Is our energy minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, deliberately misleading us, or simply relaying the party line when she says “although it was too early to say how much the transition to hydrogen would cost individual households, it was likely to be ‘very small’”? Where are the quantification of comparative costs and a rational analysis of practicalities? One would expect Mrs Trevelyan, as a Chartered Accountant, to have models for how much electricity will be needed in 2050, by what sector (homes, road traffic etc), safety, suitability (batteries are fine for cars but a bit heavy for aircraft) and what the alternatives would cost us. If she has, we have not seen them. During the pandemic, we have been battered by models of Covid infections, hospital admissions, deaths and R numbers. SAGE
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Is our energy minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, deliberately misleading us, or simply relaying the party line when she says “although it was too early to say how much the transition to hydrogen would cost individual households, it was likely to be ‘very small’”? Where are the quantification of comparative costs and a rational analysis of practicalities? One would expect Mrs Trevelyan, as a Chartered Accountant, to have models for how much electricity will be needed in 2050, by what sector (homes, road traffic etc), safety, suitability (batteries are fine for cars but a bit heavy for aircraft) and what the alternatives would cost us. If she has, we have not seen them. During the pandemic, we have been battered by models of Covid infections, hospital admissions, deaths and R numbers. SAGE was publishing the models and the government, we were assured, was being guided by the science. When it comes to climate change however, the science is focused on the proximity of the end of the world as we know it, not the evaluation of alternative palliatives. Government tells us not to worry, a zero carbon 2050 will provide electricity from wind farms, hydrogen will replace North Sea gas, the economy will be stimulated thereby and the impact on consumers’ pockets, whilst they have no idea of what it will be, will be very little. One could regard that as blowing with the wind.
Meanwhile, the electorate is being softened up by an immediate increase of at least £139 a year for millions of households in electricity prices. The outlook is complicated by a new era of inflation which the Bank of England does not appear to recognise. The Bank predicts 3 percent inflation which would mean that, in 2050, it would take £236 to buy what costs £100 today. Others forecast an immediate increase to over 4 percent and remaining at that level. In that event, it would need £312 in 2050 to buy what costs £100 today. Clearly the man in the street will have difficulty in distinguishing increased energy costs due to government zero carbon policies from general inflation.
The reluctance of the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to come clean about the arithmetic manifested itself in last December’s Energy White Paper. Pages 60 – 63, of this 170 page document, are devoted to modelling. Only one actual model is presented (Figure 4.1) which depicted all sources of electricity production having decreasing carbon emissions, reaching zero by 2050 – except whilst the total does indeed reach zero MtCO2e/year, the subtotals seem to add up to about 100 MtCO2e/year. The rest is motherhood about the government’s commitment to modelling, which will all be open and published (except when they will not be). No specifics are provided on the variables, their hypothesised relationships nor when the models will be published.
Although energy can be produced in other ways, the story is really all about electricity. Hydrogen is not a source of energy; it is a storage intermediary because whether it is produced from natural gas (and water) with carbon capture and sequestration (blue) or from the electrolysis of water by renewable electricity (green), it takes more energy to make than it delivers as energy carried by the hydrogen. These losses are inevitable; the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies. Its value for policy lies in its ability to decarbonise otherwise intractable sectors, such as heavier transport and industrial process heat. Its value as storing energy excesses from renewables such as wind power is overstated because the economics are concerning; very expensive electricity results in extremely expensive hydrogen.
Electricity can be produced in only two ways, renewables (mostly wind and sun) which are better termed “uncontrollables”, and controllables (nuclear, biogenic waste and other power stations). Models need to show the likely available output from controllables and uncontrollables in the run up to 2050. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) must have such models but they do not seem to have been published and subjected to independent audit. Given the lead time needed for the large conventional nuclear power stations envisaged today and the fossil fuel power stations which are unlikely fully to have been decommissioned by then, these data should be readily available. One should add the potential output of electricity from small modular nuclear reactors, molten salt reactors and from biogenic waste. Several of the small-scale alternatives to large scale nuclear should be producing electricity in Canada and the USA well before Sizewell C. The White Paper has 15 references to small modular, e.g. that proposed by Rolls Royce, and molten salt reactors. The White Paper has 15 references to the modular ones but only about research and innovation, none to their predicted output or costs. There is no reference to molten salt reactors despite the many presentations made to BEIS, nor to biogenic waste. A former president of the World Biogas Association (no, that is not the United Nations) reports that “capturing half of this waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent and generate energy equivalent to 32 percent of the natural gas used worldwide.”
One has to suspect that the government’s infatuation with hydrogen owes more to lobbying by the big gas companies, who want to produce it from natural gas, than it does to independent analysis. Unfortunately for them, the kind of hydrogen they would like to produce (from their natural gas resources) not only uses more energy than it replaces but, according to research reported this month in Fortune, could also produce 20 percent more carbon emissions than conventional natural gas power stations. Yet “according to the [UK] government’s projections, the British domestic hydrogen industry could...power 35% of the UK’s energy consumption by 2050.” We might be not only better off burning the natural gas but cleaner too.
Hydrogen enthusiasts believe that the answer lies in producing green hydrogen from renewable electricity and the electrolysis of water. This too requires more electricity than it replaces but it generates only low levels of CO2 emissions. Commercial green hydrogen plants have been announced rather than realised. 2030 is regarded as a start date and becoming a substantial part of the market by 2050 might seem a bit ambitious.
Even if the emissions problem is cracked, the inefficiency of hydrogen relative to electricity, not to mention safety issues, remain. Road traffic has been using batteries for over a century; their technology and production are racing ahead. Fuel cells are charged by hydrogen (usually) and have pluses and minuses when compared with batteries, mostly lighter weight and longer use, but can be regarded as subsidiary to the main hydrogen issues.
The only point in converting homes from gas to hydrogen when electricity is already wired in and could be cheaper, is to cope with spikes in home usage, e.g. in cold weather. And one has to worry about sending the much more flammable hydrogen down 100 or more year old pipes, many designed for coal gas. A high pressure hydrogen network would be much more demanding – and expensive. There have been quite enough gas explosions already. There has been only one major problem (in Norway in 2019) with hydrogen and petrol sharing the same forecourts to date but it is an alarming combination.
There will surely be a place for green hydrogen in the zero carbon economy, perhaps for aircraft, but it will certainly not be the saviour BEIS is touting it to be. Electricity will be used directly where it can be and stored in a variety of ways when immediate usage is not feasible, hydrogen merely being one.
What is of greater importance is that BEIS should publish their models of our electricity needs, by sector, which will be far greater than now, given a rapidly increasing population and reduction of other forms of temperature control and energy provision. We need to see the arithmetic of how those needs will be met, the alternatives and comparative costs. Those models need independent challenge to the point where there is consensus on the realities. We need a reduction in the government’s blowing with the wind of fashionable ideas. As Mr Gradgrind would have put it, “Now, what I want is, Facts.”
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