Yesterday I heard a major hydrogen economy research initiative described as a “Coalition of the Willing” and I now think it’s rather apt.
In 2003, under George W Bush’s leadership the US and partners, known as the Coalition of the Willing, invaded Iraq, ostensibly to destroy their weapons of mass destruction and bring democracy and freedom to the country.
We now know that the WMD pretext was a lie and the country of Iraq is a mess of sectarian violence, the invasion triggering the formation of terrorist groups such as ISIS and leading to further unrest across the Middle East.
Like the overthrow of the brutal and corrupt Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, there are positives out of the introduction of a hydrogen based economy into society. Hydrogen burns cleanly with oxygen to release energy with pure water as the by product. In industries like steelmaking and others where high heat is required, hydrogen can hopefully replace fossil fuel gases that, when burned, emit climate change causing carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the Universe, but on Earth it is mostly locked up in combination with other elements. It can be extracted from water simply by running a current to split the water molecules apart into its component hydrogen and oxygen.
The practical challenge is that the process requires a lot of electricity. Fortunately we know how to produce electricity using renewable and non-polluting sources. Impurities in water are another challenge, along with the practical storage and transport of hydrogen. There is plenty of research and development to be done.
However, there is another source of hydrogen and that is natural gas. The most basic of these is methane, consisting of four hydrogen atoms to one carbon atom. It is this carbon atom that is the problem.
Methane is a potent, though relatively short lived, greenhouse gas. It combusts with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water. The process of extracting the hydrogen from methane and other fossil fuel gases produces carbon dioxide and still requires a lot of electricity and pure water.
Here is the WMD lie of the research initiative. The proposal is to start hydrogen production from fossil fuel feedstock with truly green hydrogen as a far more distant goal. In an effort to greenwash the process, they proposal to bury the carbon dioxide using carbon capture and storage techniques (CCS).
CCS is a problematic, consistently uneconomic technology and only those directly involved claim it works. It is burying the problem for future generations and potentially poisoning the ground it is injected into, like the fracking process used to extract the natural gas in the first place.
It is widely claimed that the invasion of Iraq was done for the benefit of the multinational oil giants that stood to gain from access to Iraq’s voluminous oil fields. Likewise, this research initiative is supported by fossil fuel based multinationals to extract value out of their existing projects. Both the war and the gas initiative are the work of conservative governments with very strong links to the fossil fuel industry.
Change is hard, but the consequences of not changing are even worse. This feels like an attempt to breed better horses to compete with cars because of a desire to protect the horse industry and its infrastructure.
So just as the war in Iraq was not really for the benefit of the Iraqi people, so it seems that this hydrogen initiative may be less about helping the environment and climate and more about saving the profits of the fossil fuel multinationals.
At the end of it will we be waving the “Mission accomplished!” banner or regretting we ever started it in the first place?