called hard-to-abate sectors that can’t be easily electrified to use green electricity.
As well as long-haul trucks, planes and ships are cases where batteries would be too big or too heavy to carry. Hydrogen contains about three times the energy per kilogram of diesel or gasoline.
Industrial coal-fired furnaces are too hot or too expensive to be heated by green electricity. In place of coal, oil, or natural gas, hydrogen can work as fuel to provide the immense heat needed in blast furnaces to create green steel. Swedish steelmaker SSAB AB is teaming up with Volvo Cars to develop fossil-free steel. Volvo will be the first auto company to test and use green steel in a concept car. Commercial production of green steel is planned to begin in 2026.
Green versus blue hydrogen.
Green hydrogen is made by electrolysis of water but this is inefficient. According to Musk, the amount of energy required – electricity that ideally should be green plus energy to compress and liquefy the hydrogen — is staggering.
Blue hydrogen is an alternative form made from methane gas. 99% of hydrogen produced today is blue hydrogen because its much cheaper than green hydrogen. But it’s a false premise when offered as a carbon-free solution to fuel or energy storage.
Methane gas is used as feedstock in the process of making blue hydrogen. Methane comes from drilling and fracking of gas or oil wells, where gas flaring and methane leaks in wells and pipelines can add significantly to global warming. So, one carbonated fossil energy is used to produce a carbon-free hydrogen from of energy.
But it’s not exactly carbon-free since the chemical decomposition of methane leads to hydrogen and a biproduct, CO2, which itself is a principal greenhouse gas (GHG) that has to be disposed of.
Between these two negatives lies a carbon-free fuel that burns to produce only water. One way the process could be improved is by obtaining the methane feedstock from biogas sources such as landfills or cow manure, for example.
Hydrogen is portable.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) pointed to another advantage of hydrogen storage. Its compact as a liquid and can be transported with care over long distances. For example, countries like Australia with great sources of solar and wind renewables could produce hydrogen by electrolysis and transport it by tanker to energy-starved cities in Southeast Asia.
BayoTech hydrogen generator in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Source: BayoTech.
Hydrogen production in New Mexico
BayoTech is a company that actually produces hydrogen fuel in New Mexico. The BayoGas Hub lays claim to a smaller and more efficient generator that makes hydrogen cheaper and with lower carbon footprint than large centralized plants that deliver hydrogen to chemical makers and refineries.
Feedstocks can be clean natural gas or other renewable biogas sources that can make hydrogen that is carbon-negative.
Three hydrogen hubs are being deployed in the US in 2022, with plans to expand the network into the UK and globally. Each of the hydrogen hubs in BayoTech’s network produces 1-5 tons of hydrogen each day. Hydrogen is delivered locally in high-pressure transport trailers carrying gas cylinders.
For their mass transit plans, the city of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois has a growing fleet of hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell electric buses. The city deployed two hydrogen fuel cell buses in 2021.
Before the on-site hydrogen generator was completed. BayoTech was called in to provide portable hydrogen in high-pressure transport trucks, which charged up the fuel cells so that employees could test out the buses.
According to BayoTech, hydrogen fuel cell buses perform as well as conventional diesel buses but with zero tailpipe GHG emissions. Advantages over battery-driven electric motors include a range of 300 miles, a refuel time of only 10 minutes, and fueling stations that can accommodate up to 100 buses.
Its notable that a big chunk of money — $8 billion — was earmarked in the Infrastructure Act of 2021 to set up clean hydrogen hubs, a minimum of four of them, across the USA.
BP’s hydrogen vision in Teesside, UK.
In 2020, bp reinvented itself as an integrated company as summarized in its Energy Outlook 2020.
Their latest renewable venture is Teesside hydrogen, referring to an industrial hub on the northeast coast of England.
The vision is for Teesside to become a major hydrogen hub for transport in aviation, shipping, and heavy trucks – all sectors where it’s hard to use battery power. But the concept would also include power for hard-to-abate industries such as cement and steel-making.
The original plan, called H2Teesside, was to generate blue hydrogen by decomposition of methane, CH4, while the biproduct of CO2 would be captured and buried beneath the ocean by a process called CCS.
The recent HyGreen addition would electrolyze water into green hydrogen and oxygen. This is more expensive due to the cost of electrolysis and clean electricity if that is used.
Bp has signed an understanding with Daimler Truck to initiate the infrastructure required for fuel cell hydrogen trucks in the UK.
The Teesside projects of bp mesh with the goals of the UK government. Combined, HyGreen and H2Teesside could generate 1.5 GW of hydrogen production and deliver 30% of the government’s target of 5 GW by 2030.
There are two big negatives that handicap the benefits of blue hydrogen and leave it with a significant carbon footprint. Green hydrogen is too expensive right now.
According to Rystad Energy, an affordable and greener hydrogen fuel industry, which is now expensive, will be too little too late. By 2050, only 7% of global energy will be hydrogen to service a niche industry for fueling aviation, shipping, and metals and chemicals factories.
Despite Rystad’s limited projections for the future of hydrogen, and Elon Musk’s condemnation of hydrogen as a storage for energy, it appears that hydrogen will play an active role in storage of energy.
Small and large-scale hydrogen projects are in planning stages, or already operating, and further innovation will cement hydrogen’s value as a niche component of a low-carbon future.