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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Washing on the "green hydrogen" spin cycle

The Economist recently interviewed the German Europe and climate Minister, Anna Luhrmann, about Germany's will and capacity to wean itself off Russian energy. The interview occurred near where the now cancelled Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline hit German shores. This gas pipeline would have doubled the gas Germany could import from Russia. Nord Stream 1 already delivers 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Germany, Nord Stream 2 would have delivered another 55 billion cubic metres.

How can a person understand a number like that?

The heat energy in 55 bcm of gas is about the same as the heat you could get from 18 large (1300 megawatt) nuclear power plants. Back in 2011, Germany had 17 such plants in operation. The Germans could have kept them open and produced far less carbon dioxide pollution and not been so dependent on Russian gas. They explicitly chose to forego climate emission reductions and increase their reliance on fossil fuels.

The term "natural gas" is a marketing bullshit term for methane; a fossil fuel. As a greenhouse gas, methane does about 105 times more damage, by weight over a 20 year period, than carbon dioxide. You may have seen lower numbers than 105, but the 105 includes the indirect impacts. Why ignore them when they happen?

But as a fuel, methane is very flexible: you can burn it directly for human heating in the winter, burn it anytime for industrial heat (many industrial processes need high temperatures), use it to generate electricity, or "reform" it to make hydrogen; to name but a few.

Minister Luhrmann mentioned that in the long term Germany would be reusing its gas grid for hydrogen generated by solar panels. She called it, as is usual when you want something to sound environmentally benign: "green hydrogen".

It's an interesting label; again pure marketing genius or bullshit; depending on how much you care about the global biodiversity crisis.

Why call it "green hydrogen"? Perhaps because you have to trash so much greenery to make it.

Here's the area you'd need to cover with solar farms to generate the hydrogen required to replace the thermal energy in 55 billion cubic metres of methane. It's a square of land with an edge about 80 kilometres long.

I've been generous in assuming that you had lossless electrolysers. Electrolysers split water to make hydrogen. Typically, to get 11 mega-watt hours worth of hydrogen out, you'd need to put 14 to 17 mega-watt hours of electrical energy in; but I've assumed you had perfect technology.

So you can imagine 30% or so more land if you want to be realistic. I've also sloppily assumed solar efficiency levels in sunny Australia; so you can add another 30-50 percent more land for not-so-sunny Germany. Lastly, I've also not shown the area, or devastation, caused by the mines required to mine the materials that would be needed for the 18 million tonnes of PV panels that would be required to cover that area. And don't forget also that PV panels need mounting; probably another 18 million tonnes of stuff. Put all those panels on B-Double trucks and you'd have a million of them. Perhaps the same marketing genius that thought up "natural gas" thought up "green hydrogen".

NB. I'm not at all anti-hydrogen but I am very much pro-wildlife and anti-waste.

I wonder if Minister Luhrmann had worked through the implications of her sound bite. As a Professor Political Science, she may not have any idea about the realities of energy production.

But that square of land is only the beginning of the story of the waste and destruction behind Minister Luhrmann's plans for Germany's countryside.

Let's suppose we covered that area in PV panels. What else do we need? I mentioned 18 nuclear plant's worth of hydrogen. Let's work out how many electrolysers we'd need to build. This is where it gets complex, so I hope I get it right ... email me if I don't and I'll fix it!

I googled for "world's largest electrolyser" and got a link to the REFHYN plant in Germany; it's still under construction. Perhaps Minister Luhrmann can pay it a visit. It's a 10 megawatts (MW), 10 million euro project. It started in January 2018 and expects to be finished by the end of the year. So it's been a 5 year job, but I expect they'll get better at it over time! There are other electrolysers of this scale, but not many. I suspect this one gets the nod for being the biggest because it is expected to grow to 100MW over time. So Google's search algorithm probably picked up on the 100MW and not the 10MW. The Norwegian Nel A3880 electrolyser is of a similar size. It will produce about 8 tonnes of hydrogen daily, or about 3000 tonnes a year; assuming you can run it 24 x 7.

But solar panels can't run anything 24 x 7. But what if you added hydrogen storage? (Yes, that was a joke!).

If, as Minister Luhrmann suggested, you are generating your hydrogen with solar panels, then you can run your electrolysers about 24 x 7 x 20% at best. So instead of 3000 tonnes per year, you will get about 600 tonnes per year of hydrogen.

Remember, we are trying to replace the 55 bcm of gas with solar based hydrogen. How many of these big ("world's largest") electrolysers do we need? It's awkward because we have to convert the bcm (remember ... billion cubic metres) figures into tonnes of hydrogen. Without running through the details, that much gas has the same energy as 15 million tonnes of hydrogen. The rest is easy, 15 million divided by 600 equals 25,000. So we need 25,000 of those 5-year-project German electrolysers. They really had better get much faster at making them!

The good news is that because we are only using them for about 10-20 percent of the time, they'll last a long time. Why only 10-20 percent? Because that's how solar works. You'd mine and manufacture 18 million tonnes worth of stuff but the panels only produce for about 10-20 percent of the time (10 percent in Germany, but up to 20 percent in Australia).

Recall, that when I estimated 600 tonnes per year for a PV powered electrolyser, I calculated using 20 percent; in Germany we'd use something like 10 percent, so you can double the number of electrolysers.

The habitat required for the electrolysers is insignificant compared to the solar farms; but the mining isn't. The material flows underpinning this kind of profligate ideologically driven waste are simply astonishing.

Is Germany actually preparing to cover an area like that with panels? Not as far as I know. Instead, Germany has been outbidding poorer countries for existing gas and LNG supplies. What will those poorer countries do? Probably switch to coal. What's a few added climate change emissions in the service of anti-nuclear purity?

What Germany has been busy doing is commissioning new LNG gas terminals which will be used to switch from importing gas via pipes to importing gas in ships. It won't matter how many people suggest Germany should re-open its nuclear reactors. Neither clean air nor clean electricity is a priority for the German Greens.

And all the while, Germany keeps paying Putin; and both Russians and Ukrainians keep being killed and maimed and the towns, cities, and countryside are devastated.

Appendix: Germany's preference for fatalities over fission

The German nuclear phaseout didn't just rob the climate of foregone emission reductions; it also caused premature deaths in Germany. After the deathless disaster of Fukushima in 2011, when 3 reactors had meltdowns, Germany shut most of its 17 nuclear reactors running at the time. The increased fossil fuel pollution caused about 9,000 premature deaths during the following decade.

I called the Fukushima disaster "deathless" but that's not quite right. Radiation from the meltdowns killed nobody, but the evacuation, in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines was quite deadly. Throwing sick and elderly onto buses in the middle of the night to protect them from something that was never going to hurt them is what you do when you are fearful and deluded by decades of obsolete science and misinformation. That's kind of what happens when you study political science and ignore real science.

Appendix: Telling lies with images

The header photo for this article features 3 wind turbines, 3 PV panels and a container, presumably containing an electrolyser and a hydrogen tank. This is a stock image and one of many produced and used by people to spruik the hydrogen industry. I chose this particular hydrogen marketing image because it was particularly deceptive in showing the trees behind the turbines. Everything about the image is a lie. The sheer scale of the habitat needing to be appropriated from wildlife for so-called green hydrogen is missing entirely.

Appendix: And what about adding Wind Turbines?

The analysis above assumed that Minister Luhrmann meant what she said ... solar-based hydrogen. What if you used wind+solar to power your electrolysers? The time your electrolysers were sitting doing nothing would be considerably reduced, but still substantial; and the habitat appropriation required would still be considerable. The capacity factor of such a system might be 50% rather than the 10 percent of 20 percent of pure PV. ie., your electrolysers are doing nothing for only half their working life.

Appendix: Hydrogen background

How does that 55 bcm of gas fit into the global energy jigsaw when thinking about hydrogen? Remember, Nord Stream's gas does have to be replaced by something. If you don't care about habitat or biodiversity, then you can produce the thermal equivalent of 15 million tonnes of hydrogen with tens of thousands of electrolysers powered by renewables. Now let's think globally. There are currently about 70 million tonnes of hydrogen already being produced each year. Half that is used by the oil industry during refining. So when we get rid of oil, we won't need that 35 million tonnes. But it won't actually be available because it is being generated using ... you guessed it, natural gas; meaning it is high carbon. So we can just stop making it. But regardless of that, we'll still need the other half (35 million tonnes) which is mostly used for fertilisers. So we'll need to clean that up. As it happens, nuclear reactors can make hydrogen without using electrolysers; or they can make it with electrolysers, but with far better efficiency. They can also reduce the need for hydrogen if you think clearly about what we actually need. We almost never need hydrogen; we need what it can provide; often heat. Nuclear reactors are brilliant at producing heat. You can pipe heat around over distances (<100km) and you can store it. Storing heat is a far better way of storing energy than ... making batteries or hydrogen. But that's a topic for another post.


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