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John Constable: Why Europe’s ‘Green’ Hydrogen Hype Is Likely To Flop

July 8, 2020

By Paul Homewood


A timely intervention by Dr John Constable:



Hydrogen is dangerous; hydrogen is safe; hydrogen is cheap; hydrogen is very expensive; hydrogen is old hat; hydrogen is the future. Hydrogen is… all things to all men, and every one of these contradictory claims is more or less true from some perspective. Whatever hydrogen is, it is a very buoyant gas and makes for the perfect climate political football. Indeed, the authentic promise of hydrogen is rapidly becoming the victim of failing green policies.

As renewables run into the thermodynamic sands all over the world, desperate advocates are covering up their disastrously bad advice by calling for still more ambitious, Net Zero emissions targets. To make these extreme demands look plausible hydrogen is invoked as an energy carrier for those sectors where it is most difficult to create the appearance of decarbonisation.

The United Kingdom is a good example of the emerging European approach. The UK is planning to burn hydrogen rather than natural gas to generate electricity to balance and secure the unstable wind and solar system created by $12 billion a year in subsidy. Hydrogen will replace diesel for agricultural traction and for trucks, and will supply almost all industrial process heat. Converted to ammonia, hydrogen will replace bunker fuels for marine transport. And to ensure that domestic households don’t resort to resistive electric heating when their Ground and Air Source Heat Pumps fail to deliver on the coldest days of the year, every house will have a back-up hydrogen fuelled boiler.

For climate policy makers suffering from Net Zero headaches hydrogen is the universal aspirin. Take as many as you need, and lie down in a darkened room until the news cycle moves on.

But this desperate face-saving haste means that hydrogen must be generated by two relatively unsophisticated commodity production processes, namely the electrolysis of water and the chemical reforming of natural gas using steam (Steam Methane Reforming). Both processes are acceptable if hydrogen is required for niche and non-energy purposes, but it is a plain foolish to suggest using them for the production of hydrogen as a society-wide energy carrier. There are four principal disadvantages.

Firstly, the costs will be huge. Steam Methane Reformers and electrolysers are expensive to build and to run, and electrolysers at least do not have long plant lives, implying a short capital refreshment cycle. To this we can add the replacement of end conversion devices and the establishment of hydrogen infrastructure, pipelines, and storage systems ranging from tanks to salt caverns.

Secondly, due to conversion and storage losses, hydrogen from electrolysis and SMR can never in principle compete economically with its own input fuels. The consumer will always be better served by using the electricity and natural gas directly. Consequently, there will be substantial competitive advantages for economies that do not hobble themselves with hydrogen.

Thirdly, Steam Methane Reforming emits large quantities of carbon-dioxide, compromising any Net Zero target unless the SMRs are equipped with Carbon Capture and Sequestration, which is expensive and currently unavailable at scale. Indeed, what the current hype around hydrogen reveals is that the global Net Zero targets are in fact critically dependent on methane – the UK plans to derive 80% of its annual 270 TWh of hydrogen from SMRs – and are therefore a gamble on Carbon Capture. But if CCS becomes viable, which is possible, it will be more effective to use the methane directly in Combined Cycle Gas Turbines with CCS, and supply the consumer with electricity, and there would be no reason to make hydrogen, with all its attendant costs, problems and dangers.

Finally, the production of hydrogen from both electrolysis and SMRs uses large quantities of clean, fresh water. The UK’s current hydrogen target would increase national water consumption by between 1 and 2 percent at a time when climate policy advisors are themselves predicting a constrained fresh water supply, with deficits in a quarter of the country’s resource zones towards mid-century.

This is clearly bad hydrogen. Is there a good hydrogen? Perhaps. As long ago as the early 1970s the physicist Cesare Marchetti, then EURATOM, persuaded the Japanese government that hydrogen might have a future as a universal energy carrier if it was generated from a very high quality energy source, such as high temperature nuclear reactors, and through the thermal decomposition of sea-water in the presence of a suitable catalyst. Japan continues to work quietly on this. But the nuclear and chemical engineering problems are of the first order, and results will not come quickly. But at least the concept has authentic physical promise.

Indeed, it is perhaps the only fossil-free energy future that also preserves human well-being. Those jeopardising that future by forcing rapid and sub-optimal adoption of hydrogen in order to prolong the current mal-engineered renewables farce should hang their heads in shame.

For more information about the cost, benefit and limits of hydrogen see John Constable’s new report Hydrogen: The Once And Future Fuel (pdf)

Constable neatly sums up the real reason behind the new found fervour for hydrogen. It is not because hydrogen has anything going for it. It is because the EU has boxed itself into a corner with its disastrous and ill thought out decarbonisation agenda.

Reality has finally dawned that renewable energy cannot do the heavy lifting, and now they have nowhere else to turn.

It reminds me of that song, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly!”

  1. July 8, 2020 8:29 pm

    The fact that H2 is highly combustible, difficult and dangerous to store, should be a warning that ‘Green’ can also be ‘Red’. What could go wrong? Watch footage of the last voyage of the Hindenburg airship and you will see why, in a very dramatic demonstration!

    If you want ‘clean’ energy from hydrogen, there is only one way and that is by nuclear fusion.

    • El Toro permalink
      July 8, 2020 9:19 pm

      Fusion: the hope of free electricity in the 1950s and ever since. We’re told it’s still a decade or two away. Remember the Zeta experiment in 1957? Fusion’s been gobbling up taxpayers’ cash in several countries ever since!

      • sarastro92 permalink
        July 9, 2020 7:12 pm

        You’re out of step Toro. Tokamaks designs are a dead end. But there are other configurations, such as Dense Plasma Focus, have already achieved two of three Lawson Criteria. Using hydrogen-boron fuel, such reactors can achieve fusion reactions without any ionizing radiation.

        See for details. The company is privately funded.

  2. Stuart Brown permalink
    July 8, 2020 9:13 pm

    “…due to conversion and storage losses, hydrogen from electrolysis and SMR can never in principle compete economically with its own input fuels. The consumer will always be better served by using the electricity and natural gas directly. Consequently, there will be substantial competitive advantages for economies that do not hobble themselves with hydrogen.”

    That alone is reason enough. What does hydrogen add to the equation?

    • Curious George permalink
      July 8, 2020 9:42 pm

      Purely theoretically, it can serve as an energy storage for intermittent over-generation. Does it make sense economically? I am skeptical.

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 8, 2020 11:48 pm

        No. If you look at the storage issue, you have to build 30-60TWh of storage, much of which would only be used when you get an exceptionally poor year for renewables, yet it would have to be kept topped up every year just in case next year is the bad one – you can’t top it up the week before! Another large chunk covers the inter-seasonal storage requirements, and basically only gets turned over once a year. That means there has to be a huge premium to pay for these long term stores. Only a limited tranche of storage gets turned over more frequently, dealing in normal weather variations, or simply covering the daily and weekly oscillations in demand. In the UK, natural gas storage has been closing (e.g. Rough, the former gas field) because it can’t be operated economically, despite the huge seasonal variations in UK gas demand and occasional dramatic peak requirements (think Beast from the East).

        Intermittent generation using stored hydrogen is no more than 50% efficient. So for every TWh you need to redeliver, you must store 2TWh. But in order to make it, you are dealing with an inefficient, intermittently operated electroylsis process. Intermittent operation poisons the electrodes and cells, meaning shorter life. There is a minimum throughput current for effective operation too (although obviously this can be to some extent circumvented by splitting production into smaller units). But intermittent generation produces another side effect: very low plant utilisation factors.

        I did some back of envelope sums, using data for UK generation in April. It is summarised in this table:

        A full seasonal or multi year analysis produces even more dramatic results.

        This chart gives a feel for the implications on plant utilisation:

        Capacity you don’t build because it would be used too rarely implies surplus generation that still has to be curtailed.

        What you are left with is a system where it would be much cheaper simply to curtail anyway, and spend the saving on dispatchable alternative generation.

        Another exploration of the issue I did a couple of years back was this, which Euan Mearns hosted:

        That gives a simple insight into the seasonal issues, as well as the trade offs between storage, curtailment and a sensible generation portfolio. Bear in mind that with hydrogen we are looking at a much less efficient round trip than batteries or pumped hydro.

      • Joe Public permalink
        July 9, 2020 11:12 am


        “In the UK, natural gas storage has been closing (e.g. Rough, the former gas field) because it can’t be operated economically …”

        Rough had been used successfully for storage for 30 years, which is a damn-sight longer than even current batteries will manage. 😉

        Post-Rough OFGEM GB Gas Storage Facilities Aug 2018:

        1.696 bcm; 18,656 GWh; with a daily draw-off capability of 1,518 GWh (63.25GW)

        Click to access 181207_storage_update_website.pdf

        Rather than more closures, there are proposals to significantly increase capacity. National Grid’s November 2017 ‘Gas Ten Year Statement 2017′ – proposals – for an additional 95,700 GWh.

        See TableA4.4 Proposed storage projects’, page 150

        NB Those energy storage values are for Natural Gas. They must be reduced by 70% for Hydrogen because H2 has a considerably lower volumetric calorific value. [Gross Calorific Value of hydrogen is 11.88 MJ/m3 (3.3kWh/m3) vs 37.5 MJ/m3 to 43.0 MJ/m3 (approx 11.1kWh/m3) for Nat Gas]

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 9, 2020 12:21 pm

        It is perhaps worth pointing out that most of the Rough storage facilities were essentially free. Platform, wells, pipelines, storage space all came with the end of field production. Only onshore compressors to pump gas to the field were needed. Also not factored in is a 15% loss of gas in storage, which would likely be higher for hydrogen. There’s the heel storage to account for.

        Perhaps the biggest killer of seasonal economics has been the ready availability of LNG that can be routed to where the demand is from anywhere around the world pretty much.

  3. Phillip Bratby permalink
    July 8, 2020 9:46 pm

    Unfortunately we are governed by idiots who have no understanding of science or technology.

  4. Mack permalink
    July 8, 2020 10:40 pm

    Look, if anyone in authority was seriously worried by Co2 emissions, we would be all be going full nuclear.

    Running with, finessing and expanding the 24/7 systems that have worked reliably for decades and investing heavily in research in to the designs of the potential SMRs of the future would seem to solve the ’emissions’ issue and, potentially, provide financial efficiency at scale.

    The fact that we’re mucking about with non and very expensive solutions to, arguably, a non problem, would seem to indicate that tackling Co2 emissions is merely a fig leaf to cover something much more sinister: the radical re-ordering of society.

  5. StephenP permalink
    July 9, 2020 7:27 am

    The last line of the song, I know an old woman who swallowed a fly, is “She’s dead of course”.

  6. Dan permalink
    July 9, 2020 7:44 am

    “because the EU has boxed itself into a corner with its disastrous and ill thought out decarbonisation agenda.”

    We nothing of the sort was said. What was said
    “The United Kingdom is a good example of the emerging European approach. The UK is planning to burn hydrogen rather than natural gas to generate electricity to balance and secure the unstable wind and solar system created by $12 billion a year in subsidy.”

    • July 9, 2020 9:57 am

      Precisely my point!

      Because it has boxed itself into a corner, the EU (incl UK) are now having to go to even more extreme lengths to meet its own targets

      • Dan permalink
        July 9, 2020 11:04 am

        Ok thanks for the clarification.

  7. July 9, 2020 8:41 am

    Interesting that there is such a drive to push this difficult to handle substance when the main product of buring it is water vapour, the MAIN greenhouse gas ( in terms of quantity and effect, not that the unproven greenhouse effect can be more than 5% of the total heat flux) Strange that the feckless and hapless products of an arts education do not seem to have a problem with that but then this was never about the climate and certainly never about science.

  8. MrGrimNasty permalink
    July 9, 2020 9:24 am

    It’s official the MO/WMO/BBC are in cahoots.

    30 years of non-summer warming according to WUWT.

    It’s difficult to know where to start, I could say a lot about UHI/hotsites, why they started in 1950, the number of thermometers/chances of catching a 30C day, the political arbitrary nature of +1.5C, decadal ‘batching’, how no one knows what the temperature of the globe was ‘pre-industrial’ (ocean temps. for a start) even if it is a valid concept………

    • Gerry, England permalink
      July 9, 2020 3:17 pm

      I note that they have allowed 0.2C for UHI and subtracted that. Funny how I have seen a change of 5C driving out of the south London suburbs to my corner of Surrey.

  9. ianprsy permalink
    July 9, 2020 9:35 am

    Still, we’ll all be £20/year better off soon. Time to think about how to spend it!

    One ungrateful commenter, though:

    25 BILLION POUNDS??? In order for ppl to ‘save’ a measly 20 quid – a YEAR?!!! Seriously, what’s the point? If things are in that bad a state then a revolution would actually be a better idea.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      July 9, 2020 1:28 pm

      It’s just desperation, to delay increasing ‘green’ costs affecting consumer electricity prices even more than they already have. When the suppliers have no profit (or investor worthy margin) left to cut into, the muck will hit the windmill and consumer prices will go exponential.

  10. Vernon E permalink
    July 9, 2020 10:26 am

    I am in almost total agreement with arguments against hydrogen versus methane (natural gas) with two exceptions. Firstly, its not all that difficult to handle at medium pressures – remember our old town gas used for many years was half hydrogen. Secondly, carbon capture is not all that impractical in conjunction with steam reforming, the point being that the gas is concentrated, not diluted with times its own volume of nitrogen which is the case in power generation (which makes it impossible).

    • ianprsy permalink
      July 9, 2020 10:41 am

      As the gas companies found out when switching to natural gas, coal gas was wet and had self-sealing properties.

  11. Malcolm Chapman permalink
    July 9, 2020 11:07 am

    I think the concentrated scientific stupidity of our political classes is finally trapped in this hydrogen bubble. They thought they could have ‘clean electricity’ (nice cars with no nasty exhaust pipes emitting ‘carbon’ [sic]). Then when they worked out that somebody would need to make the nasty electrisical, hydrogen came along to rescue them. Water is half hydrogen, did you know that? Endless, cheap renewable fuel. Let them work it out. Thermodynamics rules, in the end.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      July 9, 2020 3:28 pm

      Lets’ see….reduce the return for investors and ask people to invest more. Obviously the head of Ofgem has never run a business.

  12. jack broughton permalink
    July 9, 2020 12:27 pm

    As Mr.Public noted, the UK now has a historically low level of natural gas storage. The Rough field used to store 3650 million m3 and was by a long way our biggest storage. According to OFGEM we had 1240 m.m3 in 2019, with plans to add 456 bm3. The UK’s gas demand varies from 80 m.m3/d, (summer) to 560 (winter), average is 260 m.m3/d, obviously increasing as coal is closed. So our winter storage is down to 2 days in winter: the nations security is at risk, but we cannot store more nasty carbon!!!

    If we regard GTCC as our main back up for power, this storage is even more critical. Coal fired power stations used to store 3 months worth of back-up (miner’s strike was an example of this). Large storage also allows one to buy fuel when prices are low and store it.

  13. Joe Public permalink
    July 9, 2020 12:34 pm

    Dr John Constable’s paper states”

    “While the hydrogen has a high energy density per kilogram, the density per unit of volume at normally ambient temperatures and pressures compares unfavourably with natural gas and other fuels. However, its very low boiling point, near absolute zero, makes the liquid state energetically costly to achieve and difficult to maintain. Compression is also energetically costly ….”

    I may have missed it, but he doesn’t seem to have mentioned just how energetically costly the compression process is. The latest EU puff pieces on the subject also seem to avoid mention of the figures. Likewise the ‘green’ & enviro reporters.

    State of the art hydrogen liquefaction technology has a power consumption of 12 kWh/kg. This is equivalent to 36% of the useable energy contained in 1 kg of hydrogen.

    • Joe Public permalink
      July 9, 2020 1:59 pm

      Liquefaction rather than compression, to maximise energy density to help minimise transportation costs (Achieves >2.3 kWh/litre).

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 9, 2020 9:49 pm

        If you want to keep hydrogen liquid the tanks better have pretty good insulation. That boosts the costs rather. Most of the transport cost is for the tanks, which weigh large multiples of the hydrogen they contain. And if you wanted to insulate a liquid hydroegen pipeline – think again!

  14. MrGrimNasty permalink
    July 9, 2020 1:35 pm

    Another impractical money pit Heath Robinson contraption!

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      July 9, 2020 1:47 pm

      Driven by the workings of a bl**dy great wheel…

      Alas there was no way of stopping it
      So now we come to the sorrowful bit…
      She was split
      From A*** to T*t

      Perhaps as well it isn’t steam powered? Apologies to those who don’t swing low.

  15. It doesn't add up... permalink
    July 9, 2020 1:41 pm

    Some other sums. The kinetic energy of compressed gas is PV, or Pressure x Volume. So compressing gas to multiples of atmospheric pressure entails expending multiples of the energy at normal conditions. The energy is also equal to nRT, where n is the number of moles of gas, R is the gas constant of 8.31 J/mol/K, and T is the temperature in Kelvin. 1kg of hydrogen is 500 moles. Ambient temperature is about 300K, or 17 degrees Centigrade to keep the arithmetic simple. So 1kg of hydrogen has 500x300x8.31 or 1.2465 MJ kinetic energy at typical ambient conditions. So pressurised to 500 atmospheres, the kinetic energy content is 623.25MJ, or 173kWh, which makes for quite a bomb. In practice, hydrogen compression is usually performed at much lower temperatures using liquid nitrogen as a coolant , but that can still take quite a few kWh. Going all the way to liquefaction is usually only reserved for rocket fuel.

  16. jack broughton permalink
    July 9, 2020 2:49 pm

    A bit of interesting news in PEI today. Apparently Germany has passed a law aiming to close all coal generation by 2038. Presently 44 GW coal installed, 30 GW by end of 2022, 17GW by 2030 and zero by 2038 (aiming for 2035). The “subsidies” for the regions effected are of course massive and the costs reported are astronomical. Not quite as mad as the UK’s suicidal CCC are pushing for, but well on the way.

    At least they will have Russian gas……. America will be so pleased with them.

  17. Colin Megson permalink
    July 9, 2020 3:46 pm

    08 July 2020: It’s here to stay and EU €trillions will be spent in Europe to get to Net Zero by 2050.

    Page 7: From now to 2030, investments in electrolysers could range between €24 and €42 billion. In addition, over the same period, €220-340 billion would be required to scale up and directly connect 80-120 GW of solar and wind energy production capacity to the electrolysers to provide the necessary electricity.

    The saddest bit is that all of that windmill and solar panel crap, that European citizens are kicking back at, will be dumped on Africa (North Africa in particular). Who cares what all that lot looks like and the environmental damage it does – and we’ll get rid of all the toxic waste mountains too.

    Page 19: For example Africa, due to its abundant renewables potential and in particular North Africa due to geographic proximity, is a potential supplier of cost-competitive renewable hydrogen to the EU73 requiring that the deployment of renewable power generation in these countries strongly accelerates.

    Click to access hydrogen_strategy.pdf

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      July 9, 2020 5:09 pm

      EU €trillions will be spent in Europe to get to Net Zero by 2050

      The EU will collapse in a financial black hole.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      July 9, 2020 5:36 pm

      They really are in cloud cuckoo land.

      40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolysers by 2030 and the production of up to 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU

      Footnote 29 Up to 333 TWh of renewable hydrogen could be produced by either directly connecting renewable electricity to the electrolysers, or by ensuring that certain conditions are met, including the additionally of the renewable electricity used.

      40×8.76 = 350.4TWh of theoretical capacity producing 333TWh at an average utilisation of 95% from wind farms with a capacity factor of perhaps 45% if in optimal UK waters (no longer accessible to the EU). Even if they built 200GW of capacity they would never be able to feed 40GW at 95% utilisation, and they would be throwing away up to 160GW at times of high winds. European solar capacity factors are no better than about 12%, and never work at night. The peaking problem is even worse.

      A paper as poor as that can only have been put together by a green astrologer.

      • Colin Megson permalink
        July 9, 2020 7:48 pm

        They assuming 40 GW of electrolyser plant produces 10 million tonnes of hydrogen: At, say, 42 kWh/kg, I get it to 48 GW. Then:

        10 million tonnes of hydrogen at 33.33 kWh/kg = 333.3 TWh

        What’s the problem?

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 9, 2020 9:43 pm

        The problem is that they are assuming that they can run the plants at 95% of capacity from highly intermittent wind and solar. There are 8760 hours in a year, if that helps the penny to drop.

      • Colin Megson permalink
        July 10, 2020 3:22 pm

        I don’t think they’re assuming anything, because they’re not attempting to cover %s of wind and solar. I think they’re meaning 40 GW x 8760 = 350 TWh. 333 TWh = 95% cf across thousands of electrolyser plants which, assuming they are ‘relatively’ simple, might be possible.

        So, assuming say a 30% cf across solar and wind = 133 GW of installed capacity of intermittents.

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 11, 2020 12:54 am

        It doesn’t work like that. There are windless days. Days in winter with almost no sun. Weeks with low renewables output. When there is no output, you can’t run the plants on wind and solar. When there is insufficient output you still can’t run the plants. Only when there is a large enough level of generation to provide a surplus over demand (which at present results in curtailment) do you have power to run the plants.

        If you build 133GW of renewables there is going to be a large percentage of the time when the output is too low. There will also be periods when the output is way over the 40GW of capacity plus demand – and that will result in curtailment. Wind and solar do not operate at constant capacity factors. They are INTERMITTENT.

        You are assuming there is some other kind of storage that gathers up any curtailed power on the windiest days and supplies the plants to make hydrogen on windless days and makes up for zero output from solar overnight. It doesn’t exist: that’s what the hydrogen is meant to be.

      • Colin Megson permalink
        July 11, 2020 12:53 pm

        I’m not assuming anything. If you were up to date with green hydrogen production, you would appreciate it is all geared around the intermittent technologies (Germany taking the lead) seeking a low-carbon form of storage (in molecules) that can genuinely turn intermittents into 24/7/365 despatchable power. No other technology can do that.

        The electrolyser plant industry realise that, most fortuitously, there plants can load follow without any detriment to the plant itself and this is exactly what the intermittent technologies industry wants to hear. That’s because all they have to offer to power the plant is varying loads.

        The electrolyser plant operators will, of course, ensure they are adequately rewarded for this service, and who will pay? Why all of us, in subsidising bills and taxes. And it’s happening right now, under our noses. The UK Government and Governments of most other EU nations are backing zero carbon targets by 2050, as are most political parties.

        It will all be done the intermittents way until SMRs start to roll out. In particular, GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 SMR, with its 26 month build programme, will be so attractive to investors, it will signal the beginning of the end of intermittents. Far more attractive to all of those pseudo-green fund managers than the best of intermittents – onshore wind:

        Support this uniquely simple and cost effective SMR (400 Members):

      • July 11, 2020 2:23 pm

        SMRs, if they work, will be needed for baseload, so won’t have surplus capacity for electrolysis. For that, you would need to have SMRs dedicated only for producing hydrogen. Maybe then you could tell us how much that hydrogen would cost to produce.

        There is actually no evidence at all that SMRs will either work or be a cost effective alternative. If and when that happens, it will be time to reassess. In the meantime, we should keep reliable fossil fuel power and not mortgage our future on some pipedream

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        July 11, 2020 1:28 pm

        I can’t help you if you don’t understand the basic concept of intermittency.

        If you look at how the French load balance their nuclear output, it is primarily through hydro and interconnectors. The latter throws the problem on others. We can’t all do that. Load balancing is of course another aspect of intermittency. Demand varies diurnally, with weekly patterns, the weather and the seasons. Storage is almost always the most expensive solution, and the most impractical.

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